Satyajit Ray: The Social Issue Filmmaker

This article first appeared in our First Issue from Spring 2019.

By: Tausif Khan

Satyajit Ray, the legendary filmmaker, defined the Bengali film industry and reshaped the context of filmmaking to address contemporary social issues of his time. Part of a generation that descended from the Bengali Renaissance, Ray was destined to create films that would depict the complexities of the common man’s life and societal issues in a 20th century Bengal.  Mr. Ray’s debut film, Pather Panchali (1955), is an excellent example of his ability and vision to make films that are both meaningful and memorable. Pather Panchali is an intimate portrait of poverty and its effects on people on a societal and psychological level. 

As the camera becomes a microscope, Ray dissects this rural poverty that Apu and his family that live in. The grotesqueness in poverty is captured in the climactic scene where Apu’s mother has to tell his father that their daughter has passed away from a high fever. The camera stays on Apu’s mother, played by Karuna Banjeree, who visibly breaks down and cries in her husband’s arm upon his arrival.  As the camera keeps rolling and does not cut, the helplessness and sorrow in this scene capture the cruelty in poverty- an inescapable trap that leads to their daughter Durga’s death. 

The inability to save your child from the grips of death because there is no stable source of income is a nightmare that all parents fear. Mr. Ray depicts this fear and provokes an emotion from viewers that is very rare in films. Ray further shows how poverty shapes childhood through an elaborate crane shot that hovers over Apu and the river showing the passage of time and hopelessness in the child’s eyes that is indicative of a resigned acceptance of the world he was born into. The film ends with a shot of Apu and his family leaving the village on the back of an ox cart. This story of Apu and his family is shown to challenge traditional social norms that allow poverty, in all its forms, to exist and thrive at the expense of human lives. 

In a scene from Pather Pachali, older sister Durga holds her little brother Apu from torrential rains in their rural Nishadpur village.

Pather Panchali, the first film in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, is one of the best films ever made and established Ray as one of the greatest filmmakers in history. Ray, like Welles, had created a masterpiece whose influence carries heavy weight in the film industry. Ray often broke the traditional rules of filmmaking to create films that have a grip on reality that is unparallel to any other. Ray continues to address worldly dilemmas in future films like Charulata (1964) and Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) that make his films not only an enjoyable treat but also vignettes into social consciousness of all Bengalis in every class, caste, gender, and religion. 

Charulata (1964) examines the life of an upper class, lonely Bengali woman named Charulata (Charu) in Calcutta during the late nineteenth century in British India. Charu’s life is consumed by her husband’s negligence toward her as he is preoccupied with being an editor writing against the ills of colonial British policies. Charu’s loneliness and boredom are encompassed in her social standing in the upper class of Bengali society. Charu’s interests in poetry and literature attract her to her husband’s cousin, Amal, and they engage with each other in a romantic affair. Amal carries guilt in participating in this affair with Charu and leaves for England to pursue his higher education to absolve himself of any wrongdoing leaving Charu alone like she once was at the beginning when we are introduced to her. The film explores the theme of loneliness in marriage and the social immobility of women in Calcutta during the colonial period of British India. Charulata, in many ways, serves a feminist response that challenges the traditional gender roles in colonial Indian society. Charulata is a true gem in film history that paves the path for a more inclusive, progressive films to push the boundaries of the medium. Ray himself thought that Charulata was his best film.

Where films like Pather Panchali and Charulata subtly elude to subtle intricacies and social views of Bengal society, Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri is a sharp satirical critique of Calcutta society in emboldening fashion. A story of four close friends(Asim, Sanjoy, Shekhar, and Hari)  with distinct personalities who escape city life in Calcutta and go on a rural retreat into the hills of Bihar. When they arrive, they encounter women who are simple-minded and beautiful. As the film goes on, there is a subplot assigned to each friend. With each subplot, each friend learns and understands both the societal differences and mentalities of urban life and rural life. For example, one of the women points out to Asim that they never noticed the ailing wife of the servant at the house they were staying at. An observation that strikes at the inherent selfishness found in urban society itself. Sanjoy’s boring city life personality doesn’t contribute to his passion for pursuing literature. However, Sanjoy’s encounters and conservations with Jaya help him grow as a poet and writer. They also resemble an antithesis between an urban mentality that is boring, close-minded and a rural mentality that reflects an exciting and fresh openness that is lacking in an urban setting. 

Aranyer Din Ratri is one of the most compelling Ray films because the satirical critique is fresh and audacious in its attempt to integrate the rural and urban identities alike. In the end, Ray tries to tear down the wall separating urban and rural society through satire to bind them into a common, inclusive identity- human beings.

Inspired by Italian filmmakers such as de Sica and Fellini, Ray, a neorealist, used the medium of film to tell a compelling narrative that heavily focuses on its characters to portray social contemporary issues in the most authentic way possible. Unlike any other filmmaker, Ray did not construct a filmy, superficial reality with each film, instead, he chose to tell unique stories with complex ideas. His films are revered and remembered by many in the film community because they were genuine portraits of how he saw society and the world at large. Throughout his life, Ray did not make films for awards or money. In fact, his debut film, Pather Panchali, was often halted in production for five years because he did not have the money to produce it. Like many artists, Ray made films to show there is beauty in the medium. Still to this day, his films have really shaped and influenced film in beautiful and progressive ways. In recent years, films like Samantaral (2017) and Haami (2018) show how Ray has influenced not only Bengali film, but filmmaking itself to depict social issues and complex ideas to critique and better a society to be more inclusive and accepting than before. Many argue films are only made to make money, others argue films are made to create and effect change in the world. Satyajit Ray was the latter. I hope I have converted some of you reading this article to be the latter.  

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