Two films by Satyajit Ray

May 2nd was the centenary of this outstanding film-maker and a seminal figure in Indian cinema. The British Film Institute is planning a complete retrospective of his films later this year. Whilst we wait and wonder how many actual films will make it to Yorkshire Film 4 offers transfers of two of his fine titles in the coming week.

The family in ‘Mahanagar’

Monday / Tuesday night  at 01.15 a.m. [now available on All4].

Mahanagar (The Big City) – the film was shot in 1963 in black and white academy ratio: the language is Bengali with some English and with English sub-titles: and is set in Ray’s home city of Kolkata (Calcutta). The film follows the experiences of a family home which contains parents, two children and the grandparents on the husband’s side. The husband, Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), works as a senior clerk in a private bank; part of Bengali ‘bhadralok culture’ which Europeans would think of as lower middle class. The large family place a strain on his income and his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) offers to help by taking a job. Despite the disapproval of the grandfather Arati obtains a post selling knitting machines door-to-door in middle class areas. Arati is the centre of this fascinating film; Madhabi is splendid as the young wife and the whole cast are excellent. Ray’s direction is beautifully and effectively restrained and his production team are excellent, especially the regular cinematographer Subrata Mitra.

Ray won the prestigious Silver Bear Award at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival whilst the film won the Golden Bear.. However, the film itself failed to achieve a nomination by the Hollywood academy in the Best Foreign Language Film category; this was typical of the Academy. Mother India made a nomination in 1957; the next success was not until 1988 with Salaam Bombay. Three of Ray’s fine films failed to get nominations.

Wife and husband in ‘Charulata’

Tuesday / Wednesday night at 1255 a.m. [now available on All4].

Charulata (The Lonely Wife) – the film was shot in 1964 in black and white academy ratio: the language is Bengali with some English and with English sub-titles:it is set in Kolkata (Calcutta) in the 1880s. Thus this is a period film which is set in a Bengal and India under the rule of the Raj. This period also follows the 1857 ‘first war of independence’ [termed a mutiny by the British rulers). At one point in the film the Bengali men discuss a British general election contested by the the political parties led by Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone.

As the title suggests the film focuses on the young wife, Charu and her relationship with her husband and a visiting relative. Bhupati Dutta plays the husband whilst two actors from Mahanagar, Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee, play Charulata and Bhupati’s younger cousin Amal respectively. The cast are excellent. Ray’s direction provides a slowly paced portrait of the marriage interspersed with some fine lyrical moments. The opening and closing sequences are especially highly praised, [so stay awake].

The scenario was adapted by Ray from a story by Rabindranath Tagore, the leader of the Bengal Renaissance and an important influence of Ray himself. Ray is an auteur in the fullest sense of the term; in this film providing the scenario, costume design, direction and music. However, he relies on a really skilled production team. In particular this film contains some of the finest cinematography by Subrata Mitra.For the second year running Ray won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlinale. Whilst the film did not follow Mahanagar in winning the Golden Bear it is to my mind the finer film and one of Ray’s great achievements.

With adverts both titles will run over two hours. Especially with the Charulata there are few cinematic double hours which offer the same quality and pleasure. If you are new to Ray, or indeed if you are familiar with his films, then the Saudha International Satyajit Ray Congress [available on You Tube] offers a range of interesting comments on Ray’s art.

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