A welcome side effect of the Indian subcontinent’s recently raised profile, Satyajit Ray’s films are back in New York City, where his 1955 Pather Panchali world-premiered at MOMA and began the screen biography of a village boy named Apu. Lincoln Center’s Ray retro is bounded by two triptychs, the Apu films and Ray’s politicized “Calcutta” series of the ’70s, begun on the scattered experimentalism (photo-negative flashbacks, X-ray digressions) of 1972’s The Adversary, whose protagonist suffocates between Naxalite radicalism and toadying professionalism.
Ray’s enduring fame is as father of Apu, thanks to the impact of his debut’s singular realism—of the film’s bent, fossilized “Auntie”: “Nobody had ever seen such an old woman in an Indian film before.” Success tasted, Ray kept his crew and repertory company at work. Thin-lipped Chhabi Biswas, the go-to guy for crumbling authority, plays a zamindar landlord who bankrupts himself by hosting lavish concerts in 1958’s overpowering Jalsaghar (The Music Room), a double-edged study in the refinement and absurdity of aristocracy (sumptuously glutted with classical Indian music and dance). He also created a series of movies addressing women’s roles, with Sharmila Tagore and Madhabi Mukherjee, in Mahanagar, Charulata, and Devi. Parent-decreed marriage is the agony of Kanchenjungha, Ray’s only fully color film here, with couples intertwining on the footpaths of the Himalayan hill town of Darjeeling.
Synopsis dries these movies into problem pictures. Viewing them shows that Ray cared most for crystallizing moments of humans adapting, reacting, evolving, and failing. The keynote for recommending his films is to note their universality, but their specificity is as important. Ray was a lifelong Calcutta resident, removed from Mumbai’s industry of gimcrack musicals, working in a tongue (Bengali) understood by only a fraction of Indians. He wrote the history of his land in the language of emotion.