- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

A two-month retrospective of the films of the late Indian director Satyajit Ray begins this weekend, principally at the Freer Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art.

Two anniversaries might have contributed to the timing of this career tribute, called "The Complete Satyajit Ray: Cinema From the Inner Eye" and involving 35 films. Mr. Ray began shooting his famous debut feature, "Pather Panchali/ Father Panchali," 50 years ago. It was a weekend project begun on an inadequate budget of about $2,000 while he was regularly employed as the art director of an ad agency in Calcutta. The 10th anniversary of Mr. Ray's death will coincide with the final week of this free series, which continues through April 27.

"I have been lucky with my first two films," Mr. Ray said in 1958 while reflecting on his status in the international movie scene, "but what is really important is not the immediate gain but the ultimate vindication of the belief I hold dearest as an artist: Art wedded to truth must in the end have its reward."

Mr. Ray had illustrated books, and "Pather Panchali" was one of them. The autobiographical novel about Bengali village life fascinated him.

Rough cuts of his unfinished film based on the story eventually rallied support from several sources. John Huston recommended it to friends at the Museum of Modern Art for an Indian exhibition before the film's theatrical release here or abroad. Dr. B.C. Roy, chief finance minister of West Bengal, was alerted to its promise and authorized funds to complete the picture, one of the great artistic bargains in movie history at a cost of about $25,000.

The investment was recovered after about two months of engagements in Calcutta in 1956. In one fell swoop, "Pather Panchali" established Mr. Ray as the cinematic pride of the region. It also called attention to his singularity within the Indian film industry, which revolved around lavish, interchangeable musical fantasies produced in Bombay.

Mr. Ray's lofty reputation never altered that imbalance. He remained a fundamentally serious adornment to a national industry devoted largely to escapist spectacle. Mr. Ray was fluent in English and Bengali, but he happened to be working in languages that were incomprehensible to the vast majority of an Indian population that was linguistically balkanized among 18 languages and hundreds of dialects.

The most prevalent, Hindi, was the Bombay staple. Mr. Ray did make one feature, "The Chess Players," in Bombay. He probably turned down countless offers to try his luck with an English-language project in Hollywood or the United Kingdom. Despite working almost exclusively in Bengal, Mr. Ray reached an international public that was willing to meet him halfway because his sensibility and eloquence transcended cultural remoteness.

Mr. Ray's popularity in the United States never extended much beyond his acclaim for "Pather Panchali," which got its initial American boost by winning a grand prize at the San Francisco Film Festival. Altogether he made about three dozen features and a number of shorts.

"Aparajito/The Unvanquished" (1957) and "The World of Apu" (1959), the sequels that completed the revered "Apu Trilogy" a family chronicle that begins in about 1910 and concludes in about 1940 were art-house events. Although Mr. Ray garnered esteem, he never was the draw that Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut were in their voguish phases.

Mr. Ray's initial champion among American importers, Edward Harrison, died in 1967. Thereafter, Ray enthusiasts could probably have purchased the North American distribution rights to any of his pictures for about $10,000.

Washington art-house patrons remained loyal fans during the second phase of Mr. Ray's career. For several years Ray features had their premiere bookings in Washington and enjoyed their only sustained and profitable runs here.

The showings began when the Circle chain played the romantic comedy-drama "Days and Nights in the Forest" in the early 1970s. Young people who think that courtship rites are a veritable jungle might check out the pitfalls depicted in "Days and Nights," shot in 1968. The film anticipated a revealing group of contemporary stories depicted by Mr. Ray. (The filmmaker wrote all his own scripts and from the early 1960s composed his own music for them.) The other four were "The Adversary," "The Nayak/The Hero," "Company Limited" and "The Middleman." All gave accounts of young people in Calcutta confronted with corruption in one tempting form or another.

The prestige of the Apu Trilogy was such that it overshadowed the five-part epic about modern Calcutta. The retrospective may help remedy that neglect.

The American art-house public seemed more receptive to Mr. Ray when he evoked distant time frames. Mr. Ray delved into Indian impressions of the Victorian period in classics such as "The Music Room," "Devi" and "Charulata/The Lonely Wife" long before Hollywood began doing adaptations of works by E.M. Forster, Edith Wharton or Henry James.

Several of Mr. Ray's titles never enjoyed theatrical exposure in Washington, including the set of movies in which he plunged into adventure fantasy designed to delight young people. "The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha," which is being revived at 2 p.m. today at the Freer, was his first work of this kind, shot in 1968. Mr. Ray directed a sequel, "The Kingdom of Diamonds," in 1980; it's scheduled for the same time and place on March 24.

"The Golden Fortress," derived from one of the stories Mr. Ray contributed to Sandesh, a children's magazine he revived in homage to his grandfather, was shot in 1974. He did a sequel, "The Elephant God," in 1978. The filmmaker created a master sleuth called Felu, hired to protect a visionary child in the prototype. The retrospective will make it possible to judge how versatile the filmmaker was while alternating his Calcutta exposes with fanciful entertainments.

The team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory threw themselves on the mercy of Mr. Ray while trying to edit one of their early features. Years later they repaid the favor by organizing a revival series called "The Masterworks of Satyajit Ray," which consisted of nine movies and was distributed a couple of years after his death by Sony Classics.

Mr. Ray's work acquired exceptional authority because it kept adding up, emotionally, historically, culturally and artistically. Moreover, it kept adding up even if the vagaries and time lags of art-house distribution obliged viewers to catch up with an intriguing title years after its debut in Calcutta.

Human interest was always Mr. Ray's strong point and preoccupation. His methods were also stripped to essentials: the haunting image, the revealing line of dialogue, the nuanced gesture or reaction. Supremely basic stuff.

He entered the medium with an expressive concentration and command that made a virtue of limited financial resources. He left it with a body of work that should never fail practitioners whose primary goals are also "the truth of human behavior and the revelation of that truth through the medium of actors."

He was honored with an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1992.

Peggy Parsons, the director of film programming for the National Gallery of Art, says the film series took about two years to assemble. "We wanted to include some rare titles that are held only in India," she says. "Usually, they remain outside the scope of most retrospectives for example, 'The Inner Eye,' a short about one of Ray's art teachers, who was a blind painter. Although we weren't conscious of it at the beginning, I think there's an element of timeliness in Ray's perception of the collision between cultures, between old and new civilizations. It's interesting to be reminded of that now.

"Dilip Basu, who runs the Satyajit Ray study center in Santa Cruz [California], has been extraordinarily helpful in contacting rights holders in India. He's assembling a complete Ray archive. So is the Motion Picture Academy, which collaborated on the 'Ray Masterworks' retrospective distributed by Sony Classics a few years ago. There are always good reasons to revisit a great director's body of work. This series reflects a patient effort to get just about everything together for a comprehensive look."

Collaborators for the series include the Indian Embassy, the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Austrian Film Museum and the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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