Only in the last couple of years or so have the films of the renowned Indian film maker Satyajit Ray (considered the favourite director of Akira Kurosawa no less) become increasingly available in the UK. His justly acclaimed first set of features, ‘The Apu Trilogy’ have been widely obtainable, but his comparatively lesser known masterpieces have been released by Artificial Eye in various collections, including the likes of ‘Charulata’ (1964) and ‘Nayak’ (1966) in the last year or two. The fledgling Mr Bongo label has now jumped on board. Having already released ‘The Adversary’ (1972), two more Ray films are released in September; ‘Devi’ (1960) and ‘Two Daughters’ (1961).
Both films have a pivotal position in Ray’s career, as the first films he directed after the Apu trilogy (although 1958’s ‘The Music Room’ bridges the trilogy’s second and third parts). Rather than exploit the success of the Apu films, Ray completely changed direction with ‘Devi’, which tackles issues of superstition and religious obsession within the context of a tight-knit community that operates according to a hierarchical structure (potentially an allegory for the rapidly changing India?). Featuring the two actors whom Ray worked with most frequently; his alter-ego Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore (the 14 year old future star of Hindi cinema and great grand-daughter of Rabindranath Tagore – Ray’s favourite Indian writer), it’s a melodrama of the highest order. When the elderly, infirm village elder Kalinkar, the most influential member of the village begins to believe his son’s wife, Doya, (Tagore) is the reincarnation of a Hindi deity, Kali, everyone comes to believe it to be the case, including Doya herself. Inevitably tragedy strikes, ultimately destroying this particular family. Ray’s level of empathy is impressive. He warns of the dangers of such fanaticism, but he does so with great subtlety, never condemning his protagonists for how they act. They are blinded by faith.
‘Two Daughters’ is a minor film in comparison but still showcases Ray’s considerable talents. Comprised of two short stories by Rabindranath Tagore, the underlying theme is of female emancipation. In the first tale, ‘The Postman’, the eponymous character moves from the city to a rural village, where he befriends a young female orphan. He teaches her to read and write; she nurses him after a bout of malaria. Only once he leaves does he recognise the bond between them both. The second tale, The Conclusion’ features Soumitra Chatterjee as a law student who rejects his intended arranged marriage to wed a tomboy instead and the complications that arise from this. Whilst Ray ensures he pays homage to Tagore’s original text, he also makes sure he doesn’t suffocate the film by being over-reverential. Both tales are tributes to rural life in India, by showing how the dynamics of villages change after the introduction of outsiders and comparing the differences between both urban and rural living. The humour and satire is gentle but there’s a constantly sharp observation of the plight of women in these societies. As you’d expect, both films are splendidly shot, and serve as further evidence that Ray is one of the finest of all film makers from the second half of the twentieth century.
Both films were released by Mr Bongo films on 21 September 2009.