Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray / DVD: Satyajit Ray’s ‘The Apu Trilogy’

ApuTrilogyThe Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali / Aparajito / Apur Sansar (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – In 1955 Satyajit Ray, a young graphic artist in the advertising industry, released his debut feature, a labor of love made independently over the course of two and a half years. Pather Panchali (aka Song of the Little Road, 1955), a portrait of life in a small, impoverished village in rural India, has texture and grace of a painting. Seen through the eyes of young Apu, it’s really about three generations of women in his home: elder Auntie, protective Mother, and bright-eyed older sister Durga. It was India’s answer to Italy’s neo-realism, in part out of inspiration but also because it was made under similar conditions: little money, non-professional actors, a first-time director trying to capture a world that hadn’t been seen on screens.

Its portrait of rural poverty was something western audiences could relate to more than India’s distinctive urban culture and the customs, clothes, and score—Ravi Shankar on the sitar—suitably exotic color to a story that critics liked to call universal. That in part explains why this film was embraced internationally while other films from India failed to break through. Maybe it helped that it affirmed western perceptions of a country and culture that was little understood. But Pather Panchali is also an astounding debut of great power and poetry that is undiminished today. Ray put his passion into the film and created a nuanced and delicate film. Ray brings their environment alive in breathtaking scenes, especially Apu’s magical encounter with a train, billowing smoke in its wake like a mythical creature driving through his forest home. And he creates full, complex characters. While we see them through the wide-eyes of Apu, we do not get a simplified or reductive portrait.

Read More “Blu-ray / DVD: Satyajit Ray’s ‘The Apu Trilogy’”

Posted in: by Alan Williams, Contributors, Film Reviews

Out of the Past: ‘Pather Panchali’

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

The camera looks up at a rooftop and balcony where we see an Indian woman, clearly upper-class from her dress, intently examining a piece of pottery. She calls out, “Who’s there?” and then looks up, off screen right. Cut to a longer shot, tracking backwards right to follow her as she walks toward something that is not within the image. “Look at her!” the woman exclaims, and addresses a long tirade on theft to another woman on the roof.

The important thing about this opening minute-or-so of Pather Panchali is that it is not like the openings of most Western narrative films. The subject of the woman’s monologue turns out to be a little girl who steals guavas from the orchard (unseen) near the house. About four minutes into the film we see (without knowing their relationship) the girl’s mother in a totally silent, forest shot. The mother’s position is in turn elucidated during a shot which introduces yet another unnamed but later-to-be-significant character: the mother’s best friend. After about 20 minutes of film, we have the complete explanation of the information conveyed in the film’s first two shots, central to which is the fact that the little girl’s family used to own the orchard. The film takes that long to answer fully its first verbal message: “Who’s there?”

Read More “Out of the Past: ‘Pather Panchali’”

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Charulata’ and ‘The Big City’

Satyajit Ray is one of those masters of world cinema whose films don’t seem to get seen anymore. And this after Merchant-Ivory sponsored restorations and revivals of nine of Ray’s greatest films in the late 1990s, a package of films that included Pather Panchali and the Apu trilogy, The Music Room, and Devi. Those films made it to VHS, but very few of his films are available on disc in the U.S. In fact, the only Ray films currently available on disc stateside are Criterion’s release of The Music Room in 2011 (reviewed on Videodrone here) and Kino’s The Chess Player on DVD in 2006.

Criterion is taking on the challenge of preserving and presenting the work of Satyajit Ray, one of the great humanists of 20th century cinema, on DVD and Blu-ray. They recently licensed the home video rights to 18 of Ray’s features and the first two releases of this new project are now available: Charulata (Criterion) and The Big City (Criterion).

His 1964 feature Charulata, a historical piece about the forces of modernity in 19th century India, is one of my favorites and that film that Ray regarded as his masterpiece. The story focuses on young Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee), the gifted and sensitive wife of an idealistic newspaper editor, Bhupati (Shaileen Mukherjee) who gives lip service to women’s rights yet neglects Charu (both emotionally and artistically) in his single-minded focus on his failing political paper. It encourages her playful flirtations with her husband’s witty cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), a charming young man fresh from college, full of himself and ready to conquer the world as a writer.

Charu is a virtual prisoner of her social world, watching the life outside of the walls of her lavish prison longingly through opera glasses, like a performance she’s not allowed to become a part of. With her husband  virtually absent, Amal becomes her everything: someone with whom she can exchange ideas, talk, flirt, feed, give presents, and finally fall in love.


Set in 1879, the tension between Western ideas and Eastern tradition is strong, grounded in everything from the dialogue to the déco. The poetic naturalism that made the Apu Trilogy so successful is more finely honed here, the frame carefully designed to observe the social and political boundaries through the personal experiences and interlaced relationships, mapped through the knowing exchange of glances and gestures. And Ray’s sensitivity is not limited to Charu, who feels betrayed by both men. As we see through Bhupati, even an intellectual is not beyond learning a little something about himself and the woman he professes to love.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

The Music Room

Satyajit Ray became internationally acclaimed with his first two features, Pather Panchali and Aparajito, which owed much to the traditions of documentary, poetic realism and the Italian Neo-realists. His fourth feature, The Music Room (1959), marks a significant and important step in his career. Following the critical and popular failure of the comedy The Philosopher’s Stone, The Music Room showed the world that Ray had great range and talent beyond the naturalism of his first films. Ray takes a classical approach, informed by the masters on international cinema that he revered, for this drama set in the fading decadence of old-world feudal life of the 1920. Pather Panchali is a work of social observation with a director in sympathy with the plight of the characters. The Music Room offers a more complicated attitude toward its main character and to the changing world in which he lives. His portrait of the aristocracy, with its wealth and rituals and sense of social superiority and entitlement, increasing impotent and irrelevant in an India moving toward modernity, was his most accomplished film up that time and many critics still hold it as the director’s masterpiece.

Chhabi Biswas as Biswambhar Roy in the twilight of "The Music Room"

Chhabi Biswas, a popular and respected actor of his day, plays Biswambhar Roy, once a powerful feudal lord, or zamindar, now a threadbare remnant of the old world. The opening scenes present him alone in his crumbling palace, sucking on his hookah like a pacifier, looking out over the ruins of his one mighty lands as the modern world passes him by. The sounds of a concert from a neighbor’s estate sends him back to a time when his wife and son lived and he spent lavishly on recitals and celebrations. His great love is music and he considers himself a connoisseur and a patron of the arts, indulging in his hobby to the neglect of his fortune and his lands, which are slowly being swallowed up by the river. It’s also a matter of social currency and vanity. To be a lover of music is not enough. Roy must be seen to be a true connoisseur with a public show of patronage and a subtle mastery of the art of presenting a master artist in his private music room.

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies