To those already familiar with Satyajit Ray, there is doubtless much to be said of how this boxset of five of his films from the 60s fits in with his legacy and how themes recur throughout his work. The director most famous for the Apu trilogy has a diverse and eclectic canon of films and a crowd of arthouse fans who will no doubt relish this gorgeous Blu-Ray upgrade by Artificial Eye – featuring The Big City, The Lonely Wife, The Coward, The Holy Man and The Hero. Yet for the uninitiated like this writer, it’s a wholly different experience. As with discovering the new work of a revered director, you go in blind, unsure of what to expect (there’s always the awful question hanging over it… what if I don’t like it?). From my experience, this boxset is a great place to start as it showcases a diversity – of themes, of styles – that nevertheless function as a coherent collection of one man’s vision.
The first thing you notice is how restless Ray’s camera is. The Coward – about a man with commitment issues spending time with the lover he spurned and her boorish husband – is a melodrama that verges on a soap. The frustratingly familiar material, however, is elevated by the roving camera. Often, instead of using the shot-reverse-shot of filming and editing a conversation, the camera will zoom out, or turn to face the second person in the discussion. The reactions, therefore, feel less calculated and more genuine. These films also feel really ahead of their time in terms of the technical dexterity, all dolly-zooms and steadicam (or the 60s equivalent). They are technically thrilling pieces of cinema.
The second common feature of Ray’s films is the strengths of the women within them, whether it is in the powerful ending of The Coward, the headstrong disciple in The Holy Man or the titular spouse in The Lonely Wife. The best example of this – and, indeed, the best film in the boxset – is The Big City. The heroine in that film gets a job in a culture where women are not supposed to do that, but it’s more than just a symbolic strike for women’s employment; she is forthright, witty and uncompromising in the face of challenges. Her emerging strength throughout the film is incredible to watch, and as her husband feels increasingly emasculated, the ramifications of their relationship resonate with modern day society where pay gaps still exist and men still feel the need to earn more or be more productive. It’s remarkable just how real the characters feel, and how relevant.
The primary appeal of this boxset, however, is the way that Ray captures a time and place. Under his observant eye, Bengal thrums with energy and sweats atmosphere. If your cinematic experience of India is Western interpretations like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Darjeeling Limited, or even if it is Bollywood, then Ray is the perfect place to look for an authentic, ground-level view of what like in Bengal is like. It’s busy, vibrant and full of human stories – much like Ray’s films themselves.
The Satyajit Ray Boxset is out now.