For a sharp metaphor of Satyajit Ray’s relationship to the happily-ever-after films of both Hollywood and his native India, you could hardly do better than his acceptance of an honorary Oscar in March. Videotaped from his hospital bed in Calcutta, Ray broke through the show’s gaudy self-congratulation with witty, beneficent grace: For a moment, the Oscars seemed real. Now, with his death on April 23 from heart disease, the movies have lost one of their most eloquent humanists.
Born into an upper-class family in 1921, Ray burst on the world scene at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival with his first film, Pather Panchali. An unsentimental yet intensely moving portrait of rural Bengali life, Panchali was told from the point of view of a boy named Apu, whom the director followed into adulthood and into the city in two evocative sequels, Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959). (The trilogy is on video, as are 1960’s Devi, 1961’s Two Daughters, 1973’s Distant Thunder, and 1984’s The Home and the World.)
Ray’s more than 30 movies spanning four decades spurn the escapist fantasies of Indian cinema for a lucid, unblinking universality. That approach caused him to become something of a prophet without honor in his country. It also resulted in some of the most magical films ever made.