A Master Discovered

I was in movie heaven October through December, when Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto held a Satyajit Ray Film Festival, showing 30 films spanning his entire career, including several newly restored films. Actress Sharmila Tagore, a Ray discovery who appeared in several of his films, was present at two of the screenings, and was duly mobbed in the lobby by adoring fans. Many screenings paired a Ray film with one of his favorites from Hollywood, and made for an interesting juxtaposition.

I really discovered Ray only four years ago, at the age of 43, and the glow of discovery and wonderment has not yet diminished. Of course, like most Indians, I knew about him, but my knowledge was exceeded by my preconceived notions about “art” films, about Bengali culture, about my ability to enjoy a subtitled movie. The Ray film I did see as a young man, Shatranj Ke Khilari, didn’t make the same impression then as it does today. What once appeared dull and anticlimactic now appears subtle, humorous, humane, and beautiful.

What changed? I think I did. I am not the same person I used to be. For one, I have seen a whole lot more films. I have watched good and not-so-good cinema not only from India and the U.S. but also from China, Japan, Iran, Italy, France, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina … call me a glutton for good film fare.

But more than that, I have some more life experience. I marvel at the delicacy and humanity with which Ray approaches the issue of marriage and family in Kanchenjungha, having observed a niece go through the process of a self-arranged marriage, with the concomitant heartache and eventual acceptance. And as I think of the characters in Shakha Proshakha relating to their bedridden father, I realize that my own father, able but aging, needs my time and affection, not impatience.

What I see in Ray’s films is a lyrical, haunting, truthful, and ultimately loving portrait of India, of its villages and towns and cities, of people, of their relationships. Without ever becoming judgmental or preachy, he communicates his vision of a humane, interconnected, and less parochial world. He is an artist and thinker in the tradition of Rabindranath Tagore.

David Packard, the man behind this Ray Festival and the magnificent Stanford Theatre, deserves praise for his efforts in preserving and promoting the Ray legacy. These masterworks deserve a DVD release of the highest standard, a recognition that has yet to arrive.

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