Satyajit Ray. He’s much more than just the Apu trilogy as recent viewings of Charulata, The Big City and The Music Room have proven. Ray’s case is he is a Mount Rushmore realist (along with Rossellini, De Sica and perhaps the Dardenne brothers or Kiarostami at this point but that 4th is a good debate) with an impressive 5 top 500 films. If I ever fully come around on the Apu trilogy (I have all three outside my top 300) he may shoot even farther up this list.

Best film:  The Music Room. I think Ray unquestionably improved as a director between the first two legs of the Apu trilogy and this masterpiece in 1958.  Formally this is a behemoth—repetition of the chandelier, shots of Chhabi Biswas sitting—marvelous.  If you could only see one Ray film I would start here.

a gob-smacking formal work- The Music Room

total archiveable films: 8

top 100 films: 0

top 500 films: 5 (The Music Room, Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Charulata, The World of Apu)

top 100 films of the decade: 5 (The Music Room, Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Charulata, The World of Apu)

most overrated:   Pather Panchali is a great film but the TSPDT consensus has it at #55 and I’m at #324 so that’s a sizeable disconnect. I actually really liked the film but you need to see the 2nd and 3rd film to have the full effect.

a perfect shot from Pather Panchali three layers in the depth of field

most underrated:   Aparajito is #577  on TSPDT. This is just as good as the opening film and it’s over 500 spots lower for some reason. This trilogy is like the original Boyhood except it starts from birth and goes until he’s much older. Ray finds the exceptional in the ordinary and even if the films make you feel a little bombarded with situational drama problems it is a worthy work of art. It even has some postmodernism working here as Ray is writing about himself as Apu in many ways.

gem I want to spotlight:  Charulata.  Among Satyajit Ray’s best work- a meditation on passions, politics, romance and writing. More leisurely paced than most of Ray’s work. Brilliant shot of camera attached to a swing to capture Madhabi Mukherjee’s face- this would be picked up by others including Truffaut and Wes Anderson (GrandBudapest). The three leads are all brilliant but Madhabi Mukherjee in particular gives a spectacular performance- there’s countless examples but there’s a great moment when she realizes that she loves her cousin-in-law and she is in trouble. Her husband has a similar moment when he realizes that and the cousin-in-law’s has a moment of clarity surrounding his love of Charulata as well. A meditation on unrealized love. The finale is justifiably famous. It’s a series of freeze frames of open hands. It’s up there with (and of course echoes the 400 Blows. Wonderful sequences of the way Ray shoots Charulata eavesdropping on her husband telling her crush to get married. The husband is annoying sensible and virtuous- the side story of the betrayal of money on the husband makes it harder on Charulata and cousin-in-law. A long gorgeous tracking shot going up from the ground to Charulata’s unblinking eye which turns into a long dissolve montage mix of her getting ideas to write her great article. The film doesn’t have the devastating form and symmetry of The Music Room. Ray does his own music—which is wonderful and re-used in Darjeeling Limited. The subtle tracking shots of Charulata walking around her house is so nuanced in the editing- it’s almost like a Bresson film.. Mindless card game for 5 minutes to show her life and boredom— she’s a prisoner in her chic house with elegant wall-paper and décor- even has her opera glasses to look out. Must-See film- top 5 of the year quality after one viewing

stylistic innovations/traits:     Ray has a very relaxed style and as I said above is a major figure in the history of cinematic realism. The simplistic style and the fact that the early version of neorealism (extraordinary things happening to ordinary people seems just like modern day drama but a poignant, well-earned drama). It’s impossible to deny thought that Apu is one of the most memorable characters in film history.  His camera is observational and nuanced. That said—there are some moments of transcendent splash in Ray’s oeuvre like the dollies in The Music Room and the freeze frame finale in Charulata.  As I said above The Music Room is one of the 25-50 strongest examples of film form— a devastating reoccurrence of images and symmetry.

Charulata in captivity

top 10

  1. The Music Room
  2. Pather Panchali
  3. Aparajito
  4. Charulata
  5. The World of Apu
  6. The Big City
  7. Distant Thunder
  8. The Home and the World
this shot is Antonioini’s 60’s period but from Ray in 1958– astounding (from The Music Room)

By year and grades

1955- Pather Panchali MS
1956- Aparajto MS
1958- The Music Room MP
1959- The World of Apu MS
1963- The Big City R
1964- Charulata MS
1973- Distant Thunder
1984- The Home and the World

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives