Happy 100th birthday, Satyajit Ray. I know this makes it sound like he's still alive, still around – and I'd say that in a way, he is very much so. His films have a classical elegance that make them timeless. I mean, many of them look like they could have been made today.
So for his 100th birthday, we decided to do a countdown of his Top 10 films. As always, these lists are subjective, and let me warn you that Pather Panchali is not in here, even though it is as timeless a film as a film can be. The only reason I didn't pick it is because… Well, we'll get to that.
Four middle-class urbanites take off for a vacation in a forest. And away from civilisation, their true natures emerge. The critic Pauline Kael called it a study of the cultural tragedy of imperialism; the young men are self-parodies–clowns who ape the worst snobberies of the British. They end up reflecting the worst snobberies of us Indians, too.
For some reason — and not just because this drama stars Waheeda Rahman — I've always felt this to be a twin, a companion piece to Basu Bhattacharya's Teesri Kasam. Shatranj Ke Khilari may be Ray's only Hindi feature film, but Abjhijan is a masterclass on how an auteur can take a bunch of Hindi-film tropes and elevate them to the Himalayas.
This scorching drama is set against the 1943 famine of Bengal. But instead of a sweeping view of a calamity, Ray focuses on just a few people. And on Nature. The opening image of a gently flowing river and a woman's hand emerging from the water — it sets up the film's concerns and aesthetics so beautifully.
A top candidate for everyone's favourite Ray film, along with the next one on this list. The lipstick scene is justly celebrated, but what's really amazing is the subtlety with which the master treats this melodramatic material. It doesn't scream Women's Lib. It just says: This is a woman's life.
Uttam Kumar is magnificent as an actor caught in a serious web of angst, angst and more angst. He plays a stage actor who becomes a movie star. His stage guru tells him, "I know there is glamour in the movies, but there is no art." Ray proves him wrong with a film whose glamorous stars (including Sharmila Tagore) create a dizzying edifice of art.
Ray demonstrated his lighter, quirkier side in quite a few films, but I recommend this rather underseen one, about a bank clerk who finds a stone that can turn metal to gold. The film has the simplicity of a Panchatantra fable — or morality tale — and it's a great example of how a great filmmaker can leave his fingerprints, his touches, even on a so-called minor work.
This first installment of Ray's Calcutta trilogy is also the best. It's about youth and the big city and aligning oneself with causes and also being gloriously confused about life. And all of this is reflected in the film's style, which has scenes like a psychedelic stretch of whip-pans towards the end. It's a very different Ray at work here.
This is the story of a once-great zamindar, a great patron of the arts, one of those people to whom a great thumri or ghazal performance is worth all the money in the world — even if it costs him his dwindling fortune. Chhabi Biswas gives an all-time-great performance in this most magnificent ode to ruin, a must if you're a music lover.
This is the reason Pather Panchali is not on the list. While I love the story of Apu as a child, this final installment packs in the memories of the character we have grown to love and care for from the earlier two entries in the trilogy and explodes with the quietest epiphanies. The way the Soumitra Chatterji character comes full circle with another little boy — like Apu himself — is incredibly touching.
But of course. Ray's most elegant film has to be at Number 1, no? From the early shot of Madhabi Mukerjee going from window to window to glance at the happenings on the street to the scene on the swing to the freeze-frame ending, this is a classic all the way through. If there's one film of Ray's you want to pick with a gun to the head, it's this deep-dive into the mind of a lonely wife.