Satyajit Ray, Cinematic Master

April 29, 1992

Satyajit Ray, the great Indian film director who died last Thursday in Calcutta at age 70, will be remembered as one of the seminal voices of 20th century cinema. Although his works were not commercial hits at home -- like audiences elsewhere, Indian moviegoers preferred films that allowed them to forget the grimy realities of everyday life -- Mr. Ray's portraits of change in modern India were marked by eloquence, compassion and a simple humanity that won worldwide recognition for his art. Last month, he received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement.

Mr. Ray, who began his career as a commercial artist in the Calcutta office of a British advertising firm, described himself as a self-taught filmmaker. After a visit to London in 1950, where he spent much of his time going to and discussing movies with the city's artists and critics, he determined to change careers. During the return voyage to India by ship, he wrote the screenplay for his first movie, "Pather Panchali," about a high-caste but poor Bengali family in a remote rural village.

Three years later, desperate after having sold all his possessions to finance the project, Mr. Ray enlisted the help of the late American director John Huston, who was visiting Calcutta. Huston persuaded the Indian government to provide $35,000 to finish the film, which became an immediate critical, if not commercial, success. But Indian officials were puzzled by the final product; apparently they had been under the impression Mr. Ray was working on a travelogue.

In his subsequent films, the director honed the languid narrative style and exquisite character delineation that were to become hallmarks of his work. He was a true Renaissance man in that he personally scripted, cast, directed and produced all of his works, most of which were made on minuscule budgets of less than $100,000. Yet each of his two dozen feature-length works conveyed such sweeping grandeur of conception and mastery of execution that they are recognized as modern masterpieces, full of memorable images and vital characters for whom the director seemed to hold a limitless reserve of empathy despite their follies and foibles. With the passing of Satyajit Ray, the world of cinema has lost one of its most original and prolific geniuses.

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