Satyajit Ray Collection – Volume 1 Review

The lack of availability of Satyajit Ray films on DVD has been a frustrating experience for anyone who has sampled the director’s work through the few titles that have sporadically appeared. On the one hand, the director’s talent and range are clearly evident in films as varied as The Apu Trilogy, Abhijan and The Adversary, but those titles – each one uniquely brilliant in its own way - only represent a small proportion of what would amount to Satyajit Ray’s comprehensive view of all aspects of Bengali society, class and history through his films.

But much more than that, by focussing on people, their personal growth, their family ties and their relationship and conflict with the world around them, Ray’s films have universal qualities that relate to viewers anywhere in the world. In each of his films, Ray takes an expansive view within the context of the film of the society and milieu he is dealing with - whether it is within class, politics, morality, tradition, history or even the entertainment industry – while at the same time never losing sight of the small scale, individual drama of the people such issues deeply affect. If so much detail is applied to individual films, think how much of the bigger picture we are missing out on when we are able to take a broader view of the director’s work.


Artificial Eye’s release of two collections each containing three of the director’s films takes a major step towards rectifying that problem, giving the viewer the opportunity to fully appreciate the scope and depth of Satyajit Ray’s impressive body of work, a body of work that one hopes will eventually see the director achieve the deserved recognition as one of the greatest filmmakers in the world. The three films included in The Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 1 fully demonstrate the scope and the qualities of the director’s work.

Mahanagar (The Big City) from 1963 is a present-day middle-class family drama that nevertheless takes in a wider view of society and the place of the individual’s place within in, seen from the prospective of a young woman who finds independence in her work, but is nonetheless constrained by traditional patriarchal attitudes. Made in 1964 and considered by the director himself to be his masterpiece, Charulata (The Lonely Wife) goes back to a late nineteenth century setting to examine the contribution to society of an upper-class Bengali couple who are wealthy enough to indulge their individual literary and political views in publications, but find that they are not immune to the human failings of themselves and others. Taking place almost entirely on a train, Ray’s 1966 film Nayak (The Hero) deals with the entertainment industry, but through it examines the illusions that a wider society use to sustain, enrich their lives, or sometimes use to block out the reality.



Mahanagar (The Big City), 1963


On the surface, Satyajit Ray’s 1963 film Mahanagar is played out in a very conventional manner, appearing almost Hollywood like in its staging, (Ray indeed having grown up watching and being very fond of classic Hollywood cinema). Focussing moreover on the financial difficulties of a lower-middle-class Bengali family, it doesn’t seem like conventional Ray material either, but the director’s work comprehensively covers all aspects of Bengali society and here, as elsewhere in the director’s work, Mahanagar still has bite and realism, confronting real issues that affect people, in a real and meaningful way, viewing it in the wider context of business, social and individual behaviour.

Key to the director’s concerns in all these areas, as it often is in a Satyajit Ray film, is something that affects everyone regardless of their class or station – injustice in its many forms, and how the individual should react when confronted with it. Having to take care of his wife, parents and two young children, it doesn’t seem right to Bhombol (Anil Chatterjee) that he has had to work hard to get the qualifications necessary for a position as a bank clerk, work every hour he can there, and still find that the family struggles to make ends meet. It’s even worse, he complains, that he has a respectable qualification and job, while others can manufacture cheap cigarettes and make millions.

How is one to decently correct this truly unjust state of affairs? There seems to be a simple enough solution when his wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) suggests that she take a job selling knitting machines door-to-door as a to help with the responsibility for earning money, but of course the matter is not so simple. Although they can use the extra money, it causes various problems within the family, her conservative, traditional-minded in-laws opposed to the idea of a woman working, her husband becoming uncomfortable with how glamorously Arati is dressing and with how successful she is in her work, while the children miss her presence at home. For Arati however there is a new-found sense of independence, expressed conventionally in her secretly wearing lipstick and sunglasses, and self-belief in her ability.

In outline, the story does seem rather slight and conventional with rather bland middle-class concerns, and Ray does pace and lay-out the situation with characteristic clarity, concision and certainty of purpose that makes it all seem almost too perfect, but he also weaves strands of complexity into the characterisation and the situations they are placed in. And it’s not just Arati and her husband whose issues thus become very real, but even Arati’s mother and father-in-law, her employer and her children, the director thereby reflecting on society as a whole, from traditional and modern perspectives, from Anglo-Indian and Bengali, finding in it balance, but also the conflict that gives rise to the various levels of injustice that the characters consequently encounter within it.



Charulata (The Lonely Wife), 1964


That marvellous sense of balance that Saytajit Ray can achieve is never more evident in the director’s 1964 film, Charulata. Taking as its subject the lives of the wealthier classes in another historical period – the late nineteenth century - not only widens the perspective of the director’s work, but the film itself displays the same sense of equilibrium in almost every aspect of its concept and creation. When the idea of balance in life itself also happens to be one of principal themes of the film, the circle is complete in what Ray personally considered to be his best film.

"Life is a rhythm. Birth. Death. Day. Night. Happiness. Grief. Meeting. Parting. Like the waves of the ocean. Now up. Now down. You can’t have one without the other". So in a moment of reverie and inspiration says Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), the brother of Charulata’s husband, a student of literature who has been charged to encourage her to explore her interest in writing. Her husband Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) is far too busy himself with serious affairs like the running of his newspaper to have time for such things, which he considers trivial and sloppy, but he recognises that his wife is becoming bored around the house and wants her to develop her own interests. But those interests extend to irrational feelings in Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) when she hears that her husband has marriage intentions for his brother, whom she has in the meantime become rather attached to through their discussions of books and writers.

Those contradictory elements recognised by Amal that give balance to life are similarly expressed in Satyajit Ray’s film. It’s all too easy to satirise the rich and important for their indulgences – Bhupati for his independently produced newspaper, Charulata as the bored housewife with time to dabble with literature – but Ray recognises the contribution that they also bring to Bengali society. Beauty, art, poetry and literature would not exist without the patronage of the wealthy, and those with the time to appreciate it and create it. Ray makes a convincing case for this in the film itself, which unabashedly luxuriates in the little details of this life of privilege – lying in the sun, singing, writing poetry and books and carrying on inconsequential discussions about authors. Ray (among many stylistic indulgences seen in the film) extravagantly takes time to focus even on the spring of Charulata’s feet as she swings in the garden – even swinging along with her – a garden filled with warmth, light and beauty (not least of which is the presence of Madhabi Mukherjee herself), where Amal is inspired to write his poetry in a book designed by the young woman.

But of course that is not all that the wealthier classes are good for. Ray balances this somewhat indulgent view of them with Bhupati, who can afford to print his own newspapers, free from the influence of politicians, advertisers and even the taste of the public for spicy scandals, in favour of an independent view, one that believes in discipline, integrity, strength of character and most importantly action. And, as a rich man, he has the means and influence to ensure that he can affect those important changes in society. Despite all this however, while generously taking an expansive view of the place of the wealthy and influential classes in society, Ray recognises the deeper human aspect and failings that exist even within this seemingly ideal world, and where there is Trust, there must also be Betrayal.



Nayak (The Hero), 1966


In contrast to the previous two films where the wider social implications can be easily discerned in spite of their apparent small personal dramas and class differences, Satyajit Ray’s 1966 film, based around the personal difficulties of a Bengali movie star seems like it has a rather less important social meaning. However, while the film indeed isn’t quite as involving in its human drama as many of Ray’s other films, the director finds interesting ways of examining the relationship between the wider public’s view of the discrepancy between reality and illusion through its entertainment industry setting.

The hero referred to in the film’s title is Arindam (Uttam Kumar), a well-known and popular Bengali movie-star, whose image is carefully packaged to give him that almost god-like status. But the cracks are starting to show. His latest film isn’t doing great business and Arindam fears the three failures in a row that will finish his career as effectively as it did for the older stars he knew when he started out in the movie-business. His personal life is suffering as a consequence of this difficult position Arindam finds himself in, his heavy drinking being responsible for a brawl he was involved in, one which has been reported in the newspapers. While taking a train ride to Delhi, where he is receiving a prize, Arindam has time to contemplate his precarious position and is lured into revealing the real person behind the movie-star image to Miss Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore), an attractive young woman who hopes to write an article for her magazine, Modern Woman.

The train journey is of course also used by the director to explore other aspects of Bengali society in microcosm. It’s not as wide a cross-section as you might think, the passengers who can afford to travel in such luxury being businessmen, advertising executives, journalists of exclusive magazines and people involved in the entertainment industry, but even within that sector, Ray finds parallels between the movie industry and those other enterprises who need to maintain an image of glamour and respectability in order to hold the respect of the public. The reality of course is rather more sordid, since distancing oneself from real-life and one’s true nature allows people to conduct themselves in an unbecoming manner, using others for their own ends. Inevitably such denial of the self leads to deeper problems within the individual and has greater consequences for a society that regards those positions as aspirational, and those who hold them as heroes. Heroes, like all illusions, can only inevitably disappoint when confronted with reality.

Although he does extend the focus to take in the conflict between tradition and new ways of living in this very modern aspect of Bengali society, as well as the impact it has on relationships between men and women, it is however still a narrow field that Ray is working within in Nayak. By building the larger part of the film around Arindam’s memories of his rise to fame and his nightmares of losing it all, it does tread a familiar path of the trappings of fame and celebrity to the cost of the wider social aspects of the story. At the same time however, it allows Ray to retain a realistic human touch, the director finding a perfect expression for the hitting home of reality for each of the characters at the end of their journey, even if it doesn’t essentially change them.

DVD


The Satyajit Ray Collection – Volume 1 is released in the UK by Artificial Eye as a three-disc set. Volume 1 includes Mahanagar (The Big City), Charulata (The Lonely Wife) and Nayak (The Hero). Each film is presented individually on a dual-layer disc. The films are in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.

Video
The video and audio quality on each of the titles is pretty much identical in that they are fundamentally decent quality, they do suffer from evident technical problems. Titles at the start and end of Mahanagar and Charulata indicate that they come from a restoration programme by the Merchant Ivory Foundation in 1994, but Nayak has many of the same issues. The image quality on each of the films may have been acceptable for a VHS release at that time, but their limitations show up more readily on a DVD transfer.

There is little problem with the prints the transfers are derived from. There are marks and flecks, some tramline scratches and the occasional larger mark and rare cases of actual damage (occasional single frame tears) isolated to no more than one or two instances per film, but for the larger part of each of the transfers, artefacts are minimal. The actual tone isn’t great however, the prints looking like dupes, with contrasts emphasised, blacks appearing very deep and skin tones looking rather pallid, but even so there is still a reasonably good amount of greyscaling in-between. Horizontal shimmering can be seen on thin vertical and diagonal lines, but not excessively, and aliasing or banding can be detected in some backgrounds.


The most troublesome complaint with the transfers however is the movement artefacts caused either by interlacing or by PAL conversion taken from a NTSC source. Running times are not a trustworthy indicator since the running times on the films here are all longer than any times indicated on IMDb on account of English opening and closing titles added for the Merchant Ivory restorations.

Audio
There are also problems with the audio tracks for each of the films, but they often seem inherent in the sound recording or editing of the original elements. The mono tracks are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and while there is some background noise and crackle, dialogue is generally clear and free from distortion and there are no significant problems such as drop-out. Nayak has perhaps the most troublesome elements, with edits, overdubs being evidently punched into the soundtrack and some badly recorded sections which are echoing and faint.

Subtitles
English subtitles are in a white, easy-to-read font and are optional. Helpfully, they are also present for occasional English words, phrases and exchanges that are dropped into the Bengali conversions.

Extras
The only extra feature on each of the discs is the same brief Biography written by Andrew Robinson.


Overall
If, as Akira Kurosawa is reported to have said of Satyajit Ray, “To have not seen the films of Ray is to have lived in the world without ever having seen the moon and the sun”, then we’ve been living in a very feeble light for far too long. Artificial Eye have done much to, well, shed some light on the subject by extending their catalogue of the director’s films on DVD (The Apu Trilogy and The Chess Players) with the release of a further six films in the two volumes of The Satyajit Ray Collection. The transfers may not meet the highest standards, but working one presumes with the best available materials, these releases are certainly more than adequate presentations of the films. One can only hope that there are more on the way.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
5 out of 10
Extras
1 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 22:33:53

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