In the six years following his debut with Pather Panchali, Satyatjit Ray made a habit of winning awards all over the world, establishing himself as a major film director in the bargain. Ray had been a pupil of the great writer Rabindranath Tagore at the university the latter founded, so it was not surprising that when Ray completed his Apu trilogy, he turned to Tagore’s stories for inspiration. Teen Kanya (Two Daughters) is an adaptation of these tales that was abridged for international release. I have never seen the story that was filmed but cut from prints shown outside of India (an additional hour, now available on DVD), and I’m not sure whether it was in any way inferior, or whether the third daughter made the film too long and slow for prospective Western audiences. Lawrence of Arabia, from the following year, was almost twice as long as Teen Kanya, and Cleopatra two years later was well over twice as long. All three films had what might be called exotic backgrounds, but Ray’s film lacked the glossy touch of David Lean’s or the Hollywood star power of Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, and Sir Rex. (Lean’s own, much later, A Passage to India approached three hours in length.) What Ray did have was a great authenticity, and his films were rooted in Neorealism. Although this movement was most closely associated with Italian directors of the 1940s (Visconti, Rossellini, De Sica), it really began in the mid-1930s with films like Jean Renoir’s Toni, on which Visconti was an assistant. Renoir, of course, had been Ray’s earliest mentor, relying on Ray for help in filming the French director’s Indian masterpiece, The River. The young woman on the swing in Teen Kanya‘s second story seems to me a clear homage to Sylvia Bataille in Renoir’s A Day in the Country.
Ray, already a sophisticated and cosmopolitan guy, was by this point very assured in his artistry. In a way, he reflects the dilemma of India then and now, a great culture precariously balanced between modernity and muddy, malaria- and madmen-infested villages. Teen Kanya is a film of considerable humor—take, for example, Amulya’s admiration of Napoleon in the film’s second story. There is also a very innocent and gentle quality. The little orphaned girl in the first story reminds me of the Natalie Wood character in Driftwood, which we showed last week in our Allan Dwan retrospective. Black-and-white cinematography has seldom looked better than what Ray got from Soumendu Roy, who became his main collaborator later in his career. After using Ravi Shankar for the Apu trilogy, with this film Ray began writing his own music. (Coincidentally, the hero of the second story is, I think, almost a dead ringer for another Shankar collaborator, the soon-to-be world-famous John Lennon.) This contributed to the emotional resonance of his films, much like the work of Charles Chaplin.
Ray reveals himself to be a committed feminist, critical of a society that (then and now, much like our own) treats women unequally and, often, abusively. However, Ray eschews emotionalism by changing Tagore’s ending to Postmaster (the first story) to something less sentimental and, in his words, “Victorian.” (This scene was still described by one observer as “one of the most heart-wrenching moments I have ever seen in cinema.”) It may be simplistic to suggest this, but I think this sums up the dilemma Ray wrestled with in his 25-film career, and it is something many “Third World” intellectuals must contend with: The pressures of modernity, the long shadow of the West, is forever in conflict with the traditional ways and values of the past, mostly rooted in the East. This is hardly a new phenomenon. In his stirring novelization of the life of the Roman Emperor Julian (nephew of Constantine), Gore Vidal recounts how, almost 2,000 years ago, Julian attempted to roll back the forces of the West (Christianity) and reinstate the ancient gods. Cinema, because of its peculiar ability to re-create the past, has often provided fertile ground for directors who seemed unsure whether they wouldn’t rather inhabit another time. Perhaps Satyajit Ray was torn in this way, but if so he was in the good company of people like John Ford, Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, D. W. Griffith, and many others.