Satyajit Ray is regarded as not only one of the greatest filmmakers in Indian cinema, but as one of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history. We’re going to break down the best Satyajit Ray films by way of three criteria: direction, story, and theme. By the end, you’ll know why Ray’s films are so well-regarded!
Watch: How Satyajit Ray Directs a Movie
Subscribe for more filmmaking videos like this.
Satyajit Ray was a renaissance man in the truest sense of the term. He was a filmmaker of course, but he was also a writer, designer, and musician. In fact, Ray composed the music for many of his films!
Ray’s love of music takes the forefront in The Music Room; a story about a wealthy lord desperately trying to retain his prestige amidst a changing cultural landscape. Like many of the best Satyajit Ray films, The Music Room excels on the back of great thematic conflict, particularly in relation to the battle between “classic” and “modern.”
Aparajito, the middle film in The Apu Trilogy, suffers from being sandwiched between two all-time greats. Don’t get me wrong, “suffers” may be a bit of a hyperbole; Aparajito features some stunning cinematography, particularly in the scenes set in Varanasi. The narrative contains a great major theme between mothers and sons.
But there’s no denying that the pace of Aparajito shifts rapidly, especially before/after time jumps. Still, the film is a rich treatise on coming of age.
Charulata is perhaps Satyajit Ray’s most haunting picture; if not for its ending, then for the loss it evokes. Charulata, which translates literally to The Lonely Wife, tells the story of a young woman yearning for companionship… whilst also seeking independence. Madhabi Mukherjee’s Charulata is a believably imperfect protagonist, simultaneously struggling to get what she wants while maintaining what she loves.
Critics have praised Charulata through a feminist lens in an effort to explain the film’s aimless themes. But perhaps no lens is needed: Charulata is simply a portrait of a person at an inflection moment in time.
Satyajit Ray mixes inspiration from some of cinema’s most iconic directors – such as Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and Alfred Hitchcock – in Nayak, also known as The Hero. The film follows a famous, yet deeply troubled film star (Fellini) traveling to collect an award (Bergman); who meets and mingles with others while on a long train ride to Delhi (Hitchcock).
But Nayak is more than just the sum of its parts; it’s an original story with style and substance. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the film is overlong – but that shouldn’t dissuade fans of Ray from watching.
Satyajit Ray’s Devi is an excellent deconstruction of religious fanaticism. It’s also widely prescient, considering the time it was released. Devi follows the story of a young woman who becomes praised as an avatar of the goddess Kale, due to a fever dream and a miraculous coincidence.
The film has been lauded for its great lead performances from Sharmila Tagore and Soumitra Chatterjee, and its use of irony.
Satyajit Ray’s last film, The Stranger, is one of his best. Utpal Dutt stars in the picture as a man claiming to be the long-lost great uncle of a wealthy housewife. Naturally, skepticism ensues, many questions are asked, and few are answered.The added element of suspense in The Stranger adds an engrossing layer to Ray’s signature filmic goals, such as stark thematic contrast, a portrait of Calcutta, and a depiction of family bonds.
Satyajit Ray paints a beautiful portrait of Calcutta with The Big City: a film that follows a husband and wife on opposite career trajectories. The Big City shows West Bengal at a social crossroads, caught between the conservative values of the old-guard and the liberal ideals of the new.
Ray’s direction doesn’t take a strong stance; but rather captures the political climate from both sides. The Big City is certainly one of Ray’s most engrossing and “watchable” films, for its great lead performances from Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee, its stunning cinematography, and its timely political commentary.
The World of Apu is a fitting conclusion to Ray’s trilogy on the titular character’s love and life in West Bengal in the 20th-century. The film sees an adult Apu struggle to balance responsibility with autonomy, individuality with selflessness, and financial success with creative expression. The World of Apu is a didactic picture; and although we may not always agree with Apu, we understand why he feels the way he does.
Soumitra Chatterjee, who appeared in many of the best Satyajit Ray films, made his film debut in The World of Apu. Chatterjee’s performance as the wayward young-adult is regarded as one of the greatest in Indian cinema.
Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali, is a deeply meditative look at life in rural Bengal at the turn of the 20th-century. The film is quaint in nature – especially when compared to its two sequels – as it follows a family of five vying for survival in the countryside.
Pather Panchali put Ray on the map internationally, drawing considerable comparisons to the great works of Italian Neorealism.
Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest follows four friends who leave the big city for a trip to a tribal village. There, they grapple with their responsibilities, and the wants that pushed them away.
Days and Nights in the Forest puts the human condition on trial against the cultural conditions of Calcutta, and perhaps the world at large. Is civilization a product of us? Or are we a production of civilization? Perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle… a question to be answered in the forest.
Best Andrei Tarkovsky Films
Satyajit Ray was one of the great auteurs in cinema – but he wasn’t the only one? Want to learn more about auteur-ist cinema? Check out our next article on the best Andrei Tarkovsky films, where we break down all seven of the Soviet Russian maestro’s feature films. By the end, you’ll know why Tarkovsky is considered just as, if not more influential than Ray.