‘The First Work of Film Art from India’ – advertisement for Pather Panchali in New York Herald Tribune, 21 September 1958.
All photos courtesy of the writer.
‘The First Work of Film Art from India’ – advertisement for Pather Panchali in New York Herald Tribune, 21 September 1958. All photos courtesy of the writer.

Not quite Satyajit Ray’s world

Looking back at early critics' cold reception of the filmmaker's seminal work.

Mahdi Chowdhury is a graduate of History from the University of Toronto and a Master's candidate at the University of Cambridge. Had he not chosen to pursue graduate studies, he would most likely be watching movies all day.

The Bengali auteur's influence is ever-present: Satyajit Ray is cited as a source of inspiration by living artists as diverse as Barry Jenkins, Martin Scorsese, Ava DuVernay, Shyam Benegal, Claire Denis, Teju Cole, J M Coetzee, Durga Chew-Bose and so on. Referring to contemporary Southasian filmmakers, actor and filmmaker Aparna Sen says, "We have inherited [Ray] as Ray had inherited Tagore." He may be the most internationally recognised and celebrated name in Indian cinema – and unfortunately, the only name with which certain audiences and critics are familiar.

At times, it is hard to banish the uncharitable suspicion that Ray is included in certain textbooks, lists, syllabi, and other common artefacts of film culture and criticism in a tokenistic manner, as shorthand for Southasian film history at large.

In an essay for Criterion, entitled 'The Apu Trilogy: Behind the Universal', Girish Shambu reminds us that prior to a fascination with Bollywood, Western film viewers and critics associated Indian cinema synonymously with the films of Satyajit Ray. How did it happen, asks Shambu, that one filmmaker could "stand in for the cinematic output of the one of the most populous and diverse countries on the planet"?

Early writings on Satyajit Ray ­– from what appear to be the first mentions of him in popular English-language print in 1957 to the commercial releases of his first two Apu films in the US and Britain in 1958 – delineate how and when the Bengali auteur, from being an upstart, becomes the filmic icon we recognise today. Contrary to narratives of Ray's immediate and welcomed induction into the canon of world cinema – as recounted by certain scholars and admirers – we can trace the reception of Ray in Western film criticism as a surprisingly ambivalent encounter. These writings are sites of recurrent tropes, cultural biases, and other problematic discourses by which non-Western cinemas enter into the institutions and canons of a Western film audience.

Apu in Venice, 1957

The earliest records we have of Ray in English-language print report his win at the 1957 Venice International Film Festival. The Los Angeles Times publishes what is perhaps the very first mention of Ray in the US: a short article, enmeshed within a wall of ads, entitled 'India Takes Gold Lion'. If these articles are the earliest sources referencing Ray, then it is tempting to presume that he was widely celebrated from the outset of his career. Indeed, Andrew Robinson, author of the biography Satyajit Ray: The inner eye, makes this claim. Robinson cites the filmmaker's win at Venice as the decisive moment in which Ray emerges as a titan of world cinema. However, things were not that simple. In fact, the Los Angeles Times article is not celebratory; it is one among many characterising Ray's win as an upset.

The audience in Venice, reports the article, responded to Ray with "mixed applause and booing." In contrast to his "cold reception," Luchino Visconti – the runner-up – received "thunderous applause." What could explain these reactions at Venice? One could speculate there was shock value implicit in the notion that a first-time filmmaker from India could beat an old Italian master – in the home-field of Venice, no less. In other words, the city was a conducive setting for these kinds of reactions against Ray. Yet, the more we read about this incident, the more we realise further complexities in the story of Ray's cold reception, whereby the hypothesis of home-team, nativist resentment simply does not explain all.

In a more detailed article about Venice for Variety, senior American film critic Gene Moskowitz exhibits the same ambivalent, if not apathetic, attitude towards Ray. In his article, 'The Paradox of Venice', Moskowitz argues Venice – competing with Cannes – is ruining itself in trying to re-brand its festival as more cosmopolitan, more inclusive and more "international". He laments at what he sees as the consequence of these reforms: a poorer quality of accepted entries. While he celebrates a few international films at the festival – namely, Kenji Mizoguchi's and Akira Kurosawa's dramas – he does not mention the winner of the festival, Satyajit Ray. We may assume, given his argument, that Ray may then be an example of the ruinous foreign influences entering the festival. It is interesting to also consider how Moskowitz was among the first critics to have seen Ray's film in Cannes the year before. His silence is thus doubly curious: is Ray the example par excellence of Moskowitz's criticisms or is it that Ray, even if he were the winner, simply did not appeal to Moskowitz.

In this earliest wave of print-media reactions to Ray, there was one notable exception. Robert F Hawkins, writing for the New York Times, uncharacteristically defends Ray's win in a retrospective article published two weeks after the festival. But Hawkins, too, testifies to the "controversial" nature of the win and "divided opinions" on it. Complicating biographer Andrew Robinson's claim that Venice established Ray, these articles describe a rather cold reception. Controversy, resentment, bias and the politics of internationalised film spaces – these critical elements are lost in Robinson's and others' accounts of Ray's immediate induction into the filmic canon.

Apu in Theatres, 1957-1958

Something happens after Venice that reshapes the figure of Ray into the kind of filmmaker that we may recognise today. Ray's films enter domestic and speciality theatres in Europe and North America; prior to late-1957, his films were only accessible through film festivals. We begin to see longer and more focused writing about Ray. Film reviews, theatre listings and newspaper ads also enter into the record of Ray-related print. In entering the language and spaces of commercial marketability, Ray's films are increasingly advertised and described in ways more familiar to us in the present: the Apu films are regarded as instant classics of world cinema – an evidently a new identity for Ray and his films. There is something ironic in Sight & Sound – the British film journal which missed Ray's film in Venice – publishing a theatre guide months later, in which Pather Panchali is rated higher than any other film and is recognised as "without a question a classic of the cinema."

By 1958, there was an increasing standardisation in the language used by critics to talk about Ray. He becomes the subject of a common body of thought, writing and vocabulary among Western film critics while his films are defined as ethnographic spectacles. And Ray's films were characterised by either their universal or exotic qualities. Almost all critics of Ray, be they overt or indirect in their phrasing, participated in this discourse.

Ray-related print begin to be longer and singularly focused on Ray, and start to include commercial and paratextual-visual supplements (eg, theatre information, photographs related to Ray and 'Pather Panchali').
Ray-related print begin to be longer and singularly focused on Ray, and start to include commercial and paratextual-visual supplements (eg, theatre information, photographs related to Ray and 'Pather Panchali').

Ray as ethnographer

Even the greatest champions of Ray represented him as not quite a full auteur or artistic agent. Instead, Ray's genius lay in his ability to capture an ethnographic portrait of Indian village life – or as the Spectator in 1958 asserted, "The Real India". This may explain why Pather Panchali won a bizarre award at the 1956 Cannes: 'Best Human Document', an improvised award, which was never given to a film before or since. What made Pather Panchali, in a way no other feature had Cannes' history, a 'human document'?

Granted, Ray's grounded and observational style of filmmaking – influenced by Italian neorealism – may potentially lend itself to the interpretation of documentary or ethnography. However, it would be strange if there were a parallel discursive tradition among film critics characterising De Sica and Rossellini, not as auteurs, but as exotic ethnographers.

What makes this trope curious is that it is not applied to Ray as a way of devaluing his work. On the contrary, early champions of Ray – including Hawkins – invoked it in celebratory terms. Hawkins states that Ray's "direct yet poetic observation of the human scene recalls the best work done… by Flaherty." This parallel with Robert Flaherty, director of the seminal yet controversial 'documentary' Nanook of the North, is another prominent trope in the early discourse on Ray. So confirms the American writer John Updike, by placing the fictional Pather Panchali "in the great tradition of documentary carved out… by our own Bob Flaherty." This analogy with Flaherty was so prevalent and self-evident to early critics that, in 1958, the annual Vermont retrospective on Flaherty invited Ray to lecture.

Universal stories and exotic imports

What were these strange yet familiar films from India? Were they universal or exotic to us? Certain texts – including commercial movie bulletins like those published by Monthly Film Bulletin – praise Ray's films for their "striking quality [of] universality". Similarly, Ray's films are described as human, humane and/or humanistic to the same effect. While we may certainly hold these traits to be a part of Ray's films, the commercial and critical proliferation of these descriptions warrant us to consider why these traits are prominently stated instead of others.

We may speculate, as a marketing strategy for a non-Western film, that universality promises the viewer that they will be able to understand, if not connect, with this film. Universality implies that a film's cultural specificities are irrelevant to its comprehension. Or, as film critic Robin Wood, author of the book The Apu Trilogy, said of it: "What is remarkable is how seldom in Ray's films the spectator is pulled up by any specific obstacle arising from cultural differences."

While this is not denied of Ray's films, it is curious how 'universality' functions as the ubiquitous, if not the hegemonic, lens through which his work is seen. Similar appeals to the universal and humane dominate descriptions of other non-Western filmmakers, from Yasujirō Ozu to Abbas Kiarostami. Meanwhile, what is forgotten is that Ray is nonetheless a filmmaker who engages with culturally specific subjects and traditions. As much as Ray sought, in his own words, "to portray universal feelings," this trope does not leave space to consider how Ray is himself a product of – and artistic agent within – a particular cultural history. Consider that many of his films were adaptations of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore, or his use of Ravi Shankar's music and the supposed raga structure of some of his films, or the ways in which Ray's own unique artistic, social, familial, gender, class, caste and political identities are enmeshed, consciously or unconsciously, in his films. Universality as a standard paradigm for how we conceptualise Ray (and other non-Western filmmakers) is then a reductive and exclusionary trope, in which certain qualities of a filmmaker's work become undermined or lost in translation.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ray's work is characterised by difference and exoticism. This exoticism is already implied by the characterisation of his work as ethnography – a label unevenly applied to Ray and not, for example, European neorealists who worked on a similar documentative-ethnographic register. At times, the exoticism of Ray is a device used to celebrate his work; at other times, it is used to dismiss his work. Howard Thompson, for instance, writes an admiring profile of Ray for the New York Times – but he does so by using exotifying and Orientalist language to flourish his image of Ray. The Indian peasants depicted in Ray's film are described as a "forest family." Recounting his impression of Ray, Thompson expresses surprise at his appearance in an "occidental garb"; the Bengali filmmaker is a curious spectacle: a "big, rangy Calcuttan."

By contrast, the New York Times' senior film critic, Bosley Crowther – perhaps the most important American film critic writing in 1958 – seizes upon the exoticism of Ray's feature to, thereafter, equate exoticism with gimmick. While his review is not entirely negative, and admits "there are lovely little treads in the strange fabric" of Pather Panchali, he is nonetheless unable to overcome the sheer otherness of the film's subjects. Consider his comment about the language of the film, Bengali: the "dialogue often sounds like a Gramophone record going at high speed." Inevitably, for Crowther, Pather Panchali is not a serious film. It is a "rare exotic item."

Crowther goes on to claim that Ray's film would have barely passed a "rough cut" within Hollywood. This indicates that for critics like Crowther, non-Western film forms – of those 'underdeveloped' and 'exotic' lands – are marching teleologically toward the apogee of Hollywood classicism. Contrary to the narratives of Satyajit Ray's instantaneous and loving canonisation, even when he stood front and centre in the spotlight of Western film criticism in 1958 –– Ray was still a figure subject to contentious, racialised and, to be sure, bizarre remarks.

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