Last month, the Film Society of Lincoln Center showcased the second part of their Satyajit Ray retrospective.
The programme, ‘Long Shadows: The Late Work of Satyajit Ray’, featured the Bengali master’s films — all restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — from the 1970s, until the end of his career in early 1990s when his health was failing, and that was reflected in their quality.
Two years ago, the film society also presented a bigger retrospective of Ray’s works, ‘First Light: Satyajit Ray from the Apu Trilogy to the Calcutta Trilogy’.
There is a sharp contrast between films shown in the first and the second series. Ray’s works in the 1950s and 1960s were defined by the stark black and white cinematography and narratives that emerge out of these images.
There are life-affirming stories and classic images that stay with us — young Durga and Apu discovering a train for the first time (Pather Panchali); Apu running through the streets of Varanasi, and Harihar’s death and the flight of pigeons (Aparajito); and the countless stunning shots in Charulata.
The advent of colour in Ray’s films in the 1970s changed the texture and the language of his films. I would go this far to say that barring Shatranj Ke Khilari, most of Ray’s films in this second series lack the visual punch, although the filmmaker still had a strong control over his narrative technique. In fact, with films like Heerak Rajar Deshe, Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath — all shown in last month’s series, Ray’s films had become a lot more entertaining.
It was a treat to watch Shatranj Ke Khilari again on the big screen — a grand film based on a two-layered story by Munshi Premchand. Under Ray’s direction, Shatranj is a sumptuous desert, filled with delicious Urdu dialogues, brilliant — sometimes hilarious, performances across the board by a dream cast (Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Shabana Azmi, Farida Jalal, Farooq Shaikh, Amjad Khan, Victor Banerjee and even Sir Richard Attenborough), spectacular costumes (I was especially blown away by the large shawls worn by Kumar and Jaffrey), music, dances and intricately detailed production design.