India was throwing off the cloak of British colonialism in the 1950s, emerging as the world’s most populous democracy, even as it confronted conditions of extreme poverty and privation at home. Satyajit Ray created a series of starkly personal films with his “Apu trilogy,” which comprised the films Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955), Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1957), and Apur Sansar(The World of Apu, 1959). Ray, who graduated from the University of Calcutta with a degree in economics, soon changed his mind about joining the commercial rat race and studied art history and painting with the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore, who ran a small university in the town of Shantiniketan. Ray began illustrating books to make a living, one of them being the autobiographical novel Pather Panchali, which detailed the hardships of Bengali village life. Ray was immediately taken with the book and wanted to bring it to the screen, but with only Hollywood films and the endless procession of indigenous Indian musicals as a model, he didn’t know how to approach the project.
In 1950, however, he saw Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief while on a trip to London and was stunned by the audacity of Neorealism’s approach to the cinema: strip a film down to the basics, shoot on location, use nonprofessionals, and get to the truth. Returning to India, Ray fell in with director Jean Renoir, who was then shooting his film The River (1951) on location there and took him on as an informal assistant director and translator. He absorbed an enormous amount of technical knowledge from Renoir, as well as noting his mentor’s skill with actors. And so, with De Sica’s vision and Renoir’s practical advice to guide him, Ray set out to adapt Pather Panchali to the screen. In true Neorealist fashion, he used all his savings, then sold all his possessions, and even pawned his wife’s jewels to keep Pather Panchali moving forward, shooting the film entirely on location in a local Bengali village and using only the most meager technical resources to create a clear, direct, and deceptively artless tale.
After a year and a half of shooting, Ray ran out of money and was about to give up the project, when the Bengali government, impressed with his tenacity, gave him a grant to finish. Completed after years of arduous work, Pather Panchali was released in 1955 and screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. The critical reception was rapturous, and Ray’s career as a director was truly launched. Aparajito and Apur Sansar, the other two films in the trilogy, had the same simplicity of approach and stylistic integrity as Pather Panchali, as does his superb drama of a family in social collapse, Jalsaghar pride to keep up the family name, an aging patriarch, Huzur Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), presides over his ruined mansion as if living in an earlier, more affluent time, even though his funds have been exhausted. To keep up appearances, he throws a lavish party in his music room, a party that he can ill afford. The evening is a dazzling success, but the expense of putting on such a display bankrupts the patriarch, leading to the ruin of his house and the end of his aristocratic reign. Ray’s subsequent films became more conventional and less personal, even as they attempted to recapture the magic of his earlier works. But his films in the late 1950s stand as a shining testament to one man’s desire to bring his vision to the screen against seemingly insurmountable odds and to create a personal cinema that offered a more authentic picture of Bengali life than was being presented elsewhere.
A gifted but deeply troubled Indian auteur was Ritwik Ghatak, a radical playwright who made his first film as a solo director, Nagarik (The Citizen), in 1952. But Ghatak’s career was sidetracked by alcoholism, as well as his decidedly unstable and volatile personality. Despite his undeniable brilliance as a director, he made only a few films, such as Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960) and the semi-autobiographical Jukti, Takko Aar Gappo (Reason, Debate and a Story, 1974) before succumbing to a variety of ailments at the age of fifty-one.