India's single most celebrated filmmaker, Satyajit Ray was born into a prominent Calcutta family on May 2, 1921. Ray's grandfather, Upendrakishole Roychwdhury, was the creator of the popular children's magazine Sandesh; his father, Sukhumar Ray (sometimes spelled Ra), was a noted poet and historian. After attending the Ballygunj government school, the younger Ray studied business science and physics at Calcutta's Presidency College. From 1940 to 1942, he attended the University of Santinketan, a private establishment founded by an old family friend, Hindu poet Rabindranatah Tagore, the man largely credited with India's 20th-century cultural renaissance. After graduation, Ray went to work as a commercial artist for the D. J. Keymer advertising agency in Calcutta. It was here that he was assigned to draw illustrations for Bhibuti Bashan Bannerjee's classic autobiographical novel of Bengal life, Pather Panchali. Though he'd never had any formal cinematic training, he determined then and there to someday translate the Bannerjee novel to the screen.
In 1947, Ray co-founded the Calcutta Film Society, hoping to spearhead a movement toward a "new" Indian cinema. The same year he wrote his first screenplay, Ghaire Baire, but he lost the support of potential producers after refusing to make suggested changes. Three years later, Ray met French director Jean Renoir while the latter was filming his India-based The River. Renoir's encouragement, coupled with Ray's introduction to Italian director Vittorio de Sica's neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief (1947), strengthened the aspiring filmmaker's resolve to direct Pather Panchali. Hocking everything he owned, he spent three years working on the film, shooting on weekends with a nonprofessional cast. Just when it seemed that Ray's resources would dry up and he'd be forced to abandon the project, New York's Museum of Modern Art--then amassing a collection of modern Indian culture--expressed interest in the director's film. Further serendipity struck when the government of West Bengal made the precedent-setting decision to pump funding into Pather Panchali, enabling Ray to complete the film. The winner of a special jury prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival (the first of many such awards for Ray), Pather Panchali and its two sequels--known today as The Apu Trilogy--established Ray as India's pre-eminent film director. Indeed, in the eyes of the world, the director was to India what Akira Kurosawa was to Japan: his country's most influential and articulate cinematic spokesman. In India itself, however, Ray's films were not guaranteed successes, due in great part to his decision to film them in Bengali, a minority language (only 1977's The Chess Players would be filmed in Hindi, the country's predominant tongue).
In assessing Ray's career, many film historians have divided his works into three periods. From 1955 to 1966, he favored meticulous realism, utilizing a leisurely pace and eschewing crosscutting in favor of long, single takes. From 1969 to 1977, he began to emulate the nouvelle vague movement with a more complex editing and narrative style. Also during this period, the social-comment content of his films became less superficial and more deeply felt, perhaps as a response to Indian critics who accused Ray of paying mere lip service to the serious problems plaguing his native country. His final filmmaking phase, beginning in 1978 and ending with his death, was distinguished by his tendency to dispense with exposition as quickly as possible, the better to probe the "insides" of his characters. Throughout his career, Ray favored a minimalist approach, though he was certainly capable of staging large, spectacular scenes if his material warranted such treatment. The many themes explored in his films--coming of age, spiritual awakening, feminism, natural catastrophes, mythology--reflected in microcosm the ever-changing manners and mores of India. In the late 1970s, he shifted creative gears by turning out entertainments geared for children; during this period, he also revived Sandesh, the children's magazine founded by his grandfather.
As his filmmaking activities increased, Ray found himself voluntarily wearing several professional hats: director, producer, writer, composer, cinematographer, editor. He was forced to slow down in the early 1980s by a series of health problems; suffering a heart attack in 1984, stopped work on his-long delayed Ghaire Baire and turned the directorial reigns over to his son Sandip (born 1954). While convalescing, he wrote a series of thirteen TV plays, to be directed by his son. In 1989 he returned to directing with an adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, and in 1992, he rallied long enough to turn out Agantuk (The Visitor), a welcome harkening back to his glory days. That same year, Ray was presented with a "Lifetime Achievement" Academy Award. By this time, however, he had suffered a bad relapse, a victim of his ongoing heart ailment and respiratory problems. He accepted his Oscar while lying in a hospital bed--certainly the most poignant and heartrending moment of the 1992 Academy Awards telecast. Less than a month later, Ray was dead; his final screenplay, Jagoran (Broken Journey), was filmed posthumously by his son in 1994. There are many books dedicated to the life and career of Satyajit Ray, perhaps the best being his own 1977 volume, Our Films, Their Films. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi