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).