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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #34 (August 23, 2005), page 15.

Illuminating Ray

Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye

By Andrew Robinson

I.B. Tauris, 2004

Paperback, 420 pages, $19.95

By Douglas Spangle

Around the middle of the 20th century a whole new generation of filmmakers arose — from what had until then been the periphery of world cinema culture. Ingmar Bergman’s Sweden had previously been notable for producing Greta Garbo. Akira Kurosawa’s Japan had developed a taste for making monster movies. Satyajit Ray’s India had been churning out Bollywood romantic mush.

These three filmmakers had a great deal in common besides having to invent largely by themselves a studio framework to support their own visions — their visions were also similar. They, and some of their contemporaries around the world, invented a new language for film, or rather they allowed the film to develop its own language.

To appreciate work such as Dersu Uzala or the Apu trilogy, you have to allow the film to address you in its own all-encompassing way. And this was a great lesson for the younger directors of Hollywood. Neither Apocalypse Now nor The Godfather could have existed without the example of these auteurs from the ends of the earth.

Actually, I’m being unfair to Satyajit Ray by associating him with Bombay’s film factories — he grew up in the incredibly rich Bengali culture on the other side of the subcontinent, watching British and American movies. When you reflect that he composed the music for all his films as well as designing costumes from his own sketches and producing the titles with his own calligraphy, his end-point as a director of films (mostly from his own stories, also) seems almost gratuitous.

It makes sense, though, when Andrew Robinson narrates Ray’s career as the developing artist hopscotches from art form to art form before finally finding his best medium. And his versatility within the medium of film is itself astonishing; there is hardly a genre — tragedy, satire, comedy, documentary — that Ray did not attempt at least once.

Like many of his contemporaries, Ray seemed to prefer a comfortable repertory group. He often worked with untrained actors, producing brilliant performances from them.

It is a boon that Robinson is exceedingly well versed in Ray’s Bengali cultural and family background as well as his film career. The fact that Ray’s grandfather had operated the earliest English-language press in Calcutta is reflected, for instance, in the recurrence of print-shops in Ray’s films. The family’s penchant for storytelling cannot have been anything but a springboard for Ray’s own storytelling in the medium of cinema. And yet Ray was intensely critical of the effects of the close-knit and often conformist Bengali family structure.

Robinson adopts the transparency a good biographer needs, and looks deeply at Ray without buttering him in adulatory ghee. He explains Ray’s films without explaining them away … as if that were even a possibility.

The Inner Eye, appearing here thoroughly rewritten from its 1992 first edition, is the consummate biography through film: it is thorough in both its filmography and its narration of the man’s life. But as good as it is, it does not take the place of seeing the films. That is up to the viewer. That is a pleasure it would be a shame to deny anyone.

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