Western Influences on Satyajit Ray

Abhijit Sen

The contributions of Satyajit Ray to the Bengali and to Indian cinema in general has not been matched by any other filmmakers, both past and present. The Apu Trilogy itself would be enough to place him on the pedestal of filmmaking and there would be no doubt about the genius of Ray's talent in the film world after the Trilogy. Ray's niche in the hall of fame of international cinema is firmly secure. The number of awards apart, Ray now shares the dizzying heights where only a handful of film makers sit. As Lindsay Anderson, the British filmmaker and critic once said: "I would compare Satyajit Ray to Eisenstein, Chaplin, Kurosawa, Bergman and Antonioni. He is among the greatest in world cinema." In 1978, the Berlin Film Festival committee adjudged him one of the three all-time masters of the cinema, a rare honour he shared with Chaplin and Bergman, the same year Oxford University conferred on him an honorary doctorate. Many critics called him the complete filmmaker who wrote his own scripts, composed the film scores, made sketches for the costumes and sets and even designed the posters of his films.

Ray grew up in Calcutta, which in 18th/19th c. was the seat of the British Empire in India. The merger of the East and the West gave birth to the Bengali Renaissance and to the educated middle-class of which Ray and his family was an integral part. This fusion of the East and the West is deeply embedded in Ray's art-- the same kind of fusion one can find in Rabindranath Tagore's humanistic fusion of classical Indian tradition and Western liberal thoughts. Tagore himself was the principal architect and guiding spirit of the Bengali Renaissance and at one time Ray was a pupil of Tagore's art school at Shantiniketan. This kind of upbringing and education imbued Ray with traditional Bengali/Indian culture along with significant aspects of Western art and culture. Ray knew his cultures very well. David Ansen (Newsweek, 1981), the film critic of the Newsweek once wrote that few film artists could equal "the Renaissance man" for sheer cultural depth, which Ray possessed innately. How, when and where did he pick up such influences which eventually impacted on his art and craft, is an intriguing and an interesting question.

One major factor appears to be that Ray had learnt his art mainly from the Western cinema. The directors he repeatedly referred to, while talking about filmmaking, were Jean Renoir, Vittorio De Sica, John Ford and Frank Capra to name a few. He had also expressed admiration for directors as diverse as Bergman and Hitchcock. Ray met the French director Jean Renoir who was filming The River in Calcutta and it was Lindsay Anderson who asked Ray to write about Renoir for a Cine magazine called the Sequence, which Ray did by interviewing Renoir.

Earlier in his younger days, his two passions were films and music, in fact music preceded films in terms of his interest. He had grown up in an atmosphere of Bengali songs and Brahmo hymns where he participated in the family choir. But Ray hankered for something more dramatic than the vedic chants and Tagore songs, which he found in the symphonic music of the West. As he himself said: "At the age when Bengali youth almost inevitably writes poetry, I was listening to European classical music." (Sumit Mitra, 1983; p.73)

At the age of thirteen, Ray went looking for bargains in music shops of Calcutta with one of his school friends, and one of the treasures he found was Beethoven's 5th Symphony, and then he stumbled upon Mozart's Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. According to his friend, after the great discovery he lay awake the whole night. The logic, symmetry and the beauty of Mozart's music was not lost on Satyajit Ray. Ray once said : "As a small boy I had read about Beethoven in the Book of Knowledge, now I was listening enraptured to his sonatas and symphonies." Later in his professional life he learnt to play the piano which he played with "professional ease". His expertise in Western classical music was well recognized. Adi Gazdar, the Calcutta- based classical pianist once confirmed, that Ray was "one of the best connoisseurs of Western classical music in the country."

Jean Renoir was a major influence on Ray. Renoir was the first European director who warned Ray against Hollywood influence in Indian films. Renoir had noticed how the Indian film industry was churning out melodramas to cater to the taste of ever-enthusiastic Indian public. But he was optimistic that better films were going to be made and he blamed the current state of affairs on the Indian directors who found more "inspiration in the slick, artificiality of a Hollywood film than in the reality around him." Of all the films of Renoir, Ray admired La Regle du Jeu the most, a personal favorite of Renoir himself. Regarding filmmaking Renoir said that a filmmaker need not show a lot of things in a film but to show only the right things. Ray diligently followed the same advice that Renoir offered him in 1952: "You don't have to have too many elements in a film, but whatever you use must be the right elements, the expressive elements." From Renoir, Ray learnt that there was nothing more important to a film than the emotional integrity of human relationship in the film. No doubt technique was important but he said that it should not become the dominant force. "In America," Renoir said, "they worry too much about the technique, and neglect the human aspect."

Apart from Renoir, it was the Italian Neo-Realists who gripped Ray's imagination next. Ray noted in his book that his trip to London as an art director of an advertising agency was to seal the fate of his advertising career. He said that within three days of his arrival he had seen The Bicycle Thief by Vittorio De Sica which furthermore strengthened his resolve to make his first feature film Pather Panchali using natural locations and unknown actors as was the case with The Bicycle Thief. Ray says: "All through my stay in London, the lessons of The Bicycle Thief and neo-realist cinema stayed with me." Ray's praise for The Bicycle Thief knew no bounds as he says: "BT is a triumphant discovery of the fundamentals of cinema and De Sica has openly acknowledged his debt to Chaplin." He found that the universality of the theme, the effectiveness of the treatment and the low-cost production made it an ideal film to be used as a model by the Indian filmmakers.

Curiously, one of Ray's earliest introduction to sound films and one of the earliest influence in filmmaking was Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise. Ray pointed out that with the introduction of sound on film it was Lubitsch who integrated a story and the song to form a whole new work of art. Ray admiringly talked of Lubitsch as a director with "all wit and elegance and innuendo," "a director who had a permanent influence on all future filmmakers of sophisticated comedy." Incidentally, Lubitsch was also one of the few top rated European directors to really succeed in Hollywood.

In Calcutta, Ray often used to drop by Jean Renoir's hotel-room during the evenings to discuss Europeans films and filmmakers. Renoir would point out the distinctive and specific features of the landscape of Bengal which symbolised the essence of Bengal. For instance, a clump of banana trees, a small pond in a village or a waving paddy was quintessentially Bengal to Renoir. Like in Renoir's The River, the placid Ganges is a recurrent symbol in Ray's films including Aparajito. The film, shot in Benares, continuously shows man's dependence on the river as a source of life. Renoir even told Ray that if Indian filmmakers could get Hollywood out of their system, they would be making great films. (Marie Seton, Satyajit Ray, OUP, 1974; p. 145)

True to Renoir's advice, Ray focused on details which typified the city and the village in Bengal. The vast plains of Bengal, the rivers, the monsoon rains, and heavy moisture-laden clouds formed the backbone of Ray's earlier films.

In Pather Panchali, Ray introduced the neo-realist tradition of using non-actors and actually shooting on location while using an unadorned style of photography. The details of speech, behavior, habits, customs, rituals, substantiated the very simple structure and the narrative line. The film, almost a documentary, was simple enough to be comprehensible at all levels. Incidentally, the novel Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, from which the movie was adapted, was a sprawling saga whose slow speed, leisurely denouement caught the perfect rhythm of the rural Bengal.

At an interview given at the AFI (American Film Institute), Ray told the interviewer that the slow pace of the narrative in his films developed out of necessity -- the necessity of portraying the subtle and complex relations among the human characters. The relationship between Apu and his mother is so carefully and diligently handled that we realize, in due course of time, where the two stand in regards to each other. Apu's wonder at modern inventions and amenities like electricity, the printing press, and automobiles is like a great discovery. It is from such minute observations that a convincing picture of Apu's transition to maturity and independence is built up in Aparajito. This application of details and the focus on human-relationship is an aspect prevalent in the films of Italian neo-realists like De Sica, Rossellini, Fellini and others. In Aparajito, Benares is seen through the eyes of the curious Apu -- the narrow lanes, the sacred monkeys, the muscle builders, the boats on the river, the priests chanting their hymns, and the daily cleansing of bodies on the banks of the holy river Ganges. A parallel could be drawn between De Sica's The Bicycle Thief where much of the city life and city activities could be viewed through the wandering Bruno's eyes and Apu's wonder-filled eyes on his arrival in Benares.

European traits and facets are in abundance in Ray's films. Ray claims that, "they have been brought up to my notice that I can actually name them: irony, understatement, humor, open endings, the use of leit-motifs and a fluid camera and so on. I only try to tell a story in the best possible way balancing the needs of Art with the need to reach an audience. By no means a unique pre-occupation for a filmmaker, but perhaps involving more risks than usual in the context of India. The Western elements often perturbs the Indian viewer in the same way as the indigenous elements perturb the Western viewers." (Sight & Sound, sp. 1982 vol. 51; #2) Then later Ray adds: "What is attempted in these film is of course a synthesis. But it can be seen by someone who has his feet in both cultures. Someone who will bring to bear on the films involvement and detachment in equal measure" (Sight & Sound, Sp.1982; vol. 51, #2).

Pertaining to cinema techniques and cinematography, Ray claimed to be in debt to Godard and Truffaut of the French. New Wave for introducing Western technical and cinematic innovations. The new cinema techniques introduced by Jean Luc Godard in films such as Breathless certainly had an effect on Ray who once said: "all artists owe a debt to innovators and profit by such innovation. Godard gave me the courage to dispense largely with fades and dissolves, Truffaut to use the freeze." (Sight & Sound, Vol.51 #2, Sp.1982)

But what impressed Ray the most was the innovation, "-- subtle, almost imperceptible kind of innovation that can be felt in the very texture and sinews of a film. A film like La Regle du Jeu - I defy anyone to give it a label. This is the kind of innovation that appeals to me," he said. (Sight & Sound, vol.51; #2, Sp.1982)

Ray's love of Western classical music has already been mentioned. Furthermore, Ray not only wrote his scripts, designed costumes and clothes, he also composed musical scores for his films. For Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Jalsaghar he used well-known Indian classical musicians to score but progressively he felt the creative urge to control the sound-track of the movie. He devised his own music for Teen Kanya and at one time he told Goerges Sadoul that he thought (Seton, 1974) endlessly of Mozart in connection with Charulata, and for that he himself had composed four musical motifs. Ray at one time claimed that his films had been influenced by the musical forms of a symphony and sonatas, and he was highly impressed by Sergei Profokiev's scores of Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible; by Cicoguini's music for The Bicycle Thief and Miracle in Milan. Although Ray had no formal music education, he could pick out a tune or a melody by humming whistling or by tinkering on the piano and his scores for his films were usually very simple and straightforward, mainly with the use of a single instrument. Nonetheless, he also loved using Bengali folk songs and ballads as he did in Kanchenjungha, Charulata and later in the fantasy story Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.

Western cultural behavior and mannerisms surface in quite a few of Ray's films. The depiction of life in the city, as in Mahanagar, appears fast paced, modern and contemporary. In his urban films, the themes appear to be universal and a part of any city life: rat race, unemployment, the working woman, and when dwellers behaving in much the same way as any other city folks the world over. The use of English language in some of his films itself indicates the influence of the British culture. English words and phrases used in the movies convey feelings and nuances for which Bengali language may have no equivalence. The use of English by the actors in Kanchenjungha for example actually indicates the degree of Westernization undergone by a set of characters in the film, consequently their class, social background and status in the society, as pointed out by an observer. There is ample eveidence to show that the elites of the Bengali society, who attended English-medium schools were in general more Anglicized and westernized than their counterparts from other social backgrounds. That the characters would break into English once in a while in the film clearly indicated their urban sophistication and the degree of westernization undergone by the characters. In the era when this film was produced such pronouncements were rare occasions but it is all too common nowadays.

In dealing with the subject of religion, superstition, and even death Ray stood squarely on the side of the Western rationalists. In general, Ray tended to avoid overly melodramatize and avoid sentimental approaches when dealing with these issues. In Devi, dealing with superstition and religiosity, Ray balanced the orthodox notion of a woman possessed of a great spiritual and psychic power with a rational and progressive household of a scientific-minded professor in Calcutta. The conflict between reason and superstition was approached with a deliberate sensitivity by Ray, avoiding what could potentially have become a bizarre situation. Instead of heightening the drama, the camera was used to contemplate the tragedy in a deliberate and a purposeful manner and gravity. In scenes of death there is no excessive show of grief. When the father/priest died in Aparajito we did not see his wife and son wailing but a beautiful symbolic shot of a flock of pigeons taking off in a soaring flight across the cloudy sky -- as if the soul had been freed from the body to now roam the universe as it pleased. When Apu's mother died, Apu was shown, briefly, crying with his head down under a tree -- and we moved on to the next scene. The discipline of Ray's inner self, not given to undue emotionalism, is reflected in his films and the structured images influenced by the Western classical music and some Western films, made Ray a true classicist and an integrated filmmaker according to some critics and scholars. (Seton, 1974).

By reviewing his films obvious questions arise and some of them have been clearly articulated by cultural critics like Ashish Nandy. He basically questions Ray's authenticity as an Indian filmmaker -- was he an Indian who was highly westernized, fully cosmopolitan but dealt with Indian themes merely because he happened to live in India? Or was he an Indian with Western aesthetic values even though the subject matters of his films remained Indocentric? Nandy hypothesizes that Ray's guiding principles of aesthetics and core values of his life were intrinsically drawn from the European Enlightenment of 17th-18th century.

Ray, no doubt, was a product of a "cultural implosion" that took place in Bengal in the 19th c., triggered by the British colonial intrusion and the European rationalism and values were a part and parcel of his consciousness. Nandy expounds that as a creative person Ray probably lived internally with a plurality of selves -- that a part of him was Indian and the other part was Western, imbuing his personality with a "bi-cultural component." Thus, true to his cultural and middleclass heritage, Ray was essentially a Calcuttan "babu" whose true cultural self expressed itself bi- culturally even in art. The peaceful co-existence within the two cultures, Bengali and English, once learnt as a technique of survival has now become a character trait of Bengalis and Indians in general, according to Nandy. If this is the case, then Ray was certainly open to Western and European ideas and thoughts throughout his life and related to Western filmmaking very strongly.

Many of the examples cited in this paper illustrate Ray's need to explore Bengal and the Bengali society both externally and internally, giving full vent to his multi-cultural self and exposing in its entirety the evolving post-colonial pluralistic society of Bengal and India. To do so, Ray not only took the story-telling techniques via celluloid from both the European and the Hollywood masters but also their music, narrative style, languages and other aspects of filmmaking.


Sumit Mitra (Feb.15, 1983). The Genius of Satyajit Ray (Cover Story on Satyajit Ray), India Today.

Marie Seton (1974). Satyajit Ray. London; Oxford University Press.

David Ansen (July 20, 1981). The Eyes of Satyajit Ray. Newsweek.

Christian Braad Thomsen (1982). Ray's New Trilogy: An Interview with Satyajit Ray. Sight & Sound (Autumn, 1982). Vol. 51 #4. p. 31-33.

Satyajit Ray (1976). Our Films, Their Films. Bombay; Orient Longmans Ltd.

American Film Institute (1979). Satyajit Ray. Washington DC.; AFI.

F.Rangoonwala (1980). Satyajit Ray's Art. Delhi; Clarion.

Robin Wood. Ray and the Western Audience. Introduction to The Apu Trilogy. New York; Praeger.

Derek Malcolm (1982). Satyajit Ray. Sight & Sound (Spring, 1982) Vol. 51, #2. p. 106-109.

Michel Mardore (1981). Preserving a Vanishing Culture. Nouvel Observatoire.

Ashis Nandy (1995). The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and retrievable Selves. Princeton University Press.

Published February 15, 2005

Illustrated by: Amitabha Sen

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