in the late 1950s, the indian filmmaker satyajit ray adapted a popular bengali novel into a series of three movies, known as the apu trilogy. the result was one of the harshest and most beautiful coming-of-age stories ever filmed, a remarkable synthesis of realism and fable, agony and uplift. ray's patient attention to domestic routines, animals, religious rites and emotions immersed viewers in the mood and physicality of indian life, from a remote bengali village to the cafés of calcutta.
now, for the first time in many years, new york filmgoers will have the chance to see the full trilogy on a big screen. over the next two weeks, walter reade theater hosts "first light: satyajit ray from the apu trilogy to the calcutta trilogy," a series that includes all of ray's early works.
before ray, indian movies generally depicted fantastical legends and myths. they were filled with bombastic and notoriously distracting musical numbers. although ray appreciated bollywood's charm, he believed that a "drastic simplification" in style was called for. inspired by european realism, he hoped his own films would achieve an "economy of expression," while reflecting the tense and knotty social realities of contemporary india.
for years, ray's movies received little recognition in his home country, although they were embraced by foreign markets. yet he did his best to cultivate enthusiasm in the subcontinent, importing all the trappings of euro-american film culture: its magazines, societies and festivals. he wrote extensively-and beautifully-about foreign directors and his own work.
throughout his career, ray continued to make first-rate literary adaptations, based on both eastern and western sources. he also wrote original screenplays, including the wonderfully complex kanchenjungha, which will be shown at walter reade on april 20 and 21 and is not available on dvd.
kanchenjungha, released in 1962, is an ensemble piece, with intertwined storylines, high-minded dialogue and a heavenly pastoral setting; for his first color film, ray shot on location in the himalayas. it depicts an upper-class family who speak a fluent blend of bengali and british english. the family patriarch wants his beautiful young daughter monisha to wed a wealthy professional, but other family members question the wisdom of arranged marriage.
ray has a lot of sympathy for manisha, who faces her dilemma with a combination of passion and cold politeness. she's an unusually complicated female character for the period-not only in india, but in all of world cinema.
on the other hand, kanchenjungha doesn't necessarily defend progress over tradition. throughout the film, we watch a hip, westernized young man as he tries to pick up women at the resort. he is predatory and disingenuous; ray shows that while arranged marriages may be oppressive, modern dating can be downright sleazy.
ray's uniquely nuanced portrayal of women and love reaches another peak with charluata (the lonely wife) (april 17, 18 and 20). this 1964 movie, about an unhappy middle-class marriage, includes the unforgettable image of a woman beating her lover over the head with a copy of her published writing.
the lonely wife is a study in restrained but stirring eroticism. we don't know whether the lovers actually commit adultery, but we observe-and feel-the woman's intense longing for emotional and physical connection. it's a sad expression of the frustrations of adulthood, from a director whose first films captured the spirit of youth.
"first light" will include these and other ray films, up to his dingy calcutta trilogy (april 27-29). a related conference on ray will be held at columbia university on april 25. -- first light: satyajit ray from the apu trilogy to the calcutta trilogy april 15 to 30 walter reade theater lincoln center 70 w. 63rd st. www.filmlinc.com