The raging storm that signals the arrival of Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), the bohemian object of desire in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964), more or less approximates the blindsiding experience of first exposure to this maestro of cinema. Ray’s place in film history has been assured since 1992 when he accepted an honorary Oscar via satellite from his deathbed, though there was plenty of canonical to-do when this former designer of tea-biscuit wrappers and book jackets debuted with his 1955 film adaptation of the Bengali novel Pather Panchali. The Film Society of Lincoln Center series “First Light” allows the uninitiated to fill in a crucial cinephilic gap, as it includes everything the writer-composer-director made from 1955 to 1970, as well as his early- to mid-’70s “Calcutta Trilogy.”
The Music Room (1958) is a must-see; a penetrating study of blustery, music-obsessed zamindar Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas). He’s one of Ray’s most memorable creations, so intent on maintaining a luxuriant status that he drives himself to ruin, madness and death.
Devi (1960), however, comes off as lesser Ray. Reuniting most of the cast from the filmmaker’s justifiably celebrated Apu trilogy—Pather Panchali, Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959)—it’s an enervating period tale of a young woman (Sharmila Tagore) believed to be an incarnation of the goddess Kali. Devi is mostly of interest for its nod, in the opening moments, to World’s child-held-aloft finale, as if implying an end-is-the-beginning continuum between projects.
The chameleonlike Chatterjee is Ray’s recurrent muse, as adept at breaking the heart in World (in which he plays a beleaguered novelist) as he is at being unapologetically repellent in The Expedition (1962) (in which he stars as a brash cab driver turned drug mule). Until its slightly too-crowd-pleasing ending, the latter film has the texture of a great novel, with a particularly memorable piece of character revelation set against a pair of stones called “Uncle” and “Nephew,” which are viewed as metaphorical representations of the burden of sin.
Chatterjee also figures in Charulata, a slow-burn parable of decay in which the marriage between Madhabi Mukherjee’s mostly housebound title character and Shailen Mukherjee’s newspaper-publisher husband is poisoned by the wife’s unrequited romantic feelings for her brother-in-law. Its final sequence is a high point in Ray’s cinema, the film freezing just before the moment of resolution, its protagonists perched on an emotionally unresolved precipice. Movement ceases, and the image degrades as if becoming a dust-covered snapshot of a lost moment in time. All we’re left with is pictures.
“First Light” runs Wed 15--Apr 30 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center..