Satyajit Ray, the Humanist Poet

A giant from world cinema's golden age, Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) personified the era's belief in films [...]

A giant from world cinema's golden age, Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) personified the era's belief in films as a universal medium capable of transcending cultural barriers to express the shared human experience. Ray's humanism was premised upon faith in the individual, struggling with one’s conscience to steer an ethical course between tradition and modernity in difficult times and a changing society: however subjected to doubt, this belief yielded an affirmatory vision that embraces life even as it acknowledges obstacles in its path.

While synonymous with Indian cinema for some, Ray's efforts represented the attempts by Bengali filmmakers like Mrinal Sen or Ritwik Ghatak to produce independent realist dramas known as "parallel cinema" in a country whose movie industry was dominated by commercial, Hindi-language Bollywood musicals. Indeed, Ray was only inspired to make films after encountering Jean Renoir during the production of The River (1951) and seeing Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948).

Italian neorealism hugely impacted Ray: the observational style, use of non-professionals, and documentary-like, on-location photography all made their way into his cinema, now painstakingly restored to recreate the near-tactile photographic textures possible on celluloid that are a part of his visual poetry.

In a newly independent India, Ray's subject was nothing less than his nation’s development or modernisation: journeys from rural villages to urban centres, women's emancipation, changes in social status or structure, as seen through individuals' lives. True to his Bengali roots and family background, Ray excelled especially in literary adaptations of authors like Tagore or Banerjee. Although he continued making films and received an Honorary Academy Award for his lifetime achievement shortly before his death in his beloved Calcutta, his artistic peak belongs to the ’50s and ’60s: an eloquent humanism that remains a distant beacon for our uncertain, postmodern present.

Cinema Heritage: From The Film Foundation

Emir Kusturica, the Magical Surrealist

Once upon a time there was a country... Yugoslavia was forever lost in the wars. Yet, [...]

Once upon a time there was a country... Yugoslavia was forever lost in the wars. Yet, in the magical surrealist cinema of Emir Kusturica, its history and people are eternally enshrined.

Born in 1954, Kusturica grew up an only child in a secular Muslim family in Sarajevo. His artistic genius for black satirical comedy was fully recognised by the time he was 40, garnering most of the major awards the film world has to offer with his directorial debut Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981), and hits like When Father was Away on Business (1985) and Time of the Gypsies (1988), which are celebrated for their Balkanist farce marked by slapstick and subversive cynicism. Underground (1995), his famously inflammatory take on Yugoslav history remains his crowning achievement, making him one of the few auteurs to have won the Palme d’Or twice. Yet, baffled by the embittered battles with his fellow Bosnian and Serbian countrymen, he once announced to quit filmmaking, and later disconnected himself, never setting foot in Sarajevo again.

Defined by their intoxicating passion and chaotic craze, his films often feature characters on the margins: diehard communist, amoral outlaws and even stuttering zookeeper. No matter how brutal and dire the circumstances they are in, these adamant humans are charged with frenzied, raucous energy to face the unimaginable with joy, hope and lunacy, animated by screwball antics and above all, rapturous music featuring the No Smoking Orchestra, his gypsy-punkrock band. Whimsical turkeys, levitating fish and flocks of geese tromp around everywhere in the scenes of bombing attacks, pillow talks, wedding and funerals alike, playing their roles as in Orwellian parables for a world in disarray.

Kicking politics aside, Kusturica shifts from a controversial satirist to a surrealist romantic, conjuring up hilarious and sentimental dreams for star-crossed lovers in Arizona Dream (1993) and Black Cat, White Cat (1998). Building a village out of nothing for Life is a Miracle (2004), the cultural saviour reimagines his lost city – a land of films and music that will never vanish on the atlas of art.