At the same time that Ray was dying, the original prints of his films were dying, too -- from neglect and attrition, after decades of being stored in buildings open to India's hot climate. Because so few good copies of Ray's films existed in 1992, the Academy had trouble finding bona fide clips to show during the Oscar telecast. Basu and film restorer David Shepard conducted a fact-finding trip to see for themselves how Ray's films were holding up in India.
"The negatives of his early films were in tatters," Basu says. "Shepard said, 'Unless something is done quickly, future generations will not see Satyajit Ray's films anymore.' It was due to benign neglect on the part of Ray's producers."
Eighteen of Ray's movies have now been completely restored, and Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive is presenting a new seven-month retrospective, The Brilliance of Satyajit Ray, that continues through August 31, 2014. The screenings are a chance to see Ray's films as they were meant to be seen: In a theater, with crisp frames, with other audience members who take in Ray's indelible arc of scenes and storylines. Ray's films, the best-known of which form the "Apu Trilogy," showcase the lives of people who experience big gains or losses from small and profound moments. A taxi driver loses his wife and his cherished car, then tries desperately to earn money and recoup his dignity (Abhijan). A young boy and his sister grow up on the poor grounds of their family's compound as their parents try to make a better life for them (Pather Panchali [Song of the Little Road], the first of the Apu Trilogy, from 1955). Members of India's ruling nobility immerse themselves in chess as British colonialists take over even more of India (Shatranj Ke Khilari [The Chess Players] , from 1977).
With their slow pacing and precise settings, Ray's films have an intimacy that is striking -- the result of his unique influences, which range from the literature of the Indian subcontinent (including Rabindranath Tagore) to old Hollywood films (including those of Billy Wilder). Ray didn't romanticized India. But there is unmistakable beauty in his work -- what some people would call a poetic universalism. It's why Ray's films seem so timeless, and why it was so important for Basu to take on the role as director of Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at UC Santa Cruz.
Basu, who grew up in Calcutta and is Bengali like Ray, earned his masters' degree from Harvard and his doctorate from UC Berkeley before becoming a professor at UC Santa Cruz, where he specializes in the histories of South Asia and Southeast Asia. He's the founding trustee of the Ray Society in Calcutta, and in the last years of Ray's life, Basu was arranging for Ray to speak at UC Santa Cruz at a Regents' Lecture. Ray's frail health prevented him from flying to California. After his death, Ray's widow, Bijoya Ray, helped give the go-ahead to establish the center in Santa Cruz.
The Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center now oversees the world's most extensive archive of Ray's work. Of Ray's 37 films, the center has 32 in 35 millimeter, which it lends out to festivals abroad and across the United States. Basu is working to establish an endowment that would keep the center at full strength for many years. He's done a lot of work pro bono, as when he provided the new English subtitles for the restored prints of Ray's films. Keeping costs low was Ray's mandate, too.
Ray (whose last name is pronounced like "rye") did nearly everything for his films, including casting, screenwriting, storyboarding, editing, and (for films after 1961), musical scoring. He designed the posters for his movies. And he designed publicity materials, too.
"All his films were made with very modest budgets, something like $20,000," Basu says. "His most expensive film, The Chess Players), cost $250,000. One reason his costs were down was that he pretty much did everything in his films. I asked him, 'Why did you do all the work?' And he said, 'First of all, I wanted to save the producers money. And I wasn't sure whether the films would fly at the box office. And secondly, I loved doing the work.' It's incredible he could make his films with such small budgets."
Before becoming a filmmaker, Ray made his living as a graphic designer, and even as he directed movies, he continued to make books. He had to, in order to thrive financially. In its archives, the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center has a wide collection of Ray's book designs.
"He made little or no money making films, and charged very little for directing films -- his maximum limit was 100,000 rupees, which was less than $2,000 per film," Basu says. "That will not support a family, so he found a new vocation, which started before he became a filmmaker. He designed book jackets; they became very famous and popular. He was trained as an artist. He designed some 500 book jackets; he made his living doing that kind of work."
This facet of Ray's life gets lost to the cinematic focus, which is not surprising since Ray is India's greatest director -- one of the country's few early filmmakers to establish a reputation on every continent. The best film festivals in Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Tokyo, and other cities (including San Francisco) honored Ray's films with their top awards. At the start of Ray's career, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, was a personal advocate of his work. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola remain two of Ray's biggest Hollywood supporters. It's Basu, though, who has become a consistent public face of Ray's continuing screenings. At a Los Angeles celebration last September of Ray's newly restored films, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which funded the restoration) featured Basu and actress Sharmila Tagore, who made her film debut in 1959's Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). Basu is always thrilled to present Ray's work to audiences who are new to the films. Introducing the films at the Pacific Film Archive, and getting feedback from audiences, keeps alive not just Ray's legacy but everyone who was inspired by the idea of a center to promote Ray's work. Audrey Hepburn was among them.
"She did a beautiful job" at the 1992 telecast, Basu says. "After that, she said, 'I want to speak with you on the phone in Santa Cruz. We talked for an hour. She said, 'You should establish a Satyajit Ray society in Calcutta and also at your university in Santa Cruz, and coordinate the restoration and preservation work of Ray's films. I have spoken to the president of the Academy, and he has agreed to undertake this as an academic project.' She said, 'You may have to help the Academy to raise some funds.' And then she said, 'The entire project needs a coordinator who knows the producers, knows the family in Calcutta, and who is also here, and also has a passion for Ray's films, and that person is you.' And I protested and said, 'I may have the passion, but I don't know anything about film restoration.' And she said, 'You don't really have to. You just have to coordinate the activity.' And if you don't do it, no one else will do it.' And she proved to be right."
Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive is holding a seven-month retrospective, The Brilliance of Satyajit Ray, that continues through August 31, 2014. The next screening on Sunday, February 23, is of Ray's 1962 film Abhijan (The Expedition), which UC Santa Cruz professor Dilip Basu will introduce. For tickets and more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.