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Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

A monthlong retrospective, ``Out of India: The Films of Satyajit Ray,'' begins tonight at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

At a time when India's popular Bollywood cinema is pushing its way into Western consciousness with the recent Oscar nomination of ``Lagaan,'' the box-office success of Mira Nair's hybrid ``Monsoon Wedding'' and the distinct Bollywood influence on the musical ``Moulin Rouge,'' this is an excellent opportunity to acquaint yourself with the subcontinent's greatest serious filmmaker.

From the mid-1950s until his death in 1992, Ray chronicled the Bengali experience in the most down-to-earth, humanistic manner. Many of Ray's 30-odd movies are about the impact of new ways of life on one of the world's most tradition-bound societies. His own background and career was representative of that conflict.

The son and grandson of well-known writers, Ray broke the formulaic mold of Indian cinema with his first feature, the 1955 ``Pather Panchali.'' This simple, detailed account of the village boy Apu's life did not have any musical production numbers (although it did boast a Ravi Shankar score). This was unheard of in the fantasy-oriented, commercial Indian film industry. And although the world's largest national cinema's output is still overwhelmingly escapist, Ray nonetheless inspired a more realistic Indian film movement that has flourished for nearly half a century.

``Pather's'' compelling, open-minded honesty made it the first Indian film to draw a worldwide audience - it won a Best Human Document citation at the Cannes Film Festival - and the first in the minority Bengali language to gain wide recognition throughout the subcontinent.

Ray went on to make two more films in what came to be called the Apu Trilogy: ``Aparajito'' (1956), in which the adolescent grows away from his widowed mother and the narrow horizons of rural life, and ``The World of Apu'' (1959), wherein the sophisticated, urbanized young man learns to find love in an arranged marriage, then a hard-won personal transcendence after tragedy strikes.

The lyrically mounted Apu Trilogy is generally considered Ray's crowning achievement. But images from many of his other films remain indelibly embedded in the minds and hearts of all who see them.

There's the destitute nobleman in his flooded, crumbling mansion, surrounded by the residue of the great celebration he blew his last rupees on in ``The Music Room'' (1958). And the enthroned, unconvinced and appalled young heroine of ``Devi'' (1960), who, out of deference to her fanatical father-in-law, allows herself to be worshipped as a reincarnated goddess. And the neglected wife in ``Charulata'' (1964), a kind of Hindu cross between Madame Bovary and ``A Doll's House's'' Nora Helmer, peering out through the barlike, slatted blinds of her prison/home's windows.

As he got older, Ray's work became increasingly political. ``The Chess Players'' (1977), which opens the series at 7:30 tonight, takes an astringent, comic look at Britain's Victorian-era annexation of the last free Indian state, utilizing the obliviousness of two lay-about chess enthusiasts as a pungent metaphor.

Although he examined his culture better than any other filmmaker, Ray was also playfully versatile. He made children's fantasies and Sherlockian mysteries such as ``The Golden Fortress'' (1974). On top of that, Ray wrote the scripts and composed the music for most of his films.

The vast majority of Ray's works achieve the near impossible. They transmit Indian life to the world on a universally accessible wavelength without ever compromising the specific, complex beauty of that ancient culture in the process.

For program information for the Ray retrospective, call (323) 857-6010.




Subir Bannerjee is Apu in Satyajit Ray's ``Pather Panchali'' (1955), part of a LACMA series.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 28, 2002

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