Satyajit Ray, Madhabi Mukherjee, and a Trilogy of Spaces of Female Identities



This week, the Criterion Collection releases three films on DVD and BRD by the famed Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992): The Big City/Mahanagar (1963), Charulata (1964), and The Coward/Kapurush (1965). These three films represent the brief cinematic collaboration between Ray, one of the ultimate examples of a visionary auteur, and actress Madhabi Mukherjee (1942- ), one of the most gifted stars to embody a certain type of woman in Ray’s cinema.

Certainly when discussing auteur-star collaborations with regards to Ray, the actor that most comes to mind is the brilliant Soumitra Chatterjee. The pair made more than a dozen films that are peppered throughout each person’s film career, beginning in the late 1950s and lasting for the next several decades. (In fact, Chatterjee debuted as an actor in Ray’s The World of Apu/Apur sansar [1959]). Chatterjee has often been touted as Ray’s onscreen alter ego, and together they constitute one of cinema’s undeniably magnetic male auteur-star pairings, alongside the likes of Kurosawa Akira/Mifune Toshiro, Federico Fellini/Marcello Mastroianni, Ozu Yasujiro/Ryu Chishu, Luis Buñuel/Fernando Rey, and more recently, Aki Kaurismäki/Matti Pellonpää and Wong Kar-wai/Tony Leung Chiu-wai.

But alongside Chatterjee, Ray worked with several actresses in particular during his first decade of filmmaking (1955-1965) that resulted in six features: Sharmila Tagore, Alaknanda Roy, and Madhabi Mukherjee. These films constitute equally important and memorable auteur-star collaborations. Moreover, they constitute a body of work that explicitly explores young female identities that remains unparalleled within Ray’s oeuvre.

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