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Indian Filmmaker Perfects a Delicate Balancing Act : Movies: Sandip Ray, son of India's foremost director, Satyajit Ray, oversees his late father's legacy while moving ahead in his own film career.

October 02, 1995|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a great deal of the late Satyajit Ray, India's foremost filmmaker, in his son Sandip: wit, charm, good looks, impeccable manners. But there's also a more important quality: the clear sense you have that he's his own man.

For more than 10 years, Sandip Ray, 41, has been a successful director, and Filmhaus will release "The Broken Journey," his third theatrical feature--and the first to receive U.S. distribution--Wednesday at the Monica 4-Plex.

Satyajit Ray received international acclaim with his first film, "Pather Panchali" (1955). It became the first installment of his epic-scale Apu Trilogy, which traces a rural youth's life to adulthood in the big city.

A package of nine of Satyajit Ray's early films was screened with great success earlier this year in New York and Los Angeles, prompting Sony Pictures Classics to expand the series to other key cities.

The public's appetite for his father's work has pleased Sandip Ray. "I'm really surprised after all these years that people haven't lost interest," he said recently by phone from Santa Cruz. "There's been tremendous media coverage. It's a great feeling."

Sandip Ray has been caught up in a balancing act, overseeing his father's legacy while moving forward with his own career ever since Satyajit Ray's death at 70 from heart disease, shortly after receiving a 1992 honorary Oscar.

He came to Los Angeles in 1994 with his wife, mother and then-3 1/2-year-old son, Souradip, following the San Francisco International Film Festival screenings of "The Broken Journey," a story of a society doctor who becomes concerned over the inaccessibility of modern medicine to the poor. It played three times to packed, enthusiastic houses.

On the same trip, Ray attended conferences at UC Santa Cruz, which is involved in an international project to restore some of his father's films.

"He's a tough act to follow," Sandip Ray acknowledged wryly at the time in an interview during a brief stopover in Los Angeles. "But I make films because that's what I love to do. I was on movie sets from the day I was born, and I've always loved the technicalities of filmmaking. When I joined my father's crew, I began as a stills photographer, then became his assistant director, and finally his camera operator."

Recently, he returned to the United States for an Indian cultural gathering where he presented "The Broken Journey," on a return trip to Santa Cruz.

"I've just completed a film, which should be released in India in November or December and, hopefully, here early next year," he said. "It's a Hindi film, and it's called 'Target,' and it deals with untouchables and their exploitation. 'The Broken Journey' is an intimate, somber kind of film, but this film is on a much wider canvas. I won't say it has action, but it is exactly opposite of 'The Broken Journey.'

"It's about a landowner who used to be a great hunter, but now his hands shake due to excessive drinking. So he hires a hunter, who is an untouchable, to hunt for him but friction develops between the two of them."

The fine veteran screen star Om Puri plays the untouchable, and the stage actor Moham Agashe plays his employer. Last year, Puri was seen as a beleaguered professor in Ismail Merchant's "In Custody."

"I really didn't realize his empire was so big," Ray remarked in 1994 about his father's legacy. "My father was an illustrator, he was a best-selling writer in Calcutta, a composer and he edited and wrote for a monthly children's magazine. I must keep that going, but now I'm going to have to start writing for it myself.

"He did all the music for all his films, all the orchestrations, all the arrangements. He knew both Indian and western notations. He did so many things; he worked 16 to 20 hours a day. It's hard to keep track of all he did. It's a difficult task, but you have to do it."

Satyajit Ray was always his own camera operator until his 1984 heart bypass surgery, at which time his son took over for him.

"Whenever he made a film he was fine," Sandip Ray said. "The doctors said it was his best medicine." His father slowed down but never retired, and before "Agantuk," he completed, following his heart surgery, two other films: in 1984 a screen adaptation of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," and in 1990 a drama of family relationships, "Branches of the Tree," a Franco-Indian co-production starring Gerard Depardieu. Both have yet to receive an American release.

"I started making my own films in 1981-82," Sandip Ray said. "My father used to write two scripts a year, one for himself and one for me. I didn't complain: He was the best screenwriter in the business. If any of my films were good, it was said that that was because my father had written it; I would feel glad and depressed at the same time! You just have to take all that in stride.

" 'The Broken Journey' was to be for him, not for me. He started writing it in December of 1991, and he finished the first draft within 10 or 12 days and was quite happy with it. He had just started making a few changes in January of 1992 when he went to the hospital; he never came back. It was a beautiful script, but after his death in April of 1992 I was in a dilemma as to whether to do it or not. I felt slightly apprehensive but later decided I had to do it."

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