Upcoming TIFF Cinematheque:  Curator Meenakshi Shedde Celebrates Satyajit’s Mesmerising InspiRAYtion!

As part of an exciting summer lineup, TIFF Cinematheque is celebrating the birth centenary of legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) from August 4-27 (a year late, due to the pandemic) with 10 films exploring life and struggle in post-independence India, including Charulata (The Lonely Wife) and Nayak (The Hero), along with films from Ray’s parallel cinema contemporaries, like Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari and a free screening of Aparna Sen’s Mr. and Mrs. Iyer [August 6th]. Ray directed 37 works between the 1950s and early 1990s, including fiction, documentaries, and shorts, mainly in Bengali.

A leader of India’s Parallel Cinema movement, he questioned the nation’s post-independence legacy, including poverty, patriarchy, and corruption — yet his films remained deeply humanist, and usually hopeful. Satyajit Ray, His Contemporaries and Legacy is curated by independent programmer Meenakshi Shedde.      

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate, Berlin Film Festival, pre-selecting their films since 1998, and independent film curator, based in Mumbai. Winner of India’s National Film Award for Best Film Critic, she has been on the jury of 20 international film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin and Venice.

As international Curator/Programmer/Consultant, she has worked with the Berlin Film Festival, TIFF Cinematheque-Toronto, Locarno, Busan, Dubai Film Festivals; British Film Institute (BFI), Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA, Australia) and Kochi Muziris Biennale (India).  She has been Script Mentor/Consultant since 15 years on Script Labs worldwide and is on the selection committees of top script and film funds in the US, Europe and Asia. These include the Sundance Institute Screenwriters’ Labs-India, Locarno Film Festival-Open Doors, Rotterdam Film Festival’s Hubert Bals Fund, Asia Pacific Screen Lab, Australia, National Film Development Corp (NFDC, India) and Sultana’s Dream: Breaking the Silence, an all-women film lab addressing sexual abuse, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A senior journalist, she freelances for Variety, Screen International, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du Cinema and Times of India; is a columnist with Sunday Midday and has written for/edited 21 books, mainly on cinema.

In an exclusive interview with Usha Pudukkotai, Meenakshi Shedde shares her excitement, passion, and insights about the centenary celebration of the legendary film maker Satyajit Ray at TIFF Cinematheque.

Usha: Could you please tell us about this project and your role in the program?

Meenakshi:  I’m extremely excited and very, very honored to curate the ‘Satyajit Ray, His Contemporaries, and Legacy’ retrospective for the Toronto International Film Festival’s TIFF Cinematheque. It’s actually a kind of a high point in my career because to curate Ray is really special. Of course, we wanted to honour Satyajit Ray because it’s a centenary year celebration, due to the pandemic.

Curating is a tricky game because you always start with a dream list of the films that you’d like to show, but finally you are limited by the films that you can actually get in time or are available or in decent print condition, etc. So I got a brief, and suggested a number of films, then followed a big adventure to try and get those films. I am very proud we got some 35mm prints, brand new restored prints, from the Academy Film Archive, including Charulata and Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players), and a brand new 4K digital restored version of Debi, as well as a restored digital version of AJ Kardar’s Jago Hua Savera (Day Shall Dawn). No doubt, it’s a very exciting and diverse programme, and definitely appealing to the younger generation, as well as older generations.

First, a few acknowledgements. I’d like to thank Cameron Bailey, the CEO of TIFF, for giving me this curating opportunity. I’m very honoured, and this is the fourth time I’m collaborating with TIFF Cinematheque as Curator or Consultant over 11 years.

I would also like to credit my colleagues at TIFF, including Jessica Smith, Manager, TIFF Cinematheque, and Andrea Picard, Senior Curator, who gave me a wonderful brief and inputs, with additional inputs from Ishany Bhattacharya, Coordinator, TIFF Cinematheque Programming. I could not have done the Ray retrospective without their solid support.

Usha: Do you believe that a ‘Ray’ influence would inspire youngsters who were not exposed to his artwork in their formative years?

Meenakshi:  Ray can influence you at any age that you see his work. I specially wanted our programme to talk to the younger generation, because I find a lot of the youngsters in India and very likely in Toronto as well as the rest of the world have heard the name of Satyajit Ray, but they’ve not actually seen a single film of his.

So, the 10 films include four films by Satyajit Ray, four films by his contemporaries and two films by relatively younger generation directors. Charulata is one of his most exquisite. It’s very hard to choose a favorite Ray film, but Charulata (The Lonely Wife) is Ray’s own personal favorite. It’s about a married woman snuffing out her literary talent to save her affair. There is ‘Devi’ (The Goddess), with Sharmila Tagore, in which a feudal patriarch dreams that his beautiful daughter law has turned into the goddess incarnate, which really makes it very suffocating for her.

Then there’s ‘Nayak’, which is about a matinee idol’s insecurities. And it’s very, very charming, and funny, for me to see a great and independent artist as Ray, trying to negotiate the mainstream on his own terms. So, with ‘Nayak,’ he tried to have more of a mainstream appeal by having these absolute top box office stars, Uttam Kumar, who was the reigning matinee idol for decades in Bengal, and Sharmila Tagore, whom he discovered as a young actress really in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), and who later became a very big Bollywood star by the time he cast her in Nayak. This was Ray’s way of appealing to the mainstream public without at all compromising what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.

We also have Anik Dutta’s Aparajito ‘The Undefeated’ which is a very charming primer on how Satyajit Ray made his first film. It’s a brand-new film made in 2022, but it’s shot in classy black and white, and shot in the same way that Ray would have shot Pather Panchali, with very minimalist technology at his command. It’s not made in the glitzy boom, boom, bang manner of 2022. It’s a wonderful introduction, including for those who have never seen Ray’s films, to enter his large body of work, and a nostalgic treat for his older fans.

You know, a lot of 16 or 21-year-olds would have heard of Ray, but they won’t have seen his films. And that’s not their fault at all. It’s our fault if we don’t give them the chance to see his films and the tools to appreciate them as well.

Usha: Do you plan to take this project to other film festivals as well?

Meenakshi: No, this is a project specifically commissioned by the TIFF Cinematheque, and as of now it is only for them. I’m a freelance curator and programmer and have worked with festivals all over the world. But this is specifically for TIFF Cinematheque’s audiences. However, I won’t be surprised if TIFF gets requests by other festivals or museums to show the retrospective. Because this is the fourth time, I’ve been Curator/Consultant to the TIFF Cinematheque over the last 11 years. I was Consultant to ‘Raj Kapoor and the Golden Age of Indian Cinema’ (curated by Noah Cowan, 2011); Curator for ‘Indian Expressionism’ that explored the influence of German Expressionism on Indian cinema over half a century (2012); Consultant on Musicals! The Movies that Moved Us (curated by Cameron Bailey, TIFF CEO, 2021-2022), and Curator for the current Satyajit Ray, His Contemporaries and Legacy (2022).

I was Consultant for a major, fantastic Raj Kapoor Retrospective, that was so insanely popular after we opened at TIFF Cinematheque, that it traveled all over the world, including to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA-New York), the SmithsonianAmerican Film Institute (AFI), Harvard Film Archive and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; British Film Institute- BFI, LondonAustralian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne. TIFF Cinematheque also generously gave funding to restore a number of Raj Kapoor prints, believing that it’s part of a larger world cinema heritage to which they contribute, nourish and nurture. And it was very humbling for me to be part of that. So, it’s very possible the Ray retrospective may travel, but as of now, I’m not aware of anything beyond this is specifically for the pleasure and joy of TIFF Cinematheque audiences in Toronto.

Usha: Wonderful. One last question. Do you have any message for our readers and audiences here?

Meenakshi: Well, I would say don’t miss this package of films. It’s a very, very, very rare chance to see these films, especially some on 35mm prints. Also, the reason the retrospective is special is because it’s very hard to assemble a diverse package like this, which is from different eras.  So, this one package of ten films spans 64 years of cinematic history of the Indian subcontinent. Apart from the Indian films, we have AJ Kardar’s Jago Hua Savera (Day Shall Dawn, 1959) a remarkable collaboration between West Pakistan, East Pakistan (it became Bangladesh only in 1971), and India. It’s a rich package. We have three restored films on 35mm prints—two from the Academy Film Archive (Charulata and Shatranj ke Khilari); Mr and Mrs Iyer is a 35mm print from the Directorate of Film Festivals/National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), and Devi is in a superb 4K digital restoration from Janus Films. Such 35mm prints are near-impossible to see in India, for example. I’m just pointing out the privilege that Toronto audiences have, because all films in India are only shown digitally, now because 35mm projectors have been phased out.

I’ll be in Toronto from 4th to 10th August, personally introducing some of the films, giving you insights as to why these films are special. See you all there!

For tickets and further details, please visit https://tiff.net/

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