“If I were forced to pick only one work by Ray to show to someone unfamiliar with him, it would have to be Three Daughters,” wrote Andrew Robinson in his biography of the master Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray (Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye).
Three Daughters, or Teen Kanya in its original Bengali, was released in India in 1961, with a shortened version opening in the United States two years later. It is an anthology film, comprised of three roughly one-hour films that are unrelated to each other in plot and character but connected by the fact that all are drawn from the short stories of Indian author and poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Inspired to pay tribute to Tagore in the year of his centenary (1961), Ray chose three stories that differ in tone but each center on a girl or young woman experiencing a significant moment in her life. The richness of all the characters, as well as the typically immersive atmosphere, sense of place, and deceptively simple visual storytelling that Ray brings to the screen, resulted, Ray later said, in “nearly as much work as three full length features.”
The first segment, The Postmaster, is regarded as one of the finest films of Ray’s career – “humanist cinema of the highest sort,” according to Andrew Robinson. A poignant drama of unrequited love, it follows a well-bred man from Calcutta named Nandal (Anil Chattopadhyay) who is stationed in a forlorn, impoverished village as its postman. Continually bored, he starts teaching his servant girl, a waif named Ratan (Chandana Banerjee), to read and write, and her feelings for him begin to grow. His blindness to those feelings leads to a wrenching conclusion. Tagore had been inspired by a postmaster he knew in East Bengal when he wrote this delicate duet of a story in 1891. For the screenplay, Ray added a charming village madman character as well as elders who attempt to entertain the postmaster with a night of music. To cast those colorful elders, Ray found local villagers from Boral, including some who had appeared in his earlier Apu film trilogy. To play the young girl, Ratan, Ray plucked Chandana Banerjee from a dancing school. “She turned out to be an absolutely fantastic actress,” he said. “Ready, no tension at all, and intelligent and observant and obedient – perfect to work with.” Ray had a soundtrack in mind for this film, but scrapped it when he heard two East Bengal refugees play their dotara and sarinda, which he decided to use instead.
The second segment, The Lost Jewels (Monihara) is a ghost story, a supernatural fable of a woman (Gobina Chakrabarti) obsessed with her jewelry. She continually nags her husband to buy more, which he does in the hopes of gaining her love; but it is the jewelry she loves. Set primarily in a large studio-built palace filled with Victorian furniture and bric-a-brac, Ray’s talent for atmosphere builds a strong psychological effect of mystery and tension. This segment was originally missing from prints outside India because the subtitling was unable to be finished in time for release. Consequently, the overall movie was known as Two Daughters in most international territories and reference books for decades to follow.
The third segment, The Conclusion (Samapti), is a romantic comedy bordering on farce, about a college graduate (Soumitra Chatterjee) whose mother wants him to marry a respectable but dull woman instead of the wilder, rebellious girl (Aparna Sen) who has captured his attention. The graduate is played by Soumitra Chatterjee, who had made his debut in Ray’s The World of Apu (1959). Chatterjee would go on to become one of India’s most acclaimed film stars, amassing over 300 credits before his death at age 85, in November 2020, from COVID-19. Of Satyajit Ray, with whom he worked numerous times, Chatterjee said, “I could see his artistic vision right before my eyes. It was a vast, universal vision. He had an ability to understand all of life.”
The finished international version of the film was received rapturously in America, particularly by The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther, who wrote: “Another exquisite motion picture embracing the timeless flow of life in India has rolled from the eloquent camera of the protean Satyajit Ray, and in every respect it tinkles echoes of his classic ‘Apu’ trilogy... [It] penetrates the surface of Indian culture to touch the universal heart of man... Expressive and touching beyond words. It says almost all that can be managed about the loneliness of the human heart.”
When Satyajit Ray was chosen to receive an honorary Academy Award in 1992, the Academy, seeking film clips, learned that many of his films had badly deteriorated. A years-long restoration and preservation effort began. In 1996, the film’s original international version, consisting of the first and third segments, was restored through a collaboration of the Academy Film Archive, the Merchant-Ivory Foundation, and the Film Foundation. In 2007, the remaining segment, Monihara, was restored as well, by the Academy Film Archive and the Arsenal Film Institute in Berlin.