September 3, 2015

Interview: Satyajit Ray

Source :

This interview with Satyajit Ray was tape-recorded by Blue as preparation for his book on the directing of the non-actor in film. This special research has been sponsored by the Ford Foundation. Blue, at the time of the interview, was visiting India while directing A Few Notes on Our Food Problem, a color, 35mm, 40-minute U.S. Information Agency film on the world food and population problem, shot by Stevan Larner. Sailen Dutt, assistant to Ray on most of his films, assisted with the recording. Ray was at work then on a film that he described as a commercial “adventure story with big name stars.” Blue describes Ray as “a tall man, over six-feet-one, enormous for an Indian, whose deep and resonant voice surprises more than his height, because of his ability to manage—as a patrician might—the niceties of English speech.”

Earlier Blue interview-articles on the directing of the non-actor, exclusive to FILM COMMENT, have dealt with Jean Rouch, Peter Watkins, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Richard Leacock, and the Maysles brothers.

SATYAJIT RAYI have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film. I know what it's going to look like when cut. I'm absolutely sure of that, and so I don't cover the scene from every possible angle—close, medium, long. There's hardly anything left on the cutting-room floor after the cutting. It's all cut in the camera.
For example, the mother-daughter fight scene in Pather Panchali—that was all in my head and I merely told my editor to join this strip, now that, now this…. And the strong scene where Durga dies—lots of shots there and the editor just didn't know what he was doing. I had all the strips in my hand and then I popped them one after the other, now a bit of this, a bit of that. The editor just came in to help, you see, because we had to catch a deadline.

I understand that in many of your films you have been at the camera yourself.
Ever since The Big City, which I shot in 1962, 1963, I have been operating the camera. All the shots, everything. It’s wonderful to direct through the Arriflex because that's the only position to tell you where the actors are, in exact relations to each other. Sitting by or standing by is no good for a director.

I find that I am not able to both direct and shoot.
I find it easier, because the actors are not conscious of me watching, because I’m behind the lens. I’m behind the viewer and with a black cloth over my head, so I’m almost not there, you see. I find it easier because they're freer, and particularly if you're using a zoom. I am doing things with the zoom constantly, improvising constantly.

When you work with a cameraman, however, he is always saying—“Let’s have one more take.” I generally say—“Why? Tell me why?” He's never able to specify exactly “why”—he is not sure, you see. Whereas, I am sure. Only the director can know when the technical operation needs to be all-important, you see. Whereas in certain shots maybe it's not the operation that is all-important but it is something else that is really vital. So even if the panning is a little this way [making a jerky movement], it doesn't matter. And the question of re-takes comes up also when you are working with very limited raw stock, you see. It's mainly because of that that I have started operating the camera myself.

Then you operate the camera during the rehearsals also?
Yes, otherwise it’s pointless. Except there is a first rehearsal where I’m not behind the camera, where I’m just watching the whole thing for all the details of acting, you see. And just before the take, if it’s complicated, I have at least two rehearsals when I’m on the camera, to see whether I can actually do it, whether my limbs will permit it, you see. Because sometimes you’re in the most terrible position, lying down or half-reclining, and I take off the panning handle, I grab hold of the other sort of thing that sticks out and I grab hold of the whole camera and turn it like that, on its pivot.

Personally, I think that Subrata Mitra’s camera work is better than Raoul Coutard’s, but Gianni Di Venanzo I admire tremendously. is something extraordinary, I mean the daring things that Di Venanzo does there and pulls off. Largely, of course, it’s the director, too; it can’t be just the cameraman who is devising all that, all those over-exposed shots and everything that comes off.
Sometimes cameramen do this kind of thing for no reason at all, and that I don’t like. I mean, just tricks for tricks sake, which quite a number of these New Wave directors do. I mean Godard does it all the time, hand-held for no reason and you can see it going all the time. A long scene with Belmondo in Une Femme Est Une Femme, sitting in a bar or somewhere, talking, talking, and you have the camera hand-held, and you watch the edge of the screen and can see it wobbling all the time [Laughs]. And you tend to watch that not the action within the frame. You become interested in how well the chap was able to steady his camera.

Well, Godard’s is another style altogether, you see, where you use all kinds of things completely amateurish, completely improvised, and it all sort of hangs together as a kind of collage. Good, bad, indifferent. But that's another category of films, I think.

I haven’t seen any cinéma vérité except for Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous, which he shot in Africa, a rather horrifying film but very impressive, very strong, I must say. And all a single man's effort. It's just one man, Rouch, doing everything. I met Richard Leacock at the Flaherty Seminar in 1958, but I don't know his cinéma vérité work, nor do I know Chris Marker in France.
Although I don’t know cinéma vérité, I can see that it can be very interesting, and valid, in a way. But again, a different category, you see. I think that Frances Flaherty was slightly disappointed in my method of work, because she had thought that in Pather Panchali they were all actual villagers. But it doesn't really matter whom you use, because it's the ultimate effect that counts, you see. In all art it is like that.

I use the Arriflex. Because you can do very small zooms that are not noticeable, you can get your emphasis all the time with a zoom, and it's lovely with that. And sometimes you don’t even notice that. You are not supposed to, most of the time. It’s not zoom-zoom, like that, it’s just a little bit. Sometimes combining with a tracking shot you can zoom in. I love the zoom. I think it's wonderful, particularly now. For example, for a certain insert . . . what you can do is a little zoom.

How do you direct dialogue?
All actors are afraid of pauses because they can’t judge their weight. So with Sharmila Tagore in The World of Apu, I would say—“Well, you stop at this point and then resume when I tell you to resume.” So she would just stop and look at a certain point that had been previously indicated, and then I'd say—“Yes, now go on,” and she would resume. So the pauses would be there as I would need them. Otherwise, actors are terribly afraid of pauses, and it's only the greatest professionals who know the real strength, the power, of pauses. For all non-actors and for inferior professionals, they just can't judge pauses at all. For me, pauses are very important: something happening, waiting for the words, and when the words come you have that weight. So the pauses have to be worked out constantly.
Once he has memorized the line, it’s the hardest thing for an actor to make it sound as if he is thinking and talking rather than just mouthing lines. Sometimes there are certain words that don't come easily. You must have the pause before a certain word. Not everybody is a linguist with a great command of vocabulary, so you have to vary it with actors, and those pauses are very significant. Sometimes you just can’t think of a word so you just hesitate, you see, and somebody else supplies it for you. So my dialogue is written like that, with a very plastic quality, which has its own filmic character, which is not stage dialogue, not literary dialogue. But it’s as lifelike as possible, with all the hems and haws and stuttering and stammering.

But you would not call it natural speech?
No, it’s not naturalistic but let's call it “realistic.” It's not as if it's off a tape recorder, because then you would be wasting precious footage. You have to strike a mean between naturalism and a certain thing which is artistic, which is selective, you see. If you get the right balance, then you have this strange feeling of being lifelike, everything looking very lifelike and natural. But if you were to photograph candidly a domestic scene it wouldn't be art at all. I mean, it could be interesting for certain revelations, but it wouldn’t itself be a work of art—a scene, whatever scene, unless you cut it. That’s being creative, you see. By being selective in your framing, in your cutting, in your choice of words, you are creating something artistic.
I think the cinema is the only medium that challenges you to be naturalistic, be realistic and yet be artistic at the same time. Because in the cutting is the creation, you see.

You shot Pather Panchali in sync sound?
Yes, absolutely, because it would be impossible to dub with a non-actor. Absolute disaster. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work.

How do you dub? Do you use the French system?
No system. We devise our own system. I don't even know what the French system is. Look, I don’t like dubbing because it's too mechanical. I have devised a system of notation—I mean, you have to have a kind of guide-track . . . Sailen Dutt, my assistant, and several others, take notes or a code on the exact scanning of each word. Even if we do have a tape recorder, even if there is a guide-track, you need to do that. I play back and then make my own special notations for it, and then I work it from my notes, you see. Because you have got to have control yourself of how the lines are spoken. So that it sounds right, it conforms to the original speech. You have got to memorize it; you must know your lines.

When you go into the sound studio to dub the final cut, do you try to reproduce exactly what the actor has said in the picture?
Absolutely. But sometimes I try to improve. Most of my dubbing so far has involved, fortunately, professionals who have been able to do it with me. But somehow with Pather Panchali we had usable sound all the way through, more or less. Not much dialogue, and no crowds watching, because even whispering would create an enormous noise that ruins your track.

Yesterday we shot a scene in the village where you made Pather Panchali.
Did you? It’s unrecognizable now. It’s no longer pure. It's spoiled. It was once very nice, indeed, with long areas of no huts, no refugee huts . . . [Note: the Pather Panchali village, like many others in Bengal, now contains refugees from East Pakistan as a result of Partition.]

Were people of that village cooperative when you began that first film of the Apu Trilogy?
Not in the early stage. No, they were fairly hostile people there. But we got to be friendly, and finally—because we were there for two years off and on—we got to be very friendly with them. They really missed us when we left. You can manage only by being polite with them, you see, sitting down and talking. They’re essentially nice people, but suspicious. To them all business has certain rather unpleasant associations. We were completely newcomers, nobody knew us, and today we wouldn't have any trouble, except from people coming to watch.
For example, we have begun shooting our new film in Baraset, and the crowd has been increasing, and for the last two or three days we have had something like two thousand women and children watching. A wall was constructed around the compound, and outside the wall they would stand, looking over. And all the trees were full of people. And some of the branches gave way and a dozen people fell and collapsed, and one was seriously injured. Fortunately, we had a doctor in the cast, among the actors, and he gave first aid and sent them all to the hospital.

We found yesterday on location in your Pather Panchali village that we had almost 150 people around useverybody excited and . . .
Yes, but at the time we made Pather Panchali, there was almost nobody watching. There were some during the first few days, of course, but then they lost interest in the actual work, so we could continue uninterrupted, absolutely. And nobody knew us, everyone was new, we had no stars. But this new film we are making has a big star, and he is the main draw of crowds, I think. But apart from that, nowadays shooting in a city street is almost impossible unless you do it with concealed cameras or dummy cameras or things like that. If you don't use these means, then the shooting becomes too expensive. I shoot on a four-to-one ratio, you see.

Did you make Pather Panchali on a four-to-one ratio?
No, that’s the only film where I had scenes that eventually didn't go into the film. Some scenes were not finished. And then I wasn't sure of my cutting, so some of the stuff had just to be thrown away. The first two or three days work wouldn't cut at all. Then later I sort of disciplined myself. You learn while you work. You learn quite quickly, in fact. We were forced to be economical, as you must when you have a ceiling to everything.

Of course, you have said that during Pather Panchali you did not have crowds disturbing the shooting and causing your actors to freeze upbut still, with so few takes, how did you manage to get relaxed behavior from non-professionals?
Sometimes it’s easier with non-professionals. I have no definite system. I use different methods with different actors. You have to modify your technique all the time. But you have to get to know the person you are working with, know his moods and his abilities and his intelligence. Sometimes I use them as puppets complete, and I do not tell them anything about motivation at all. I just try to get particular effects.
For example, the boy who played Apu in Pather Panchali—he was treated all along as a puppet. Completely. He didn’t know the story, only the vaguest outline. And it is really not a children’s story. It’s an adult thing with all the subtleties, really emotional.

Does this mean that you dictated his gestures?
Absolutely, down to the head movement—“Do this and that.” The first day I had some trouble.
It was a very simple shot of him walking, looking for Durga, his sister, in that field of flowers. Remember that? And that walk was so difficult to get right. So I put little obstacles in his way, which he had to cross, and it became natural immediately. Otherwise, he just walks like that [stiffening his body]. I had to put objects in his path and say—“you cross this piece of straw and then the next one”—not really large obstacles but things he had to be conscious of, to give him a purpose. That's the most difficult thing to do—just walking, looking for somebody. Every turn of his head was dictated—“Now look this way!” I put three assistants at certain points, and A would call the boy and then B would call and then C. So the boy would walk, look, then hear a call, then walk again. It was like that. It’s the only thing to do. At first I didn't work this way, but I immediately felt that something was wrong. So I sat down and thought it out and did it.
I hardly ever do more than three takes. It’s generally two. If the second one is not better than the first, then there’s a third take. I've never taken more than five or six, except for one shot in Pather Panchali involving synchronization with a dog. You see, when the confectioner comes the children run and follow him, and in the same shot you have a dog who is also supposed to run at a certain point. But this is not a trained dog, you see! The dog would be called, but it would just sit there and look up and not do anything. So that took eleven takes. I remember that very well because I had never had eleven takes to a shot.

One professional actor who let us down several times was the man who played the father in Pather Panchali. He was a professional of long standing, and he was muffing lines constantly because he was asked to do certain things along with speaking—combining action with speech—which I use very frequently, which I think is very important, which gives it that relaxed thing, you see. It's both in work and talking.

You find actions to accompany speech constantly?
Yes, unless it is a scene that demands absolutely no action at all. In the second film of the Apu Trilogy, Aparajito, there is a scene towards the end where the mother is dead and the boy sits and cries on the little verandah, and there's the old uncle smoking the hookah, and he sort of consoles Apu by saying—“You know, man is not immortal. Everybody has to die sooner or later, so don't cry.” Now, that old man was a complete amateur. (He died the other day.) We found him in Benares on the grass. He had never seen a film, because he was living a retired life in Benares for thirty years with his wife, you know. I mean you find people like that. He seemed to be the right type, so we went up to him—we hadn't cast that particular part yet—and I asked him whether he would be willing to act in the film. Immediately he said yes, why not? And then in this scene, the only scene where he needed to speak for a certain length of time, I couldn't possibly cut because it needed to be a single set-up all the way through, to suggest that kind of gloom and, you know, hopelessness. I split up the dialogue into parts; between sentences he was asked to smoke, just take a pull at the hookah. Then stop for a certain length of time, then I would say go on. Well, he knew where to smoke, where to take a pull at the hookah, but he didn't know where to resume speaking, and that I would dictate.
I understand De Sica uses quite a bit this method of handling actors as puppets, you see, telling them exactly what to do at every point. I felt that in Bicycle Thief; not with the boy so much as with the father. The boy was amazing, absolutely incredibly good. Particularly the last scene where he walks down and holds the father’s hand, where he's crying.

I asked De Sica how he got that scene. He replied that he poked fun at the poverty of the boy’s family and made him cry. De Sica said“I was so ashamed of myself when I got that scene . . . it was so shameful of me.” He said“My little boy was so very proud and he lived in such poor conditions in the same room with his mother and father and his other brothers and sisters, and they all slept in the same bed, and yet he was terribly proud. And he didn’t want anyone to make fun of that, and so I made fun of it. And it made him mad and he cried and he cried and he cried,” said De Sica, “and then I got my picture.” And De Sica ended by saying“Afterward I grabbed him and kissed him.”
It's typical, yes. You use such methods, you always have to. Otherwise you can’t expect a child of five or six to be so brilliant in faking emotions, you see.

De Sica and his writer, Zavattini, both told me that their problems were to develop concrete actions within a scene so that, in the final analysis, the people were doing relatively simple thingspicking up a coffee pot, closing a door, and so forth. The attempt to juxtapose all of these elements in the film made the person seem to be performing. Is there something of this approach in the way you construct scenes?
Very similar, yes indeed. In the domestic scenes of The Big City it’s all like that. Everyone is doing something and speaking at the same time, and the story is advancing and the drama developing and the relationships. It's like that all the way through. Every scene has some sort of domestic action being performed all the time, and the time of day is being very strongly established in the lighting.

How did you handle the gradual changes of daylight in that film?
With Subrata Mitra and his assistant—who is now doing my camera work—we have devised a system of lighting whereby in a studio we can simulate daylight to a fantastic degree. It fools everybody, the best professionals. It's a boost sort of light we use. If it’s a day-scene, we try to imitate available light by not using any direct lights; instead, we use bounce lights all the way through. Particularly if you saw Charulata—it's my best film from many points of view. And in The World of Apu, his little room, that had a very convincing actual location atmosphere due to our lighting. Yet it's a studio set. The lighting we use through the windows and also from the side of the camera is all bounce light, you see, and it's very carefully graded for various times of the days. We may use a white card at various positions—here, there, like blackboards. Different greys, so that it's one kind of lighting for a cloudy day, one for sun, one for mid-day, one for early morning—it's all varied. In The World of Apu the matching of light is exceptional, and of course matching is not just a matter of lighting but it's also the soundtrack, which is being matched all the time, because you're carrying over sound from shot to shot, you see.

I read in American Cinematographer an article by Sven Nykvist, Bergman's cameraman—they had just finished shooting Through a Glass Darkly—and Nykvist goes to great lengths describing the wonderful system that they have devised with bounce lights. Which we had been using for the last twelve years.

As I said, the Benares house where Apu lives is a studio set. We had a cloth stretched overhead, you see, for the light from above. Our lighting gives you a kind of dark eye-socket effect, but it doesn’t matter really, because it’s not a question of beautifying everybody. Ultimately it pays off, because you are sticking to a realistic mood.

But even on location, what we've been doing, instead of using those tinfoils and silver-paper reflectors—of course, you have to use those—but for all our close shots we have this enormous white cloth stretched so that you get that soft bounce. In Kanchenjungha, a color film, we had interior shots in the hotel, but we had no lights for color, so what we did was to use two or three large mirrors, about four feet square. We reflected the sunlight into the room onto stretched cloth, and that was just wonderful. You have to have sunlight, of course, to be able to do that; if it's a cloudy day you’re finished. But if you have sun and you have mirrors, you reflect the sunlight into the room through the window. It's worth it for the quality you get. You don’t feel the presence of lights around at all. They are not reflected in all sorts of little glistening props and things.

I copy Satyajit Ray: Shoojit Sircar

Describing Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece “Pather Panchali” as the Bible of his life, Bollywood director Shoojit Sircar has conceded he copies the works of the maestro.

“Actually I copy him. You won’t notice what I am copying but I know what I am copying. I do it in whatever film I do. It is the Bible of my life,” Sircar said at a function here today to mark 60 years of the release of ‘Pather Panchali’.

The maker of hits like “Madras Cafe”, “Vicky Donor” and the latest “Piku” said the first part of “The Apu Trilogy” has had a big impact on his life.

“Pather Panchali” depicted the childhood of Apu (Subir Banerjee) and his elder sister Durga (Uma 
 Dasgupta) and the harsh village life of their poor family.

Interestingly, the first two times he went to watch the film in his younger days he either slept or fled away in between.

“I am basically a sportsperson and did not belong to the field of cinema or literature. So when my father first took me to watch the film I fell asleep during the screening. That was my first introduction to ‘Pather Panchali’,” the director said.

Later, in school, when he again went to watch the film he left in between along with his friends.

“It started off as a really boring film for me,” Sircar said recalling that after he started doing theatre he again went to watch it at a film festival in Delhi.

“I was left numb. It began as a new chapter in my life. I can call it pre-‘Pather Panchali’ and post-‘Pather Panchali’ phase. Now I am in post- ‘Pather Panchali’ phase of my life,” he said.

May 22, 2015

Did Steven Spielberg steal Satyajit Ray's story for ET?

  • Rezaul H Laskar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • | 
  • Updated: May 02, 2015 15:20 IST

  • Satyajit Ray on the sets of Sonar Kella. (HT Photo)

    Nearly a quarter of a century after Satyajit Ray’s death, the jury is still out on whether a script written by the acclaimed director in 1967 was the genesis of Steven Spielberg’s hit E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

    The story of The Alien is one of the stranger aspects of Ray’s long and storied career, one that involves celebrated sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke, Hollywood legends Peter Sellers, Marlon Brando and James Coburn, producer Ismail Merchant, Columbia Pictures and gregarious skin-diver-turned-producer Mike Wilson.

    Ray and Clarke began corresponding after the director wrote to the author in 1964 to seek his endorsement for a sci-fi film club in Kolkata. The duo met in London after watching Stanley Kubrick film 2001, based on Clarke’s classic novel, and Ray spoke of a film he hoped to make about an alien and a young boy.

    Clarke then mentioned Ray’s idea to Wilson, a skin-diver who once retrieved a chest of silver coins from a 17th century galleon and produced a film about a Sri Lankan secret agent named Jamis Banda. Wilson wasted no time in getting in touch with Ray, who responded to his offer to set up a co-production deal.

    The Alien was to be based on “Bankubabur Bandhu” (Bankubabu’s Friend), a short story that Ray had written for his family magazine Sandesh in 1962. At a time when most sci-fi literature and films featured aliens bent on invading the earth, Ray’s script had a benign humanoid extra-terrestrial who befriends a young village boy named Haba.

    The alien arrives in a spaceship that lands in a lotus-covered pond in a village of Bengal. The villagers think a golden spire, which is part of the spaceship, is a submerged temple and begin worshipping it. Other characters in the script are a hard-boiled journalist from Kolkata and an American engineer drilling tube-wells for a Marwari businessman based on G D Birla.

    Things began to go wrong right from the time Ray began writing the script in Kolkata in early 1967. Wilson decided to join Ray at his flat and once the script was finished, Wilson copyrighted it in both their names though his only contributions – according to several accounts – were one change in the dialogue for the American character and the suggestion that the spaceship should be golden in colour.

    Ray wrote a long account about his efforts to make The Alien in 1980, in which he said he zeroed in on Peter Sellers to play the Marwari businessman because he felt the presence of a big name in the cast would help him raise the budget needed for the film’s special effects. Besides, he believed Sellers “could do things with his voice and tongue which bordered on the miraculous” – a reference to the actor’s ability to portray an Indian.

    Ray and Wilson met Sellers in Paris in April 1967 and the actor agreed to do the film even though he admitted he knew nothing about the director’s work. Ray even organised a special screening of Charulata that had Sellers in tears.

    Soon after, Wilson invited Ray to Hollywood, saying Columbia would back the film and Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen were interested in playing the American engineer.

    Ray went to Hollywood in June 1967 and held more meetings with Sellers, who was then filming Blake Edwards’ The Party, in which he played an Indian. It was then that Ray first developed misgivings about Sellers. “ is  surely not right when a comedian with the caliber of Sellers cheerfully submits to the whims of a director who can think only in terms of belly-laughs, many of which were clearly not going to come off on the screen. Did Sellers not care enough? Or did he lack judgement?” Ray later wrote.

    It was also at this time that Ray discovered his script, copies of which were being distributed by Columbia, had been jointly copyrighted by Wilson.

    “I left Hollywood firmly convinced that The Alien was doomed,” he later wrote.

    During a subsequent trip to London in October 1967, Ray made more unsettling discoveries – Wilson had kept a $10,000 advance from Columbia and positioned himself as an associate producer for the film even there was no agreement between the two men. It was around this time that James Coburn was suggested as a replacement for Brando to play the American engineer.

    A few months later, Columbia said it would back the film if Ray could get Wilson to pull out. Wilson rejected Ray’s request to give up his copyright on the script, describing the director as a “thief and slanderer”.

    In July 1968, Sellers – who had earlier told Ray he had not problems playing a secondary role in the film – wrote to Ray and said he could not contemplate doing the role as it was. Till that point, Sellers had written several letters to Ray in verse and the director decided to respond in kind.

    “Dear Peter, if you had wanted a bigger part, Why, you should have told me right at the start. By disclosing it at this juncture, You have surely punctured The Alien-balloon, Which I daresay will be grounded soon, Causing a great deal of dismay, To Satyajit Ray,” the director said in his reply.

    About a year after this, Arthur Clarke suddenly informed Ray that Wilson had shaved his head and gone off into the jungles to meditate. Wilson too wrote to Ray to say he was relinquishing his rights to the script of The Alien but the film never got off the ground.

    Attempts were made by Hollywood big-wigs in subsequent decades, including producer Ismail Merchant, to get Ray to work on the film again but nothing much came of these efforts.

    When Spielberg’s E.T. was released in 1982, there were several people – including Arthur Clarke – who pointed out the striking similarities with the script for The Alien, particularly the central relationship between a benign alien and a young boy. Other also pointed out that though E.T. was released by Universal, the project had begun at Columbia Pictures.        

    Spielberg denied copying from Ray's script, saying he “was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood”.

    Ray possibly had the last word on the matter when he said that E.T. would “not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies”.

    March 12, 2015

    Source: This interview was originally published in Sight and Sound, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Winter 1972-73), pp. 31-37, and was reprinted in Satyajit Ray: Interviews, edited by Bert Cardullo (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), pp. 53-60. It has been slightly edited for its presentation on TV Multiversity.

    Another Interview: Satyajit Ray on the 'Calcutta Trilogy'

    Satyajit Ray began his career with the poetic 'Apu Trilogy,' made between 1955 and 1959 as the study of a young man's attempt to find himself and come to terms with the eternal conditions of life and its two opposite poles: love and death. Three of Ray's films made between 1970 and 1971 in effect form another trilogy, the main characters being seen this time in relation to their work. It is a political trilogy, about how we are being shaped, and perhaps misshapen, by our working conditions. 'Days and Nights in the Forest,' the least direct of the three, shows a group of city executives on a country weekend, away from the suffocating atmosphere of Calcutta. 'The Adversary' returns to Calcutta, where a young man revolts against the inhuman conditions attached to his search for a job. And the third film, 'Company Limited,' once more takes the audience round the other side of the desk to show the manipulations and status-seeking at the top of a big firm. In the following 1972 interview with Christian Braad Thomsen, Satyajit Ray discusses the 'Calcutta Trilogy' and other aspects of his work.

    Christen Braad Thomsen: Did you consciously set out with the idea that 'Days and Nights in the Forest' (aka 'Aranyer Din Ratri'), 'The Adversary' (aka 'Pratidwandi'), and 'Company Limited' (aka 'Seemabaddha') would form a new trilogy?
    Satyajit Ray: I didn't think of it during the first two films. I made 'Days and Nights' because I liked the story, and as for 'The Adversary,' well, I made it because the situation in Calcutta was politically so tense. The students were very active, there was a lot of violence in the city, and if I was going to make another film it seemed it had to be about Calcutta and the young people there. Then in 1971 I read the novel 'Company Limited' is based on, and I immediately thought that this was an important theme. After describing the young man looking for a job in 'The Adversary,' it was relevant for me to describe the people who have control over the jobs, the new upper class, the new breed that has grown up in India since Independence. You see, in a sense the British have not really left...

    CBT: You seem in this new trilogy to have acquired a political awareness which was perhaps less openly stated in your previous films.
    SR: Possibly, but politics has also come increasingly to the surface in the last three or four years. You feel it every moment of the day in Calcutta: not just the bombs and explosions, but meeting people and walking the streets with the posters on the walls. Of course I have never been unaware of politics, but I have deliberately not used the political issues as such in my films because I have always felt that in India politics is a very impermanent thing. Political parties break up very quickly, and I don't believe in the Leftas such any more. There are now three communist parties in India, and I don't really see what that means.

    CBT: How have the three films been received in India?
    SR: Before I made 'The Adversary' I'd often been criticized for being non-political. After that film, they thought I had become politically committed, and it was very well received. There's a revolutionary character in 'The Adversary,' which is enough for the most simple-minded people. They don't see the depths of the film, they just see that there is some mention of politics. But my previous film, 'Days and Nights in the Forest,' wasn't understood in India. They thought it very frivolous because of its surface, but they completely missed the implications of the structure, which I think makes it one of my best pictures. It's a complex film with seven characters, and in its final form very satisfying to me.

    CBT: I would agree that it's one of your best films. But doesn't the lack of a real storyline mean that it's bound to be rather difficult for an audience?
    SR: It's rather a film about relationships, and very complex in structure, like a kind of fugue. People in India kept saying, What is it about, where is the story, the theme? And the film is about so many things, that's the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands. I made the film primarily because I was fascinated by this aspect of people being taken out of their normal surroundings, and the way their characters emerge in an unfamiliar setting, away from their daily routine. 'Kanchenjungha' was the same kind of film, and also misunderstood. It's also very complex and in my own eyes a very beautiful film, my only one in color.

    It has something like eight or nine characters, a whole family on holiday, just promenading one afternoon, two hours of their lives. But so many things happen. There are two daughters, one is married, and she's having a great quarrel with her husband, talking about divorce but staying together because of their child. The younger daughter has found a suitor on their holiday, and he wants to propose to her this afternoon. He's an engineering executive with a bright future, but his values aren't those of the girl. The father hopes the girl will say yes to him, but for the first time in this family there is someone who doesn't do what the father wants, and she turns him down. Then there's another young man from Calcutta, an ordinary middle-class young man, but on the same mental wavelength as the girl, and there is a hint that there may be a future for those two. And there's the young son, a flirt and a totally frivolous character, who within the two hours of the film's time loses one girl and immediately finds another one.

    But what interests me most in 'Kanchenjungha' is the younger daughter and her new friend, who at one point feels that if he manages to please the girl's big autocrat father, then maybe he'll get a job. The father, who has five big companies, talks with the young man about the past, about the British, and the stupid terrorists who rotted in jail while he himself is still alive; and he does offer the boy a job. But the boy turns it down. He tells the girl if it had happened over an office desk in Calcutta he might have accepted it, but here in this marvelous place amid the mountains and the snow he feels like a giant. He's please to be able to say no. For me, 'Kanchenjungha' is an exploration of people coming out of their shells, and a forerunner to the more political trilogy. And that's what interests me in both 'Kanchenjungha' and 'Days and Nights': taking people out of their ordinary surroundings and discovering the self behind the facade, what really goes on in their minds. There's a lot said in the films about money and values and security and how you accept immoral actions to reach your social goals.

    CBT: The second film in the trilogy, 'The Adversary,' got a lukewarm reception from some European critics, who suggested that from a stylistic point of view it was more hesitant and less structurally complete than your other work. You use a lot of flashbacks, dream sequences, and scenes in negative. Why the change in style?
    SR: Everything I did was of course quite deliberate. I think the main character always dictates the style of a film; and particularly in this case, where you identify totally with the young man. He's a hesitant character, full of doubts and inner conflicts and problems, and with him at the center of the film I couldn't think in terms of a smoothly told story in my usual 'classical' style. I felt all the time I was writing the scenario that if it took a straightforward line and was stylistically orthodox, then it would be wrong. That's why I introduced stylistic factors which are new in my work.

    The film opens for instance with the death of the father, shown in negative, and there were many reason for doing it that way. The scene describes the death of a person whom you don't know, and who is not a character in the film. It is a totally impersonal death scene, and death is very difficult to portray on the screen. If it had been in positive, everybody might have looked for signs of life because they are not emotionally involved with this character. And that mustn't happen: the theme must immediately capture the audience. So I started with negative, and since I had done it once I thought, why not do it again later. In the dream sequence I also find it perfectly valid; and use the effect in another sequence, which might equally well have been in positive. That's the scene where a friend takes the young man to a prostitute, and he becomes disgusted and runs away. At one point the prostitute starts to undress, and she is just in her bra and lights a cigarette. Bengali girls don't usually smoke in public, and in India the audience is very conservative, so to soften the impact of that scene I used the negative.

    The problem with the young man in 'The Adversary' is that there are a lot of things going on in his head, and he has no one to communicate his thoughts to. For instance, he goes to see his sister's boss, and suddenly - bang-bang-bang - he stands there with a revolver shooting the boss. And then you find out that this is only happening in his mind. In fact, he had been rather polite and nervous, so how could I suggest that he actually wanted to murder the boss? There was no way other than an imaginary flash-forward.

    Since people have become used to a certain classical style in my films, I knew the criticisms would come. If it had been the work of an unknown director, the critics would probably have accepted it. But I really don't care about the criticism, and maybe in five or six years when they see it in retrospect, they will find it all right. And I wanted it to be apparent also in the style that this was my first political film: a different film from what I had done before, so let it be different.

    CBT: But still, you chose to make the film about the young man who has doubts about his role in society, whereas his brother, who is a revolutionary, is a background character. If you wanted it to be a really political film, why didn't you make it about the revolutionary?
    SR: Because a person with a definite political is often psychologically less interesting: revolutionaries don't think for themselves all the time. I was more interested in the young man who didn't have any firm political convictions and who wanted a job under no matter what regime. He thought for himself, and therefore he was suffering. Besides, he carries out an act of protest on a personal level, which to me is a marvelous thing because it comes from inside and not as an expression of a political ideology.

    CBT: In 'Company Limited' there is also a revolutionary character in the background. In fact, we don't see him at all, but we learn that he is the boyfriend of the sister-in-law, the character who is obviously the moral center of the film.
    SR: Yes, but in a way the sister-in-law is in a tragic situation, because she came to Calcutta in order to find out what social success was like, and what her elder sister's life with her executive husband was like. She's disheartened by what she finds, but on the other hand she is not so sure that she can go back to the revolutionary and marry him. She doesn't know how seriously involved with him she is. The brother-in-law asks her why she didn't tell him she had a boy friend. And she says, 'If there was anything, I would have told you.' She is in Calcutta because she had this great weakness for her brother-in-law, when she was a little girl in her teens. She hasn't seen him in six or seven years, and now that maybe he's such a success, let's see what he is like, whether he has completely changed or whether he is still a human being. Let's see if it's possible to remain a human being in his circumstances. So she arrives, and at first everything seems all right. But when the crisis comes at the factory, he collapses completely. It's evident then that he can only think about his own success, his own career going ahead no matter at what cost.

    CBT: But isn't it your intention to suggest that this girl, in her relationship to the revolutionary, really poses a moral political solution to the problems the film raises?
    SR: Well, in a way she is in the same situation as the boy in 'The Adversary.' She's uncertain, though at the end of the film she probably will go back to the revolutionary because she's so completely disillusioned with the other kind of life she has witnessed. But she first needed to be exposed to this kind of life in order to make her decision. I always feel that you must know two sides of a problem before you can make up your mind. Then you can make a really strong decision which, as in 'The Adversary,' is not based on the dictates of an ideology but mainly springs from your own, human experience.

    CBT: this is another interesting aspect of your political films, that they don't resemble...
    SR: ... the films of Godard and Glauber Rocha and the rest? No, certainly not, because I still believe in the individual and in personal concepts rather than in a broad ideology, which keeps changing all the time.

    CBT: On the political level, your films are strongly critical of the executive class, but it's vital to the films that you still try to understand the members of that class on a human level.
    SR: Absolutely. Even the British we had to understand, because the whole intellectual middle class of India is a product of British rule. Without the colonialism and the British education, there would have been no terrorism. The British gave the Bengalis a liberal education, which ultimately turned them into revolutionaries. And it's ironical that the British really created their own enemies. It too about a hundred years, and the beginning of this development is described in 'Charulata,' when they start through newspapers to question the British rule. And in the early twentieth century you have the first terrorist movement against the British. That had no support from the peasants or the working class. It was a small intellectual group, whose leaders had read all the revolutionary literature, Garibaldi and the rest. They want to get rid of the British, and they thought: why not throw bombs at them? It didn't achieve anything; it was just an emotional gesture. But emotional gestures fascinate me more than ideological gestures.

    CBT: In 'Company Limited,' how far are you suggesting that the main character is essentially a product of bad social circumstances, rather than bad in himself?
    SR: It is certainly the system that makes him was he is. He's part of a bureaucratic and commercial machine, which has no place for one single man. If you want to live in society, you immediately become part of the pattern, and that drives you into something you may not have been from the beginning. This man clearly has two sides: he has his private feelings and his conscience, but the system forces him to dissemble them and to think only of his security and advancement. But it's an open film and it doesn't make any final statement.

    CBT: If you nevertheless had to make a final statement about how to break up a system which distorts people, what would your solution be? You don't seem to have much faith in the revolutionary movement.
    SR: I can understand and admire Mao's revolution, which has completely changed China and achieved - at a cost - the eradication of poverty and illiteracy. But I don't think I could find a place in China, because I am still too much of an individual and I still believe too strongly in personal expression. Over the years, I have understood art as an expression of a creative personality, and I don't believe in the new theories which hod that art must be destroyed and doesn't need to be permanent. I believe in permanent values. That's my whole mental attitude, and I have to be true to myself. This doesn't mean that I don't sympathize with the young people, because I do... but at the same time I can see that when people grow beyond a certain age, they begin to have their own doubts. If something radical happens to you between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, then fine. If not, you are likely to become disillusioned as you grow older.

    CBT: Is your personal background this rich, upper-class milieu you describe and criticize in the 'Calcutta Trilogy'?
    SR: No, I've always stayed away from that sort of society. I have been very much of an observer and very solitary. The people who work with me on my films are close to me, but I have never been part of that group of people I describe. When I worked in advertising before making films, I had friends who were politically very active and supported the Soviet Union, but I have watched them grow over the years and they are now big executives in advertising firms. they don't talk much about their political position of the 1940s; but if they do, they try somehow to rationalize their development and their careers inside the system. I myself have been active as an artist, which is fine for me, although people say that I don't commit myself. Commitment to what? I commit myself to human beings, to making statements, and I think that is good enough commitment for me.

    CBT: The bombings one hears in 'Company Limited,' from the big flat of the business man above Calcutta... are those explosions set of by left-wing groups?
    SR: Yes, and they irony is that very often they are caused by Left fighting Left. The tragedy is that the Left is split into so many groups, who are their own bitterest enemies. They don't fight the liberals or the conservatives. They don't attack the real targets, like big industrialists, because they are afraid of losing. Instead, they attack each other.

    CBT: You mentioned Glauber Rocha's cinema, which is usually considered as the political expression of the Third World on the screen. Coming from another part of the Third World, what do you think of his films?
    SR: I have never seen any of his films, because they are not shown in India. But I would really like to see them, because I understand that he is very powerful and outspoken. The young blood of cinema. Good!

    March 22, 2014

    A Tribute

                                                            A collage of Sir Satyajit Ray