Satyajit Ray was one of the first Indian filmmakers to gain international recognition for his work. In this 1981 interview with Cineaste magazine, Ray discussed how his political and personal beliefs related to his role as a filmmaker, and what political and social issues were most significant to him in his films. Another important consideration for Ray was his audience. He explained that while film as an art form originated in Europe and was frequently judged by Western standards, he wanted to make films that were meaningful for Indian audiences, especially those in his home province of West Bengal, India.
Cineaste: How did Pather Panchali change you. Did it help you discover Bengal?
Satyajit Ray: I certainly discovered rural life while making Pather Panchali. There's no question of that. I'd been city-born, city-bred, so I didn't know the village firsthand. While hunting locations in rural areas, and, after finding the village and spending some time there, I began to understand. Talking to people, reacting to moods, to the landscape, to the sights and sounds—all this helped. But it's not just people who have been brought up in villages who can make films about village life. An outside view is also able to penetrate.
I have also been moved by Tagore's work, which is not necessarily rural. Of course, our cultural background, our cultural makeup, is a fusion of East and West. This applies to anybody who has been educated in the city in India and who has been exposed to the classics of English literature. After all, our knowledge of the West is deeper than the Westerner's knowledge of our country. We have imbibed Western education. Western music, Western art, Western literature have all been very influential in India.
Film, as a purely technological medium of expression, developed in the West. The concept of an art form existing in time is a Western concept, not an Indian one. So, in order to understand cinema as a medium, it helps if one is familiar with the West and Western art forms. A Bengali folk artist, or a primitive artist, will not be able to understand the cinema as an art form. Someone who has had a Western education is definitely at an advantage.
Chiriakhana's a whodunit, and whodunits just don't make good films. I prefer the thriller form where you more or less know the villain from the beginning. The whodunit always has this ritual concluding scene where the detective goes into a rigmarole of how everything happened, and how he found the clues which led him to the criminal. It's a form that doesn't interest me very much.
Of course, you risk flogging a dead horse in saying that feudalism is stupid and wrong. But you also feel for the characters in those films. They're pathetic, like dinosaurs who don't realize why they're being wiped out. There's a quality of pathos in that which interests me.
Ray: The Middleman is really the only film of which that sort of remark can be made.
If you're making a film about problems, but you don't have a solution, there's bound to be a despairing quality. In The Big City, both husband and wife lose their jobs. There are no jobs around. They drift apart, there is misunderstanding, and they come together again. But they still don't have any jobs, and they may not have any for quite some time, but that doesn't make it despairing.
The only bleak film I have made is The Middleman. There's no question about that. I felt corruption, rampant corruption, all around. Everyone talks about it in Calcutta. Everyone knows, for instance, that the cement allotted to the roads and underground railroad is going to the contractors who are building their own homes with it. The Middleman is a film about that kind of corruption and I don't think there is any solution.
Riefenstahl was helping a myth, the Nazi ideology, and the Nazis were very strong at the time. In the early days of fascism, even the intellectuals were confused. Tagore was led to believe that Mussolini was doing something wonderful, playing a very positive role, until Romain Rolland told him he was wrong, that he hadn't understood the full implications of fascism.
It's true, the fact that I have chosen to portray a character in a certain way does imply a sense of identity and understanding. I understand Gangacharan, his motivations, his behavior, his reactions. For me, he is a believable, fully-rounded character, and his transformation at the end is very moving, but he is not my reflection.
Ray: Yes, that's what happened during that famine. It was only after everyone started coming into the cities that it became clear that people could die of hunger even when there had been a good harvest. That was the point of that particular famine. As for my use of color, it came straight from the author's description—that nature was very lush, that everything was physically beautiful, and, yet, people were dying of hunger.
Cineaste: You, Fellini, Kurosawa, and Bergman all started making films around the same time. Many critics feel, however, that you have lagged behind, that you haven't taken the aesthetic and narrative risks that Fellini or Bergman have taken. As you come to the end of nearly thirty years of filmmaking, how do you see your own career in comparison with others?
Ray: I think I achieved maturity at a pretty early stage. It has been my preoccupation to achieve as much density as possible within a superficially simple narrative structure. I don't think of the Western audiences when I make my films. I am thinking of my own audience in Bengal. I am trying to take them along with me, and this I have succeeded in doing. At the beginning, this audience was extremely unsophisticated. They were used to trash or the naive Bengali film. You had to take them along slowly. Sometimes you took a leap as in Kanchenjungha or in Days and Nights in the Forest, and lost them.
These kinds of risks, especially in relation to their audiences, haven't been taken by Bergman or Fellini. Bergman is fairly simple, although he can be very austere and rigorous, and he is often aided by some marvelous photography. As for Fellini, he seems to be making the same film over and over again. There is a lot of bravura in his films, in spite of the fact that he's not so interested in the stories, and people go to see that bravura.
I can't do all that Bergman and Fellini do. I don't have their audiences and I don't work in that kind of context. I have to contend with an audience that is used to dross. I have worked with an Indian audience for thirty years and, in that time, the general look of cinema hasn't changed. Certainly not in Bengal. You'll find directors there are so backward, so stupid, and so trashy that you'll find it difficult to believe that their works exist alongside my films. I am forced by circumstances to keep my stories on an innocuous level. What I can do, however, is to pack my films with meaning and psychological inflections and shades, and make a whole which will communicate a lot of things to many people.