January 25, 2011

Another interview with Satyajit Ray - 1

Revisiting Satyajit Ray
An Interview with a Cinema Master
Bert Cardullo


Introduction

Since The Home and the World, shown at the Cannes Festival in 1984, Satyajit Ray had not completed any full-length feature films. Two heart attacks and bypass surgery in Houston, Texas, led to a period of convalescence. Although advised by doctors to avoid the rigors of filmmaking for a while, Ray had not been inactive. He had been writing, as before, for children and editing Sandesh, a magazine for young people. Some of his stories that have appeared there and elsewhere were translated by Ray himself into English and published by Dutton in The Unicorn and Other Fantastic Tales of India (1987).

Ray had also been busy writing screenplays and scoring music for a series of television films made by his son, Sandip. Then in 1987 he made a documentary on his father, Sukumar Ray, the gifted poet, writer, illustrator, and essayist, who died when Ray was only two-and-a-half years old. When I met him in the summer of 1989, the good news was that Satyajit Ray was working on a new feature, his twenty-sixth. Based on Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, Ganashatru is in the Bengali language and was released later that year. The bad news was that his heart problems would lead to his death in April 1992, after the heroic completion of two more feature films: Branches of the Tree and The Stranger.

I met Ray on a hot morning at his home in Calcutta, up two flights of stairs in an old building on Bishop Lefroy Road. We talked for several hours about all aspects of his long career as a cinematic auteur.

Bert Cardullo: How do you feel when some of your films do not get a favorable critical, or box-office, response?

Satyajit Ray: Actually, I've been amazed and heartened by some of the critical reaction to my films. One of my favorite films, for example, is Days and Nights in the Forest. It was rejected in India. No box-office success, no critical success here, but it's considered one of my best films abroad. Days and Nights in the Forest had a very long run in London and was widely praised in America. I mean, that's the way it is. You learn about people, their likes and dislikes and their response to things Indian, and some of the Western criticism has been most beneficial. To speak of India, I think that, over the years, I have built up a following in Calcutta, certainly. Any film I make will play for six to eight weeks in three separate theaters in the city. There is definitely always an anticipation of my next film from a very large section of the Calcuttan public.

Not just other movie people and the intelligentsia but a larger —
Yes, my audience is getting to be bigger and bigger now. It's spreading out to the suburbs, and that is good.

Do you secretly dream of something you want to do that you haven't done yet?
Oh, there are lots of things that I'd love to do, but some of them cost a lot of money and others maybe are too complex. I would like to do something, for instance, from the epics. I would like to do some more folk tales in a very different style. Not in the conventional narrative style that I've used so far, but with a simple, stylized type of approach. I'm not sure whether there's an audience for such a film, but one has to do it to find out. Perhaps I could do a segment as well from one of our two national epics — you know, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata particularly fascinates me: the epic itself, the incidents, the characters, all so human and timeless. I'd also like to do more historical films, on the Mughals perhaps. I'm fascinated by certain characters from the Mughal period. I would also like to do something on the English adventurers who used to come to India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of the foreign painters were very interesting — the ones who left records of India, like Daniel or Forbes or Hodges. I mean, these men did marvelous work. Without them we wouldn't know what the India of the eighteenth or nineteenth century looked like. And they came here as adventurers. They were real adventurers, out to make money, which they made in the most extraordinary ways. I'd be interested in filming something like that.


Do you think the British influence is still significant in India, and is it good or bad?
Well, you see, we all admit that we owe a lot to the British. After all, I think I myself am a product of East and West, and I think that my filmmaking reflects that. We've been exposed to Western literature, the cinema has done a lot, and BBC radio has done quite a bit. You can't help it: you're part, not just of India, but of the whole world; the world has shrunk. And my style of film reflects that. As a director, I can't deny the influence of the West. But, at the same time, one still feels rooted to one's own country, to one's own culture. It's a question of absorbing what you think is good and what you think you can use. For example, I've been trying through my films to explore the history of Bengal over the years: the British period, the nineteenth century, independent India, the end of feudalism. The death agony of a particular class, from any country, fascinates me. There's a poignancy to it. One has to take a sympathetic attitude to something that is dying after so many years. The Music Room (above) itself is a film that shows a sympathetic attitude even to Indian noblemen, who were useless people, really. But to tell a story about one such character, one has to take a sympathetic stance. From his point of view, it's a major tragedy; to us, it's the folly of trying to cling to something that is inevitably going to vanish. These noblemen, though idlers, were great patrons of music and the arts, and all that is gone now. The subject of class has fascinated me all along, the fact that such social contrasts could exist side by side — and continue to exist today. This conflict between old and new has been one of the major themes of my films over the years.
Well, you see, we all admit that we owe a lot to the British. After all, I think I myself am a product of East and West, and I think that my filmmaking reflects that. We've been exposed to Western literature, the cinema has done a lot, and BBC radio has done quite a bit. You can't help it: you're part, not just of India, but of the whole world; the world has shrunk. And my style of film reflects that. As a director, I can't deny the influence of the West. But, at the same time, one still feels rooted to one's own country, to one's own culture. It's a question of absorbing what you think is good and what you think you can use. For example, I've been trying through my films to explore the history of Bengal over the years: the British period, the nineteenth century, independent India, the end of feudalism. The death agony of a particular class, from any country, fascinates me. There's a poignancy to it. One has to take a sympathetic attitude to something that is dying after so many years. The Music Room (above) itself is a film that shows a sympathetic attitude even to Indian noblemen, who were useless people, really. But to tell a story about one such character, one has to take a sympathetic stance. From his point of view, it's a major tragedy; to us, it's the folly of trying to cling to something that is inevitably going to vanish. These noblemen, though idlers, were great patrons of music and the arts, and all that is gone now. The subject of class has fascinated me all along, the fact that such social contrasts could exist side by side — and continue to exist today. This conflict between old and new has been one of the major themes of my films over the years.

You have been criticized by some people in India for not dealing more with social problems. Do you want to say anything about that?
That's not strictly true. I think I have dealt with a lot of social problems in my films. Maybe not in the way some people would like me to treat them. They want solutions to the problems at the end of the film, but I don't know the solutions myself in most cases. I like to present problems as clearly as possible, and let the audience think for themselves.

As you speak, I think of Distant Thunder, which seems to me to make your point in its treatment of the Bengal famine.
Yes, I think you're right. Let me give you some context. At the time of the famine, 1943, I had just got my new job as an advertising designer, and I was living in Calcutta. Hundreds and thousands of people, from the villages, were streaming into Calcutta. I remember the railway stations were just jam-packed with refugees. People were at the point of death, or they would have died in a few days' time at the most. We would come out of the house on our way to work and step across dead bodies, just lying all over the place. Ten, fifteen years later, I read this novel by a writer whom I admire greatly, Bibhutibhushan Banerjee. He was actually living in a village at the time of the famine, and he had written the book from his own experience. This was around 1958 or '59. And I decided immediately to turn this material into a film. But I couldn't find the right actors to play the parts, and then all sorts of things happened — including the fact that I went on to make other films. Finally, in 1972, I decided that I had to make the famine film: Distant Thunder.

But I approached the famine from a paradoxical angle: that of the extreme generosity in the villages to a guest, particularly from the city. You can go to a village, anybody's house, and they will offer you a meal. On an hour's notice you will get a meal there. They have very little themselves, but a guest is treated like a god. This, by the way, is called for in the Indian scriptures. In Distant Thunder (right), a very old man appears at the height of the famine, and the wife says, "We must give him a meal." Her husband is clever at this point, but he is gradually changing. He says, "No, he's a scrounger. I know he's come to beg, so we must be very cautious; we must think of our own meal first." She responds, "I'll go without it. I'll go without lunch and dinner, but let's give him a meal." The husband is a priest, he's a schoolmaster, he's a doctor. He knows nothing very well, but he has status because he's the only Brahmin in a village of peasants. Then he goes to perform a ceremony to ward off cholera; but before he goes, he reads his book on hygiene and performs the appropriate ritual. He says, "By the way, don't drink the river water, don't eat food where flies have settled," you know, that kind of thing. He believes, in a way, in what we call progress and science.
Fine, excellent. But in the beginning he is a bit of a racketeer, because he's exploiting the ignorance of these poor village people. At the end, when death, through famine, comes to an untouchable woman, and nobody will touch her body, it is the husband, the Brahmin, who declares, "I'll go and do something about this. I'll perform the cremation myself." So he is liberated enough in the end to be able to do that. His humanity then emerges.

Is censorship a serious problem in India?
Politically it is, yes. Every film is censored.

Have you run into any problems?
I haven't, perhaps because of my special position. The Middleman, for instance, had a fairly outspoken scene. If somebody else had made this film, its political references probably would have been censored. But for a while now, I have been able to get away with a few things.



Have you ever actively participated in politics or worked with a political party?
No. Although most of my friends are leftist-minded, I've become disillusioned with politics and don't think about such matters any longer. Now I've almost stopped discussing politics altogether, even reading newspapers. I take account of the man; I don't care about his politics.
Having a political consciousness, though, can also mean having a consciousness of the failure of politicians, like our Indian ones. I find politicians and their game of politics extremely dishonest and puerile. They change colors like chameleons, so much so that it's difficult to keep pace with them. Besides, the brain has a rather limited number of compartments, and I have no vacant compartment to take in all that's happening on the political front.

Can political involvement obstruct creativity?
It has happened — take the filmmakers in the Soviet Union. Whenever they try to make films about modern life in their country, their work becomes simplistic and two-dimensional. At the same time, they make very good films based on their literature from the past. The filmmakers themselves feel constricted. At the Moscow Film Festival once, Grigori Chukhrai told me that he didn't make a film for seven years after Ballad of a Soldier, because about eighty of his scripts had been disapproved for political reasons. He sat in a studio watching other people work. And Mark Donskoi asked me, "What do you think of our films? Why don't you just say they are all rubbish?"


What kinds of political opinion can an artist hold in contemporary society, then?
As an artist, I only want an environment in which I will be free to work as I like. I have no other opinions.

Yet it is commonly felt that you are sympathetic to the left. Perhaps this was because your first film, Pather Panchali, was about the lives of poor Indian villagers.
At the same time, many have said that I upheld feudalism in The Music Room — that since I didn't condemn feudalism, I was sympathetic to it.


What were the aesthetic and reactive impulses that prompted you to make Pather Panchali?
Well, I felt that if I made the film, then Bengali cinema would take a different turn. I was inspired, I have no doubt about that. I thought I had found an ideal subject for a first film. One must keep in mind that before I made Pather Panchali, I had been to London and had seen some Italian neorealist films. But even before I went to England, I had spoken to a number of professional people about this project. They told me that it was not possible to make a film in the way I proposed. You cannot shoot an entire film outdoors, I was told. Nor can you make a film just with new faces. It is difficult, they said, to make a film without make-up or to manage your camerawork outside the studio. Thus was I dissuaded from even attempting to make Pather Panchali. But I made it independent of the commercial set-up, which enabled me to ignore conventional audience expectations. However, I did have to keep my own estimate of the potential audience in view, as it was not my intention to make an esoteric film.


As one of the most creative forces in world cinema today, you must have certain ideas fermenting within you when you start thinking about a new film. What draws you most when you start a new work: a persistent image, a certain location, a particular character?
It's everything combined, really. But I would say the dominant factor is the characters, the human relationships. Then come the setting and the possibility of telling the story cinematically — in motion. Other aspects that engage me are the structure of the picture, its internal contrasts, and its dramatic rhythm. These are all integrally related to the creation of film art. Then again, I also feel that the element of rasa — the concept of nava rasa as specified in Indian aesthetics — is quite important. Rasa is best described as the interplay of moods as expressed by various characters in a work of art.

There is also the element of numbers. I feel that I need an odd number of characters. If you analyze my films carefully, you will see that, most often, three, five, or seven characters come into play. The triangle, as you know, unquestionably plays a role here as well. In Charulata, for instance, there are five characters. If I had used four, I would have had problems; the use of five characters, I think, enhanced the dramatic possibilities of this film a bit.


Elsewhere, you have said that everything you learned as a student of fine arts has gone into your films. Can you specify how your training has shaped your visual style? For instance, you once drew an analogy between your films and painting — the paintings of Pierre Bonnard in particular.
Yes, I have drawn such an analogy, but it's not to be taken literally, of course. I love Bonnard, the way everything has the same uniform importance in his paintings. The human figure is no more or less important than objects like chairs and tables, a bowl of fruit, or a vase full of flowers. There's one single blend, and everything is expressed through it. I have tried to achieve the same effect in some of my films: to mix all kinds of things together, so that they are all related and equally important. You have to understand the characters in context, in relation to everything — objects, events, little details. They all mean something together. You can't take a single element out of this mix without disrupting the whole. And you can't understand one small thing without taking into account the film in its entirety.

I find this organicity in Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographs all the time, even in his portraits. The one of Sartre shows him off-center so that you can see everything around him: the bridge, the lamppost, the shape of the building behind him. You cannot ignore all this because it makes the photograph what it is, and it expresses the man. Similarly, Matisse sits among his pigeons in another Cartier-Bresson portrait, and the elements of bird and man are perfectly integrated.


How important has Cartier-Bresson been to your work, then?
Cartier-Bresson has been a major influence on my work from the very start. There is a wonderful shaping power in his photographs, a unity that in the end can only be called organic. He can create perfect fusion out of all kinds of diverse things, and, at the same time, achieve a precise sense of form. I also enjoy his wit very much. Most of all, I am drawn to his humanism, his concern for man — always expressed with sympathy and understanding.


Is there any specific reason why you write your own scripts — be they adapted or original — though you never write for another director?
I have always proceeded in this way. I did once write a screenplay for an assistant of mine who was promoted to full-fledged director, and he wanted me to do his first script. But that is the only time I have ever worked as a screenwriter for someone else. I think a script can best be turned into a film by the writer himself. Otherwise there is every chance the script will not be understood properly, or that the maximum will not be extracted from it. I think that, as a rule, directors should write their own screenplays.

A lot of directors, even abroad, say that they can compose their own scenario yet not write the dialogue. But then they have a different idea from mine about writing: they think that dialogue is something very literary, full of flourishes and puns and what not. I personally think that what one needs to write dialogue is a good ear, a sense for the rhythm and content of normal, everyday speech. For if you know what you want to say through your scenario and ultimately your film, why can't you put the words into the mouths of your characters?

What do you think is basically wrong with the Indian cinema? Why are Bengali films more artistic than the Bombay ones?
Well, not all Bengali films are that good. We hardly produce twenty films a year, whereas in Bombay they make something like 150 films or so. Naturally, the proportion between good and bad is probably higher here: out of our twenty films, there may be five or six a year that are worthwhile.

I think one important factor here in Bengal is that the directors are more aware of their roots. In Bengal it is the Bengalis who make the films, whereas in Bombay people have migrated from all sorts of places and consequently do not have the feeling of being rooted there — at least not in the sense that we feel rooted in Bengal. Bombay directors view filmmaking as an entertainment industry, and the stories they concoct do not have very much basis in reality.
But if you take the regional industry — in Marathi, for instance — you will find a certain amount of affinity with Bengal. This is how significant art becomes possible: if you are making films about people you know, the people who belong to a particular region, you will make more valuable and artistic films. But if you make a film about people who belong to no particular place, no particular country really, but who exist instead in a world wholly concocted by the cinema — an upper-class world with certain rarefied mores and morals — then you can only make entertainment, never art.

It is important, let me reiterate, that stories have their roots in reality. For a Punjabi director the reality is that of the Punjab, and yet he finds himself working somewhere other than the Punjab. There are a lot of directors in Bombay who originally come from the Punjab and, if given a story about their native region, they might be able to produce something worthwhile — something that they feel belongs to them, something that acquires a certain integrity along with its regional characteristics. But since Bombay is such a hybrid and cosmopolitan place, the only world these directors want to depict is a kind of cosmopolitan hybrid with certain qualities and values that have no relation to the qualities and values of the existing world. I can understand a satirical film that comes out of this kind of set-up, but if you take this world seriously, then you can only make very ineffective films from an aesthetic point of view.

Nonetheless, I don't know how many more years I can go on making films in Bengal. In my position, maybe I can make Bengali films for the international market for a few more years. But Bengali films today don't have much of a future, in my view, given the market and the overall expenditure that such a film requires. Making Hindi-language films or films in English seems to be the only solution. Even I have to make a Hindi film once in a while; there seems to be no other way out. This is purely a matter of circumstance, since I don't want to make films in Hindi very much because I do not know the language well.


That was one of the things I wanted to ask: when you make films in a language other than your own, do you feel there are barriers that you must overcome?
Yes, absolutely. In The Chess Players, for example, when I came to the English-language portion, I was much more at ease, for my Hindi is not as good as my English. So, although I wrote the English dialogue for The Chess Players myself, in Sadgati (above) my English script had to be translated into Hindi dialogue. And I never knew whether that dialogue was good or right. Even the coaching of actors — where I often act out the pieces myself in advance — became impossible during the making of a Hindi-language film. Since I do not have enough knowledge of the language, I can only give a certain amount of verbal direction to the actors; what I cannot do, however, is act out the parts myself. So for Hindi films I can't even go in search of new faces; I must work with experienced actors only.


Will you ever make films in a language apart from Hindi?
No, never.

What about English?
Perhaps I will, but even then, the story I select must be a story from my own country. I really don't have any desire to make films abroad. A film in which the use of English sounds logical — where, say, people from different provinces in India come together and speak English so that they can all communicate — I might make such an English-language film in my own country.

Could you tell me something about the image of Indian cinema abroad? And then, has the Indian cinema as a whole been able to serve the cause of the common man?
I don't know what image the Indian cinema has abroad. Actually, it is mainly my films that have been playing in the West. But in the Middle East, where my films are not screened but where a lot of Bombay films are shown, I don't know what particular image they have of Indian cinema. A lot of people regret that there are not more export-worthy films, by directors other than me, produced here. But it seems that people in the Middle East enjoy the Indian films they see, which to them are highly entertaining and colorful. After all, India has lots of beautiful actresses and handsome actors, and there are good singers as well. But it is impossible to get an idea of the country from these films, and if Middle Easterners try to draw their conclusions about India from Hindi films, I am afraid they will arrive at a dead end.

As for your second question, I doubt very much that the Indian cinema has been able to serve the cause of the common man, because films — particularly Bombay films — give the impression of great affluence and the country is made to look very attractive, with lavish homes, gorgeous costumes, and the like. This gives an incorrect notion of India as a whole, but I don't think that intelligent people abroad have any delusions about India's wealth. They know this is a country that has to beg for aid from the international community. They accept the Bombay films as a kind of phenomenon, as a kind of habit of filmmaking, and they go to see these movies to be entertained — not to learn anything about the country of India.


Well, you know the country — the countryside — intimately, and yet you're a city person.
Yes I am, but I love the countryside. As an advertising man, I would go for excursions by train into the countryside to sketch or take photographs. So I feel deeply rooted in Bengal and its traditions; I love, for example, the country bazaars and village fairs.



November 2005 | Issue 50


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