January 25, 2011

Another interview with Satyajit Ray - 2

Then again, I was surprised to see so many traces of the American gangster film appearing in your supposed children's fantasy, The Golden Fortress.
That picture was designed to reach audience members who loved my books but had had little opportunity to see my "serious" films. But there are levels to The Golden Fortress other than the one aimed at children. As for the gangster references, my connections to urban American cinema precede the influence of Renoir and Rossellini on my work. I enjoyed and appreciated many American films during the 1940s. I remember seeing films by Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and John Huston — especially Huston's Beat the Devil, which is a marvelous take-off on gangster pictures.

What do you think of Japanese cinema?
I am a great admirer of Japanese cinema; they are really great masters. I don't know Ozu's early films, but at the end of his career he was totally Japanese — not at all influenced by Hollywood. He subverted all conventions: cinematic, spatial, rhythmic, etc. I have repeatedly seen some of his films and thought, "My God, he doesn't follow at all the Hollywood model or grammar." Ozu has another approach, which one can call a devotion to the geography of actors in their setting. This form of his is original, and it is fundamental enough to necessitate a thorough reassessment of the so-called first principles of filmmaking.

How about Renoir's The River? What's your view of this film?
I can't say that The River was a film about the real India. The background was Indian and it was marvelously used: the riverside, the boats, the fishermen, and the general landscape. But the story itself was a bit idealistic or idealized and not terribly interesting — about an English jute-mill manager and his family, adolescents mainly. It was certainly not an Indian story, and even as a Western story in an Indian setting, it did not come close to telling the truth. There are characteristic Renoir touches here and there, to be sure, and I enjoyed The River overall. But it doesn't compare with his French films.

From your point of view, what has been one of the most discouraging developments in the history of cinema?
The commercial dominance of color and wide-screen imagery, and the consequent asphyxiation of the intimate black-and-white cinema. But color now is much better than it was several decades ago, when they didn't know how to control it. Color back then tended to make everything look too beautiful, too pretty, but the advantage of color today is that it can give more subtlety, more detail. It must be used very carefully, however, and you can't allow the laboratory to change anything. If I choose the costumes for their color, I want the final film to show those colors. If I have emphasized blues and yellows, for example, I don't want the laboratory doing any "color corrections."

Do you always shoot your films on location?
I also shoot in a studio, but I am very careful about the art direction and the use of light in a studio setting. I don't want the audience to be able to tell whether it is a studio or not. Shooting in a studio is much easier, of course; location shooting in Calcutta, by contrast, is extremely difficult. There are always crowds and noise all around you. Sometimes, of course, one has to go outdoors, but when we do, we work very fast and with hand-held cameras. We arrive, we shoot, we go away. There can be problems if you have a long sequence to photograph. We can't even use the police, who don't have a very good image in India; the police attract an even bigger crowd because people come to ask what is happening. So we do our own policing, because everybody in the crowd wants to be in the shot — they don't want to be there just to watch.

I'd like to follow up with a related question: what's your relationship with your cinematographer?
Well, I started out with a very good cameraman, but after each shot he would say, "We must take another." I asked him why, but he was never precise. Multiple takes are very dangerous when one is shooting on a small budget, so I decided to operate the camera myself. Sometimes during a tracking shot in which there is a lot of action, a slight shake — inevitably caused by me — is not important if the action is good. But this man thought only about the shake; he wanted smoothness at any price.

As the camera operator, I have realized that when I work with new actors, they are more confident if they don't see me: they are less tense. I remain behind the camera, I see better, and I can get exactly the framing that I want. If I am sitting over to the side, by contrast, I am dependent on the cameraman. He frames the shot, he does the panning, the tilting, the tracking — he does everything, in fact. Then it's only when you see the rushes that you know exactly what you have. I am so used to doing my own framing, my own visual composing, now that I couldn't work in any other way. It's not that I have no trust in my cameraman's operational abilities; it's just that the best position from which to judge the acting is from behind the camera, and therefore I must be the one looking through the lens.

So I turned to another man to be my lighting cameraman: Subrata Mitra, who was a real beginner. He was twenty-one when he took over the shooting of Pather Panchali; he had never handled a movie camera in his life. But I had to use somebody like this, because all the professionals said that you couldn't shoot in rain, and that you can't shoot out of doors because the light keeps changing, the sun goes down too fast, and so forth. When I got my new cameraman, we decided on certain basic things after a great deal of discussion, one of them being that I would compose the images in my own mind beforehand and that we would work from those. Later on, in the case of my color films, every color scheme was so decided, and the choice of each costume piece as well — the material for which I would go out to purchase myself. My cameraman and I also agreed on the use of available light; and we aimed at simulating available light in the studio, when we had to be there, by using "bounced light" — or light bounced off a big piece of stretched cloth.

What kind of cloth?
Just white sheets, what we call long-cloths. We had framed pieces of white cloth, enormous things, and we bounced light back from them — except during night scenes, of course. And once your source of light is established, you follow that source as much as possible. If it's a candle, a lantern, or an electric light, you follow the source. It simplifies matters.

You know, about seven or eight years after Pather Panchali was made, I read an article in American Cinematographer written by Sven Nykvist — at the time of Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, I think — claiming the invention of bounced light. But we had been using it since 1954.

Is it true that these days there are more and more directors emerging in India who do their own camerawork?
Actually, there are very few cameramen-directors. And let me be clear: what I do is just guide the camera; I simply operate it. And a director who can operate the camera has a great advantage, because he gains greater confidence. In my case, the lighting portion is taken care of by my lighting cameraman under my guidance — the lighting, of course, being the main aspect of cinematography. I don't think there's anything wrong with my guiding the camera and the cameraman; it helps me to leave my imprint or personal point of view on the work. But I don't ever actually call myself a cameraman.

Moreover, as far as I can recall, none of the major directors, Indian or otherwise, are cameramen themselves. Yet, certainly, all the really great directors have a distinctive camera-style: you can recognize their work right away on the basis of the photography, the use of color, the deployment of chiaroscuro. So obviously these directors are guiding their cameramen, and they ought to be able to do so as far as possible: it's to the advantage of any film. In my country, alas, there are not yet any cinematographers of the caliber of the best Europeans or Americans — say, Sven Nykvist and Gregg Toland.

You would say, then, that a good cameraman does not necessarily make a good director?
That's right, because the two activities are not really connected. But a good director must know how the lighting and composition should be done. And if he can guide the cameraman in his work — after all, the visual style is very much a part of the film director's statement — it is all the more desirable. Let me be even more blunt: the mastery over tools and technique — how to use the camera, where and how to place it, how to manage sound and lighting — if you don't have that, however much social commitment or aesthetic sensitivity you may display, I don't think you can make a successful film.

What, in your view, is the essence of film art?
I would say that the cinema's characteristic forte is its ability to capture and communicate the intimacies of the human mind. Such intimacies can be revealed through movement, gesture, vocal inflection, a change in the lighting, or a manipulation of the surrounding environment. But there doesn't have to be literal movement at all — of the camera or the character — in a succession of shots. All the same, the character can appear to unfold and grow. To describe the most important characteristic of the film medium, I would even use the word "growth" rather than "movement." The cinema is superbly equipped to trace the growth of a person or a situation. And to do that — to depict a social situation with the utmost truth and to explore human relationships to the utmost limit — one must eschew all the short cuts that have been artificially imposed over the years by non-artistic considerations. I should also like to banish from my films every last trace of the theatrical and even the pictorial or prettified — two of the most common cinematic impurities.

How do you think, then, that intellectually speaking you have changed — from the way you thought earlier in your film career to the way you think now?
I don't know about my ideas, but my technique — my film grammar — has changed, and the French New Wave was responsible for that. Godard especially opened up new ways of . . . making points, let us say. And he shook the foundations of film grammar in a very healthy sort of way, which is excellent. Indian directors as a result have become much more clipped — fades and dissolves are used much less, for instance; we mostly depend now on cuts. But the audience has also progressed, for they accept this change. Our storytelling had been more American earlier. European influences came later: French, Swedish, German, all kinds of influence. So, if we compare an Indian film from the 1950s to one from today, we find the narrative much sharper in the later film.

A related matter: something that has always been difficult is how to express character without using speech, through the use of gestures, looks, actions, etc. The best example of that kind of expression in my work probably comes in Charulata, but I wasn't able to depict character in this way until after I had completed the Apu trilogy. When I started directing, I just couldn't handle such "silent speech" as well.

As you look back at these early efforts of yours, what do you think? Could you say more about how far and in what direction you have traveled with regard to your approach to filmmaking, your method of handling actors, everything?
In writing dialogue, above all else, I have progressed the most. For Pather Panchali and Aparajito, I wrote only about fifteen to twenty percent of the dialogue; the rest came from the original novels. I never thought I'd be able to write dialogue myself, and the little dialogue that was my own in my first two films was neither significant nor particularly pointed. Now I have a lot more confidence in the writing of dialogue, a greater facility. It was during the making of Kanchenjungha that I realized for the first time that I could write my own dialogue entirely; and that, even as I created a character, I could conceive how that character would speak as well as act.

But insofar as pure cinematic ideas are concerned, those that appeared in Pather Panchali (right) and did not come from the book — such ideas are still there today in my films. The main strength of that first film, however, lay in certain peculiar moments of inspiration, like the death of Indir, Durga's death, the incident concerning the snake at the end, or the sequence in which the train passes by as Apu and Durga watch. None of these were in the novel, and even today I enjoy watching these scenes. But in both Pather Panchali and Aparajito, I overshot a lot — so much, in fact, that quite a bit of it had to be discarded. That sense of proportion or tightness of construction came much later on my part. I have gradually gained confidence about my choice of lens, selecting the right camera position or movement — all such choices have become easier to make with experience. The whole process of filmmaking has become much faster and surer for me.

To get back to the subject of writing dialogue, may I ask you if you have ever thought of writing or directing a play? You used to read a lot of plays, I know, and you still do; you also are an avid theatergoer, I've learned. I ask this question as someone who himself received much of his formal college education in drama.
Well, there are so many wonderfully talented people working in the theater today, so what's the use of swelling the crowd? In the cinema, I must say, there isn't so much artistic talent — perhaps because it's such a technological medium. In any event, I felt quite early on that film was my province, not theater. Maybe because the cinema was in such a backward state in India, but perhaps I shouldn't put the matter so negatively. I've just never thought of writing or directing a play; it's the writing of screenplays that comes to me straightaway, and then of course the filming of them.

Hadn't you ever thought of making a film out of a play?
Until Ganashatru (right), not really, because then the film depends too much on speech — and I am not interested. To me the peak moments of a film should be wordless, whereas in a play the words are of primary importance. At times the situation in a play can be film-like or adaptable to the screen, but there also one should see exactly how far one can go without words — as I trust I have done in Ganashatru. The best source for an adaptation, however, is not a play and not even a novel, but rather a long short story. For a film of two hours or so, the long short story is the most suitable form. You simply cannot do justice to a novel that contains 400 to 500 pages with a film that is less than four or five hours, even if you run it in two or three parts.

What do you think of the filmed plays of Shakespeare?
Whatever else Laurence Olivier may have achieved in his adaptations, his Shakespeare films were never filmic. Grigori Kozintsev is the only director who has ever brought a different kind of vitality to a Shakespeare film with his use of backgrounds, peasants, etc. But apart from him, I don't think anyone else has been able to do this; it's very difficult, you know.

I find it interesting that, time and again, you draw from the non-professional or amateur theater for your actors. Do you find any extra advantage in using such performers?
Not really, because those who act in the theater, be they professional or non-professional, sometimes don't feel comfortable acting in films, where they don't get instant feedback or appreciation from a live audience. Theater actors also dislike the discontinuity of film acting; they have to do a role in small parts, over a relatively long period of time, with the continuity between shots left to the editing table.

Have you ever found a person quite suitable in appearance but totally unable to act, and who therefore had to be discharged?
No, I have been very lucky in this area. You do a screen test before the actual shooting begins, and then you find out who can act and who cannot. Only sometimes with children I have encountered difficulty on the set, as in the case of the boy who played Apu in Pather Panchali. His name was Subir Banerjee, and he looked so right, but he couldn't act at all; he was also inattentive. I made him act only after a lot of hard work — including tricks that I devised with the help of the camera. Some children, you see, are born actors, but not Subir-Apu in Pather Panchali.

In your films, one of the persistent themes has been growing up under different circumstances or conditions, at varying levels of society and even in different time periods. Why are you drawn to this theme to such an extent?
It's true that earlier in my career I did treat this theme, but now narratives with a long span — the ten to twelve years during which a person grows up — do not attract me very much. These days I prefer a short time span during which the character undergoes a change or transformation on account of a traumatic experience — this is the "growth," the development, the movement. A good example of it can be found in Jana Aranya, where the time span is no more than one or two months. During this short period of time a totally honest, innocent boy becomes totally corrupted — and, ironically, then and only then can he stand on his own two feet. This movement from a certain state of character to another state — this complete inner change — quite fascinates, I must say. Even in an older film of mine, like Mahanagar, you can find such an inner change. Here a woman who does not want to work, starts working at her husband's insistence, becomes successful, encounters her husband's envy, and even comes to dominate when he loses his job; then ultimately there is a reconciliation between the two. There are several stages of development in this film, almost a zig-zag, up-and-down movement — and if you don't have something like this, with all your action, you're not making my kind of motion picture.

What you are saying, then, is that, over the years, you have gotten interested more and more in the psychology of a situation.
Let's say that I am interested in psychology itself, and have been at least since I made Devi. Now "psychology" is of capital importance to me.

If you found a story where the extraneous details are important, would you be interested in filming it?
Yes, if the extraneous details are genuinely important, but I would want to know what is happening to the actual human beings in the story as well. If the characters aren't interesting or aren't growing internally, I am not interested.

From 1961 onwards, starting with Teen Kanya (right), you have composed the music for your own films. Before concluding, could you address the subject of music in general and film music in particular?
Yes, of course. Music has been my first love for many, many years — perhaps from the time I was thirteen or fourteen. As a child, I had a toy gramophone and there were always plenty of records in our home. Then later, at Presidency College and while I was at the University of Shantiniketan, I became seriously interested in Western classical music. I did not have very much money in those days, so obviously it was a question of collecting slowly, one movement of a symphony or a concerto at a time.

When I started working, I began to take music even more seriously. I not only began to collect records, but I also got into the habit of buying musical scores. I remember there was a shop in Bombay in those days — S. Rose and Company — which used to sell miniature or pocketbook German scores. These became bedside reading for me. During the day I would listen to the records with the scores in hand, and then when I read the scores again at night, the music would all come back to me. This is also when I started to become familiar with staff notation.

Why primarily the interest in Western classical music?
You see, our home has always had a tradition of listening to Rabindrasangeet and Indian classical music. My uncle was a great music lover, and the promising new musicians in those days would come regularly to our place and perform. So, since I was familiar with Indian music — from these private performances and from going to public concerts — I did not feel that there was anything more I needed to do in order to learn about it.

With Western music, on the other hand, I experienced the excitement of discovering something new, completely uncharted territory: Beethoven and others whom I had only read about, doing something that did not exist in our music. I shared this enthusiasm with several friends, and I remember that the salesmen at Bevan & Co., in Dalhousie Square, used to be quite astonished that three or four young Bengalis could be so interested in Western classical music.

In 1966 you said, "Of all the stages of filmmaking, I find it is the orchestration of the music that requires my greatest attention. At the moment, it is still a painstaking process."
Well, you know, I get involved in the composing of music only once a year or so. If I were a professional composer, perhaps I would have a greater facility for this work. You also have to remember that I was completely self-taught in the area of music. I would jot down musical ideas for a film in shorthand form, so scoring became quite a trial. Now, with experience, the whole process has become somewhat easier for me. Even so, I can't put a musical idea on paper as quickly or as smoothly as a professional composer can. And this work, for me, is very time-consuming and tension-inducing. The tension is sometimes increased when the musicians don't play as I want them to, because they are used to playing very differently — especially here in Bengal.

Did this sense of not being too sure of yourself musically, early on, have anything to do with the fact that, in Pather Panchali (right), Ravi Shankar was one of the few professionals you used?
I thought of using Ravi Shankar not primarily because he was a close personal acquaintance with whom I would feel comfortable working. I thought it would be a good idea to work with someone like him, who would be able to introduce a fresh approach — quite unlike conventional Bengali film composers at the time.

How was it to work with a famous musician like Ravi Shankar?
Even at that time, Shankar was quite busy with his foreign tours. I had written to him in Bombay — or was it Delhi? — that I was thinking of making Pather Panchali and would like him to do the music. Then I went to see him when he came to Calcutta. He sort of hummed for me a melodic line — a folk tune of sorts — and I thought it was just right for Pather Panchali. So that became the film's musical theme — entirely Shankar's contribution.

Despite your interest in Western classical music, then, you have an aversion to using it in your films.
Oh, yes, that's right. A lot of films have used Western classical music, and not always with success. You know that Bo Widerberg's Elvira Madigan uses, again and again, parts of Mozart's Concerto 453 in G Major. Later on, I found the LP called "The Elvira Madigan Concerto." That's terrible! Scandalous, even. Because, you see, then you are assuming that the film will rise to the level of the music; but what often happens is that the music is brought down to the level of the film! Particularly in this case, the two don't mix — like water and oil. Yes, I know that Stanley Kubrick used the Ninth Symphony played on a synthesizer in A Clockwork Orange; and I suppose it works for this film, though I wouldn't want to possess a record of it. And Kubrick has done some other daring musical things that just come off — like his use of "The Blue Danube" in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I myself wouldn't mind using a relatively unknown piece of Baroque music — something by Couperin or Scarlatti, for instance — in a film if I can find the right subject.
I hate films, by the way, that are drenched with over-romantic music of the kind you find in some of those lush Hollywood films from the early 1940s. You got someone expensive for your music director, like Max Steiner or Alfred Newman, so you let him drown the film in music. You see, most of the American directors — with the exception of four or five, like William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, and George Stevens — had no control over a film after they finished shooting it. I asked John Huston, whose films are so wonderful, about his Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is absolutely ruined by its music. And he said he had no control over the score; perhaps also, he's not musical, as some directors aren't, and the producers took advantage of this fact.

So I gather that you feel background music is really an extraneous element in films — that one should be able to express oneself without it.
My belief is that, yes, a film should be able to dispense with music. But half the time we are using music because we are not confident that certain changes of mood will be understood by the audience — so we underline these changes with mood music. I would like to do without music if such a thing were possible, but I don't think I'll ever be able to do it. I will say that I have used very little music in my contemporary films and as much natural sound as possible.

Initially, I did feel that film needed music partly because long stretches of silence tend to bore the audience: It's as simple as that. With music, the scene becomes "shorter" automatically. And in certain types of films, music is a must unless you have a very rich natural soundtrack. Then there's the type of film where music is needed just to hide the rough edges. You know, De Sica's earlier pictures — Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Shoeshine, Umberto D. — were very grainy films, shot at a time when they were using five different kinds of black-and-white stock, and when shooting conditions were terrible, right after the Second World War. Not that the cutting or camera movement is bad — De Sica's a master in those departments — but some "rough" scenes simply cried out for music, and he had a marvelous composer, Cicognini, who provided it.

In general, let's just say that whether you are going to use music or sound effects depends on the mood of a scene. If a specific sound effect is crucial, I don't even think of using music in its place. And when you are trying to control time, to maintain real or chronological time, I would say the less music there is, the better, though sound effects can help a lot in this instance. When time is broken up, by contrast, music helps to preserve a linear flow.

Which score from one of your films would you re-do if you could?
All of them! Whenever I see an old film of mine, I say to myself: given the chance, I would re-edit it and do the music all over again. Today recording quality has improved enormously, but what used to happen in the old days is that immediately after the shooting was over and the rough cut was done, we were faced with a deadline to deliver the finished film — as a result of which everything was done in a rush and everything suffered. Sometimes we used to mix through the night, keeping just one step ahead of the editor, who was probably laying the tracks of reel four while we were mixing reel three! That's the way we used to work, on the music as well as everything else. There was no possibility of getting total precision, exactly what I wanted, etc.
Today, things are a little easier. One even develops improvised methods of one's own. For instance, now I record all the dialogue in my films on a cassette, with the silences. Then I make a chart of each character's lines so that I can work out precise timings and know exactly what music to put where. And I can do this because, as the director, I have every little detail of the film in my head. So I can even work at home, and I can work faster there. Everything I know about musical scoring — indeed, filmmaking as a whole — I learned as I went along. There were no rules; one had to make up one's own.

Could you give an example of a scene in one of your films that calls for music but doesn't have any?
Aparajito, after Harihar's death. It's the very first day that Sarbajaya and Apu arrive in the village; it is also dusk and there's practically nothing happening, nothing to see — almost nothing to hear — in that long sequence. I feel so awkward when I see it now. But Ravi Shankar hadn't provided any music here, and I didn't have the confidence at this point to write any.

Which of your early films, above all the others, needed strong orchestration to strengthen the main theme?
Jalsaghar, which I knew would have long passages of silence, called for a fairly extensive use of background music.

I am certain that you have your own musical favorite among your films. Which is it?
If you judge just by the background score, I would say Charulata is my best "musical film." Here everything was right, everything worked. The music in this picture had a lot to do with theme and context. Charulata's loneliness is established visually at the start, but it had a special quality. I had to explain that there was also a youthfulness, even a restlessness, about her loneliness. And as soon as something new or "connective" occurs — when Amal comes along, for example — she is revitalized, as it were. So I needed something that was both playful and wistful. And I got it, for the musical theme that finally emerged is one of the best I have done.
Then consider the context: we're dealing with a liberal, progressive, Westernized family here, so I knew I needed a Western element. In two of the songs, I got both the Western and the Indian elements. In a sense, the possibilities of fusing Indian and Western music began to interest me from this point on. I began to realize that, at some point, music is one, though on the whole I have to say that Western music is better able to reflect mood changes. It does this through transition from key to key, from major to minor, and so on. In Indian music, such transitions can only be accomplished through a sudden shift, from raga to raga — which itself can, in the right instance, be quite thrilling.

One final question, Mr. Ray. What do you feel are the main fears or crises confronting filmmakers today — I mean contemporary, serious filmmakers?
I'm afraid I don't know much about the others. I can only talk about myself. Obviously anyone who makes movies is concerned about the financial aspect. There possibly are directors who are not really concerned whether the producer gets his money back or not. But I put myself among those directors who are extremely aware of the fact that somebody else is making it possible for you to be creative. Without somebody else's help you are helpless, and you can never be creative in films. Making even the simplest of pictures costs money, and you don't always have that kind of money yourself. So you have to depend on others. Thus the need for communication, particularly of the economic kind.

Moreover, I don't think India is the place to be obscure, avant-garde, or abstract in the cinema. That is, unless you are making a film in Super-8 or using your own funds. Then you can do whatever you like. And it's good to conduct experiments from time to time. But when you consider yourself to be part of the commercial set-up, as I do, subconsciously you always think of an "ideal" audience. You are not necessarily thinking of the lowest common denominator in audiences; still, you are thinking of an audience for your film. And you expect this audience to respond to what you are doing. After a degree of experience, you know more or less what that audience is capable of responding to — which is what one endeavors to keep in mind.

One last thing, really. What truly amazes me is your utter accessibility. I mean, one has only to venture climbing a big flight of stairs to reach you, virtually unannounced. It's incredible, and I am so grateful to you for taking the time to talk to me.
Yes, I am in the phone book, and you can knock on my door. Everybody has access to me, anyone who wants to see me. In fact, the people who come to visit on Sunday mornings are often very ordinary folks. Not big stars or anything like that. Some are my old colleagues from advertising days. Others are those who simply feel friendly towards me as a result of the films of mine they have seen. In the end, I think it's rather stupid to raise a wall around oneself. This way of doing things — as we have done today — is much more interesting, rewarding, exciting.

November 2005 | Issue 50

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