Ray Reflects

A delightful collection of Satyajit Ray’s writings — on Bombay formula,Bengal pretensions and the slick,shallow American movie

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published: March 3, 2012 12:15 am

Book: Deep Focus: Reflection on Cinema

Author: Satyajit Ray

Publisher: Harper Collins

Price: Rs 450

For one year I was trying to sell the scenario,to peddle it… since nobody would buy it,I decided to start anyway,because we wanted some footage to prove that we were not incapable of making films. So I got some money against my insurance policies. We started shooting,and the fund ran out very soon. Then I sold some art books,some records and some of my wife’s jewellery. Little trickles of money came,and part of the salary I was earning as art director. All we had to spend on was raw stock,hire of a camera,transport and so on… I had nothing more to pawn.”

This would make a classic quiz question. Which great filmmaker said this,and which film was he referring to? A few slender hints are contained in the paragraph. No one these days talks of insurance policies as something you can raise money against. The next line narrows it down some more. How many filmmakers would possess art books and records of any value? And then comes the clincher: which filmmaker also doubled as art director?

By now,crack quizzers and film fanatics would have arrived at the right answer. Yes,it is Satyajit Ray. And the film is Pather Panchali (1955),which blazed such a trail for the debutant director that he ended with a clutch of awards at film festivals around the world: Cannes,Edinburgh,Manila,San Francisco,Berlin,Vancouver,New York. This was a dizzying sweep,a never-before-feat for an Indian filmmaker. Ray became a global name,garnered fans among festival heads and influential critics: most films he made subsequently became automatic inclusions in prestigious film festivals.

That Ray found it harder to win instant acolytes in his own country is well known. Several of his most celebrated films were slammed,by celebrated parliamentarians and regular viewers,for “celebrating” India’s poverty. If he made films today,they would doubtless be dubbed “poverty porn” in certain quarters: it has taken time to put Satyajit Ray and his astonishing body of work in context,to be able to look at it without the prism of unquestioning fandom or prejudicial venom. Yes,he was unquestionably a genius who made some exceedingly brilliant films,films that will always be counted among the best in the world; he also made some ordinary films,and not only by his own high standards.

You get a sense of who he was,this tall,austere,distinguished Bengali Renaissance Man,from his writings on cinema and some of its famous luminaries. His first collection of essays,Our Films Their Films (1976),has always been in print not just because of what he wrote (a clear-eyed perspective on films made in India and outside) but how he wrote,lucid,succinct,with more than a hint of acerbity sometimes,and always,always accompanied by superb sketches and drawings. Deep Focus: Reflections On Cinema is only the second volume of his writings,published over the years in various newspapers and journals,which son Sandip has painstakingly collected. And it is a delight,because you can dip into it for the forthrightness (some would call it arrogance) of Ray’s views on the world and movies.

This is a telling little excerpt from the first chapter “The Film Maker’s Craft”: “Of our filmmaking provinces,Bombay has devised a perfect formula to entice and amuse the illiterate multitude that forms the bulk of our film audiences. Bengal has no such formula. But Bengal has pretensions. And the average Bengali film is not a fumbling effort. It is something worse…” This was first published in August 1949 in The Statesman. It’s not just “our films” that Ray has a downer on. This is what he has to say,in the same chapter,about the “average American film”,which is “a slick,shallow,diverting and completely inconsequential thing”. Would he have changed his mind if he had to write this today? You suspect that he would have said exactly what he thought. Because what comes through strongly is an artist in constant search of cinematic companions and inspiration but with a voice already formed,already in place.

The volume takes in Ray’s thoughts on a meeting with Jean Renoir (when he came looking for locations for his The River),goes on to the greatness of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s’s novel on which Pather Panchali was based,stops off to get in a nice little jibe at critics (“At any rate,in the limited time and space at their disposal,they can scarcely hope to do justice to a serious work of art”),what it is like to be a participant (and award winner) at film festivals,as well as serve on juries (in Moscow,Ray reaches his hotel with his wife,complete with vanished luggage,and no money). For those who relish such things,there are measured but distinct digs at Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni,praise for Bergman,and a wholly admiring shout-out to Charlie Chaplin,who “is truly immortal”.

Look out for the sketches and the drawings,too,which make the book such a particular pleasure.

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