I feel very sad at the demise of Father Gaston Roberge. Father had been close to our hearts for many, many years. Just imagine his incredible journey — a Jesuit priest, who came all the way from Montreal to Kolkata at a young age in 1961 and, after many years, in 1996, went to the Vatican. But he returned to Kolkata, where he stayed till his last breath on August 26.
Father Roberge was a great lover of cinema. He was a film theorist, who founded Chitrabani, the first-ever film studies centre in eastern India. In my opinion, Chitrabani was a social communication centre, too, because Father had initiated many research projects in different areas, such as slums and among less privileged people.
He had studied film in California, then went to New York where he saw Pather Panchali and became a fan of Satyajit Ray. He became a close friend of the filmmaker, with whom he had many interactions and wrote about. Ray was also one of the advisors of Chitrabani. Father Roberge also developed a great relationship with Mrinal Sen and other filmmakers of our generation.
Roberge was an inspiring figure for filmmakers like us, who still believe that you have to study cinema. It is not an easy job. It is not that if you have easily available digital equipment, you make a film. You have to learn cinema just like you learn your mother tongue and grammar. You have to know about great filmmakers, what they did, and great trends in cinema in different parts of the world. The moment you learn more, you will see that what you are doing is not enough and you have to improve yourself. It is a learning process that’s never-ending.
He introduced the study of film in the context of our social matrix, which is very important. I released one of his last books, The Indian Film Theory, in which he had analysed Sholay and a Bengali hit called Beder Meye Jyotsna. Why were these films so popular? Why were people watching them? He analysed the phenomena in the sociopolitical context of this complex and heterogeneous country, writing about our society while studying two films. He had a kind of social observation on cinema. He would ask, “Why were people enjoying films? Which class of people? What about education? Was it literacy or real education?”
Roberge’s knowledge of film theory was incredible. He was a scholar of the great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s work. Eisenstein’s film sense and form are not easy reading. I remember I had some confusion about the “overtonal montage” practised by Eisenstein. I spoke to Father, who explained to me the complex theory in a very simple way, citing examples from scenes and shots in films. I also discussed with him the “redemption of physical reality in cinema” as written in a great book, Theory of Film, by Siegfried Kracauer. It was a difficult book to read. When I had any doubt, I used to call Father and meet him.
His understanding was so clear and strong that a complex subject became as easy as flowing water. He introduced me to the writings of James Agee and said that I would find many new elements, not only about cinema but also related arts and art history. He opened up a huge canvas in front of me. Father had an in-depth knowledge of the great theories of cinema and that’s why he could make things so easy to understand. He also had a great admiration for the writings of André Bazin. He explained to me how a theorist and critic like Bazin had inspired great filmmakers, from the New Realism of Roberto Rossellini to French new-wave filmmakers such as Godard and Truffaut. They found a new space for cinema from Bazin’s writing. This was a subject of discussion between Father and me.
People like Father Roberge used to bring, through consulates and embassies, prints of world cinema, European and Japanese films, and we grew up watching these films at film societies because there was no television or DVDs. Otherwise, you had the opportunity to see such films only during film festivals. Father used to organise screenings at Chitrabani and analyse these films. It was very interesting that this was collective viewing. Discussing a film collectively has a different kind of impact. Those were great days.
Father’s favourite restaurant was the Fairlawn Hotel, which was also Shashi Kapoor’s favourite. We used to meet there for lunch, me and a friend of mine, and he always had some sweets because of his sweet tooth. Whenever I met him, he would say, “Goutam, here, take this chocolate.” You can feel the presence of a charismatic character, but also his simplicity. He knew so much but was so humble.
He was sent to the Vatican as a priest of a very high order, which would seem like the ultimate step for him. I was in Rome and we met up for a long chat at a cafe near the Vatican. Almost at the end of our adda, he told me in Bengali, “Goutam, aami kintu taratari phirey aschhi Kolkatay.” (Goutam, I am going to return to Kolkata very soon.) He really did. He came back and stayed until the end.
Father had written extensively about film theory and social communication and I think a compilation of his works should come out now. I request St Xavier’s College, where he had created two study centres, to do something about Father’s writing and the memory of Chitrabani.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 28, 2020 under the title ‘The high priest of cinema’. The writer is a filmmaker.