There already exist two full-length studies on Satyajit Ray: a biographical study by Marie Seton and Robin Wood’s Apu Trilogy. But Orient Longman’s expensively brought out Our Films, Their Films is a rare book-a noted film-maker’s musings about himself, his craft and about other film makers.
The book which represents a sizeable amount of Ray’s writings on films is actually a compilation of magazine articles (and, therefore, contains little that is new to any serious student of cinema) written between 1948-73. The 25 pieces fall neatly into two sections : the first discusses Indian Cinema and includes the justly celebrated but controversial article ‘An Indian New Wave’ which first appeared in Filmfare; the second section discusses Chaplin, the silent films, Kurosawa, Hitchcock (all provoked by books to be reviewed) Hollywood Then and Now, the British Cinema, Renoir, Ford and Italian Films.
It will come as no surprise to anyone already aware of Ray’s versatility in the arts and that he has never collaborated on his film scripts that he writes extremely well. His writing, like his films, is marked by a singular economy of expression.
The reasons are not far to seek; ‘In Santiniketan’, Ray writes, ‘as a student of painting, I had been drawn towards far-eastern calligraphy which goes to the heart of the perceived reality.’ Another striking similarity between his writing and his films is the use of significant detail. It is this unerring eye for detail, a trait he shares with Renoir and his mentor Erich von Stroheim, that raises his films and his descriptions of people, places and events above the ordinary. Thrown for the first time into the alien world of the village, he worries over minute details. ‘To one born and bred in the city, it had a new flavour, a new texture: you wanted to observe and probe to catch the revealing details, the telling gestures, the particular turns of speech. You wanted to fathom the mysteries of “atmosphere”. Does it consist in the sights, or in the sounds? How to catch the subtle difference between dawn and dusk or convey the grey humid stillness that precedes the first monsoon shower? Is sunlight in spring the same as sunlight in autumn?’
To Ray it is this attention to detail which allows the film-maker to invest the casual moment with poetic significance and is unique to the medium of cinema. He describes one such moment in John Ford’s ‘Fort Apache’, ‘Two men stand talking on the edge of a deep ravine. There is a broken bottle lying alongside. One man gives it a casual kick and sends it flying over the edge. A few seconds later in a gap in the conversation, the sound track registers the faintest of clinks. That’s all.’ It is typical of Ray to identify such poetical detail in a film which to casual filmgoers would be another routine Western. The tone of his writings is restrained, down-to-earth and practical. He leaves no place for idle pretensions. Who can quarrel with his definition of cinema, as ‘the highest form of commercial Art.’ And he describes his own transition from advertising where he designed soap wrappings to cinema where he now shapes the contours of a celluloid saga in self-deprecatory terms. ‘After all, both films and advertising deal with consumable commodities and in both you have the spectacle of the conscientious artist striving to express himself in aesthetic terms.’
His diagnosis of what ails Indian Cinema is equally forthright. He lays the blame squarely on the baleful influence of American Cinema whose superficial aspects are imitated slavishly and on the fundamental confusion on the part of film-makers who equated movement with action and action with melodrama. His cure is one which he has himself adopted with considerable success. ‘What the Indian Cinema needs is not more gloss but more imagination, more integrity, and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium.’ Predictably, he comes out against technique at the expense of theme, gimmickry in any form and suggests De Sica and De Mille as the model for aspiring Indian films makers.
The most important essay in the section on Our Films is undoubtedly ‘The Indian New Wave’. Ray’s response to those who believe that Bhuvan Shome, Mayadarpan and Duvidha have ushered in a new wave of sorts in India is that avant-garde cinema in the European context is not a viable proposition in India. According to him, the experimentalist in the West succeeded because they were, thanks to changed social attitudes, able to exploit the sexual permissiveness in their so called off-beat films. This was still a long way off in India. To Ray, a modern idiom not backed by a modern attitude of life and society was apt to degenerate into gimmickry and empty flamboyance. In ‘Four and a quarter’ he cuts the aspiring new wave filmmakers down to size by firing a few critical salvoes. Duvidha suffered from a ‘visual style replete with cliches that found their echo in all that is chic in modern advertising photography’. Mayadarpan, Ray finds, ‘a combination of poor psychology and poorer stylization and gauche in its handling of the human element.’ Bhuvan Shome beneath its ‘trendy habit’ and ‘spiky syntax’ was essentially ‘old fashioned’ and ‘Indian’.
The weakest essay in the collection is where Ray briefly discusses. the tradition of songs in Hindi films. Having quoted, tongue-in-cheek, an American reviewer, who found songs, ‘a very interesting piece of stylization wholly in the non-realistic tradition of Indian art’, Ray writes that to have each line of a lyric being sung against a different scenic background is a daring cinematic innovation. One wonders whether Ray is being merely perverse in bending over backwards in order to single out commercial Hindi films for praise while dismissing the genuine attempts of young film-makers like Kaul and Shahani or as Bikram Singh has suggested he would like ‘Hindi Films to continue merrily in their erratic downhill path while he himself goes on making the sort of films which try to stand up to international standards of film aesthetics’.
The second section reveals the cosmopolitan Ray equally at home in Hollywood amidst artificial canals, fake Italian villas, Billy Wilder and Robert Taylor and in Japan amidst Zen gardens, mist-shrouded Fuji, Kurosawa and the whirling collage that is Tokyo. His taste one gathers is eclectic enough to allow him to admire De Sica, Renoir, Hitchcock, Ford, the Marx Brothers, Fellini and Antonioni. Rather surprisingly, his choice for the only film to take to a desert island is a Marx film.
Particularly noteworthy are a brilliant essay on Kurosawa, a fine tribute to John Ford, the well-known piece on Renoir’s visit to Calcutta, and an appreciation of Hollywood Then and Now
Balakrishnan is a Planning Engineer, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd., New Delhi.