An Interview with a Cinema Master by Bert Cardullo

Revisiting Satyajit Ray: An Interview with a Cinema Master — “Everybody has access to me, anyone who wants to see me. . .”

Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore
in Apu Sansar (The World of Apu)

Revisiting Satyajit Ray

An Interview with a Cinema Master

“Everybody has access to me, anyone who wants to see me. . .”


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.

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 (right), 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.

MahanagarAs 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 (right) 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?

AparajitoWhat 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.

GanashatruAs 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.

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 (right).

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.

Devi (The Goddess)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.

Ray with cameraI’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.

Sharmila Tagore in DeviMoreover, 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.

CharulataHow 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 (below).

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.

Ray on the setInitially, 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
Copyright © 2005 by Bert Cardullo

ACCESS: The IMDB entry for Satyajit Ray is a good resource for reviews and information on DVD and VHS availability of the films. The University of California at Santa Cruz maintains a large Ray archive; go here. Senses of Cinema offers a solid overview of his career, as always.


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