Reading Ray

Reading Ray has always been as delightful as watching his films, be it fiction or his articles on cinema. His impeccably crafted prose, both English and Bengali, with its easy flow and delectable flavor, his keen observations, clarity of thought, ready wit and brevity have been the hallmark of most of his writings, just like in his films. So when I stumbled into a recently released book containing a collection of his articles, I could not resist the temptation to devour its contents just like those days when we waited impatiently to read the latest adventures of his private eye Feluda or the globetrotting scientist Professor Shonku, or his collection of truly engrossing short stories that always came out in volumes of twelve stories each. Aptly titled Deep Focus: Reflections on Cinema by Satyajit Ray, the book brought out by Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Films and Harper Collins contains twenty-two articles written by the master in his inimitable style, spanning four decades starting from the 40s before he strode into film-making till the mid-80s. The articles written for various periodicals and newspapers had been given up for lost till the members of the Society undertook the stupendous task of scavenging through archives and private collections and arranging them in a certain order to bring them out in the form of a book. After Our Films Their Films and Bishoy Chalachitro (Speaking of Films) that came out more than three decades ago, such a book was long overdue.

The man has been dead for twenty years and cinema has moved ahead relentlessly in different corners of the world, exploring myriad themes and styles, pushing boundaries like never before. With the advent of digital technology and cheaper methods of film-making, an entire generation of young film-makers has jumped into the bandwagon, thrown aside tradition and embarked on the most adventurous and sometimes outrageous styles and subject matters. I wonder if Ray would have approved of many of these efforts, steeped as he was in the classical idiom that was his signature. He was a product of the pre-globalization and pre-cyber era where the socio-economic conflicts were easier to comprehend. But his genius lay in digging out the complexities that he fathomed below these seemingly simple contradictions and play them out through characters caught in a web of complex relationships that were impacted by the social forces that raged outside them. In this he was far ahead of his time and still makes sense today. A stranger as he might appear today in this maddening rush for ‘high concept’ ideas and complex marketing strategies and box office equations, his documents on human conditions and aspirations still make him contemporary and relevant because, as he says in one of the articles, “Broad concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, do not vary much from culture to culture. Human behavior also falls within patterns which are largely familiar and predictable. Abnormal situations may affect such behavior as, say, in Hitler’s Germany; but as long as film makes the context clear, a viewer is unlikely to lose his bearings. This can happen only when the development of the story itself turns on social and historical factors of which the viewers [may] have no knowledge.”

Talking about his own approach to craft he writes: “If I were asked what has been my main preoccupation as a film-maker, I should say it has been to find out ways of investing a story with organic cohesion, and filling it with detailed and truthful observation of human behavior and relationships in a given milieu and a given set of events, avoiding stereotypes and stock situations, and sustaining interest visually, aurally, and emotionally by a judicious use of the human and technical resources at one’s disposal… I find this an absorbing, inexhaustible and by no means easy task that I intent to pursue as long as I keep making films… I am aware that they are not of a kind that hits one in the solar plexus, which is why they may well have been missed by many critics and most filmgoers here (I have not often been praised or blamed for the right reasons).”

Defending the assumed ‘slowness’ in some of his earlier films he writes, “My first two films, Pather Panchali and Aparajito, had to be slow because of their subject matter. I knew I was taking a risk, what I didn’t know was how difficult it is to sustain a slow pace without seeming ponderous and boring. Provided the subject is interesting, a film can hold an audience in spite of slowness by means of (a) an extreme precision of cutting which ensures that shots are not held even for a split second beyond their expressive limits, and (b) an expressive soundtrack that helps to mitigate the slowness. A scene with its soundtrack turned off seems slower than it actually is because it withholds information, and is therefore less meaningful…”

This is a master speaking about his craft in a manner that is so brass-tacks that it makes him look almost simplistic. He eschews unnecessary intellectualization or theorization about his craft or sound pompous like a lesser director given to defending his work that failed to reach its audience. In this he was like Hitchcock, who painstakingly explained his craft to Truffaut in such simple terms and earnest manner that the entire process of creativity was suddenly demystified and brought down to its barest functional role.

Ray describes his ‘classical’ style as “… an orderly, unfolding of events with a beginning, a middle and an end – in that order; a firm rein applied to emotion, and an avoidance of disorientation for its own sake…” He was skeptical of styles and trends that are “marked by an overt preoccupation with idiom and form rather than with content… [such films] may have problems of communication, and therefore, of survival.” Elsewhere he writes, “A director who discards the popular elements and stops telling a story in comprehensible terms digs his own grave.” So much for a director who was often branded as esoteric by people who had never seen his films in India beyond Bengal!

Despite his aversion to undue experimentations he raves about Godard whose films he likens to a collage where ‘seemingly unrelated elements are brought together to create a pattern of contrasts’, a style that eschews conventional unfolding of plot and character. He acknowledges him as an influence that encouraged him to ‘dispense largely with fades and dissolves…’

The chapter that deals with his analysis of Antonioni’s cult classic Blow Up which he snubs as a ‘slick film about shallow people’ reveals a take that is radically different from what we had attributed to the film all these years. “The much touted ‘pace’ of the film is a myth. I have seldom seen a film which has so little ‘inner’ movement, in the sense of characters growing, relationships developing, or even just a story unfolding. Antonioni is aware of this, and tries to make up for it by a good deal of gratuitous physical movement – mainly Thomas whizzing up and down the London in his Rolls and, in one scene, cavorting with a couple of moronic, dishabille models amid rolls and rolls of purple backdrop paper.” In the chapter on Uttam Kumar whom he dubs as an instinctive actor as opposed to ‘cerebral’, he compares the star to Gregory Peck and writes, “… Gregory Peck, who remains to this day, I am told, an actor ‘who needs handling’… [whereas] Uttam, even in the most inconsequential of parts, exuded confidence which Peck never did.” (I wonder how Gregory Peck would have felt about this if he chanced upon these lines, because he was one of the celebs who lobbied on behalf of Ray that ultimately fetched him his Honorary Oscar for Life Time Achievement in 1992!)

There is a chapter that contains his convocation address at FTII in 1974 where he warns the future film-makers, somewhat condescendingly, of the dangers of ‘making films solely for one’s pleasure, or for the pleasure of a small coterie… by throwing economics out of the window’. At another point he shocks them by stating that “…in our country at least, films have been made with virtually no contribution from the director, or at least nothing of positive nature. He does nothing because he knows nothingWhat is even more alarming and must cause real despair in serious artists is that a film, made in the circumstances that I have described, by a man in utter ignorance of all that you have so assiduously learned for your diplomas, can actually have a popular success, can even earn the praises of the so-called critic, and – the final irony – may even go on to win a national award.” How true!

The last section of the book that deals with his experiences of film festivals both as a contestant and a jury member is more like a memoir than a comment on the state of films of that period and retains value only as archival stuff written by a master; but they nevertheless make for entertaining reading. Savour this: “Once, sitting on the jury in Moscow, I found a Soviet colleague, a distinguished film-maker, driven to paroxysms of laughter by a particularly mirthless comedy from the West. I asked him later what he found so funny. He was apologetic. ‘You see,’ he explained, ‘we see so few comedies here that we really don’t know what is funny and what is not.’”

The book is riddled with such gems and it is difficult to cover the expanse of his subject matters and depth of his intellectual profundity in a blog piece of this length. (After all, I lack the master’s brevity and precision.) I can only recommend the book to those interested in the man and his art. (It comes priced at Rs 301 on homeshop18.com). As an added attraction the book contains his posters that he designed for his films and his pencil sketches of personalities like John Ford, Chaplin, Kurosawa, De Sica, Eisenstien and Tagore. Before I conclude I would like to share just one observation of the master that marks his wit for which he was so famous.

Talking about the stereotypical depiction of India in Western literature and films he writes, “India remained a nebulous entity to the West; a vast amorphism that refused to take on a semblance of the familiar… The few films about India from the West only helped to strengthen this feeling… And once again, in novels too this ignorance is brazenly flaunted. For a land where cows are holy and God is a phallus, anything will pass for the truth.”

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  1. Lovely piece. Loved the bit about ‘Blow Up’.
    “The much touted ‘pace’ of the film is a myth. I have seldom seen a film which has so little ‘inner’ movement, in the sense of characters growing, relationships developing, or even just a story unfolding. Antonioni is aware of this, and tries to make up for it by a good deal of gratuitous physical movement – mainly Thomas whizzing up and down the London in his Rolls and, in one scene, cavorting with a couple of moronic, dishabille models amid rolls and rolls of purple backdrop paper.”

    This is SATYAVACHAN when we see so many many film non-stories hiding behind an epileptic camera.

    Thanks Ronnie!

  2. @Charu, you must read the rest of the chapter on Blow Up and see how he tears apart the authenticity of the actual process of blow up of the picture that points to a crime, from a purely technical angle – how such a thing is not possible (he himself was a gifted photographer and ran a studio in Calcutta even when he was making films). Of course you must read the whole book when you get the time.
    @Tathagata, yes, buy the book and make it a point to read it. It’s very useful for a film student.
    @Rina, yes, I love that line too. It’s so apt! Wanted to end the article with that line. Just hope he is not castigated for it by the right wing forces!!!
    @Koustav, stick to that motto, though it is difficult to follow but that’s what all good art is about ultimately.
    @Subhorup, now make up for the lost time.
    @Irene, you will enjoy the book really. It’s a real page turner, like Feluda!

  3. The line “If I were asked what has been my main preoccupation as a film-maker, I should say it has been to find out ways of investing a story with organic cohesion, and filling it with detailed and truthful observation of human behavior and relationships in a given milieu and a given set of events, avoiding stereotypes and stock situations, and sustaining interest visually”. relate to my moto of making or watching film so close, that I cant lose it by any chance

  4. Wow, great overview. Have always admired Ray’s writing, right from childhood, and it wasnt till much later that I discovered his writing on films. This sounds like a real treat. Thanks.

  5. @Arijit, amongst his fiction works Feluda belongs to an age which precedes cell phones and computers; these gadgets definitely would have made his missions easier – just imagine Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) set in the early 70s with cell phones and GPS; but you can’t deny the spirit of adventure that permeates these slender novels and the kick that we got! We still enjoy Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie despite their period settings; in fact we enjoy them more because of the nostalgia – the cobble stoned streets and foggy moors… As far as his short stories are concerned, they are definitely universal still. And it’s not only today’s kids but their parents too – most of them non-Bongs – who I have seen browse through the English translations in book stores of Mumbai and Bangalore (where I had been recently). That’s a good sign, but I have not observed them long enough to find out if they bought those books ultimately. Who cares? I like him still, even if it is for nostalgia…

  6. Great article. One more buyer to the store. I am sometimes worried, being a bong and being of the same cultural milieu in which the master worked, wheether his words remain as universal as they were once…but am greatly comforted when I meet todays kids in bookstore buying out his translated works in english (some of them are bengali but can’t read the words) and many have seen much of his films too.

  7. ranjan,

    my compliments, which you may found to be heaped upon as fresh dung, because i’m far far away from your precision and brevity while expressing my love and fun reading it, but the compliments come warm & true nevertheless.. 🙂

    i feel, this somewhat clinical yet exuberant analysis of a master comes from your being emotionally attached to the versatility of RAY yet doing this you are far removed from the thought process of the so-called bengali intelligentsia and film-making fraternity here in kolkata.. perhaps this detachment gives you fresh ways to depict the maestro..thus help us see more of his profundity..in a fresher way.. it also gives the uninitiated a glimpse of the universe we discovered in his non-film works long long ago..

    last but not the least, please keep writing..essays such as this tend to lose their way either in the quagmire of technicalities or buried under writer’s own “see how much i know” syndrome.. you really saved your readers from such innuendos..

    look forward to read the book and more of your essays..

    THANKS 🙂

  8. Nice blog – finally managed to read it with a little prodding from KB. Makes me feel like buying the book and imbibe more of the masters wit and wisdom. However, have a little crib about Blow Up. It remains a favorite just because of its ‘style’ and the way it has captured the mood of London in the “Swinging Sixties’. From what I’ve gathered from his other writings and comments, Ray sometimes comes across as bit conservative and dogmatic about experiments with the narrative style and content in films.

  9. Dhanno loves the Feluda stories as much as I do, and we go back to them every now and again. Ray was such a master writer. This book sounds lovely, what a great review, Ranjan. I am sure everyone who reads this review, will want to read the book. Like me. Heading to home18. 🙂

  10. Well written. Loved the bit about ‘Blow up’. That film is a bit hyped. When I watched it for the first time, it felt more like a fictionalized guided tour of London and its people, with a sensationalized story tacked on…

  11. @Gunjon, I have always been a Rayophile and loved his structured and classical view of life and art and I was waiting for a chance to write on him; so when I read the book I immediately thought of sharing my fascination for the man through this blog piece. Now that I seem to have aroused an interest in the readers to read the book – and his other works (many of whom are not aware that he was a highly popular writer in Bengal, all his fiction works being bestsellers) – I feel happy. You must also read up my re-reviews of his films like Nayak, Aranyer Din Ratri and Shatranj Ke Khilari on upperstall.com
    @Monish & Pat, you guys have two entirely different takes on Blow Up. Makes me want to see the film once again and form my own views afresh. Have not seen the film for decades. And Monish, there is nothing wrong in a work / man being ‘conservative’ as long as it entertains and thought provoking, and Ray always has been an entertainer.
    @Batul & Karan, pick up the book and delight yourself. There are so many other things that he has written about which I could not refer to in this blog piece, his vast knowledge of Western music being one and his study of the growth of cinema in the early years in the context of other prevailing art forms that reflects his profound erudition. Not for nothing was he known as the ‘Orient Longman’.

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