With the 91st birth anniversary of Indian cinema’s brightest luminary, Satyajit Ray, falling on May 2 (today), and his 20th death anniversary passing a few days before that, it is a dismal fact that his films have still not reached a wide section of filmgoers in the country after all these years. A stumbling block has been the Bengali language, in which they were mostly made: his films have rarely run in movie theatres, even with subtitles. If his films have enjoyed a greater national reach, it is certainly due to television.
Ray was very sensitive to the way his films were reviewed at home and abroad. However, he was particularly disgruntled at the quality of film criticism in Bengal and often locked horns with those expressing adverse comments on his works. In 1976 when his first anthology of talks and writings on cinema, Our Films, Their Films, came out, he wrote in the introduction: “While it is true that inadequate technical resources, erratic financing, slackness in writing and direction and acting, have all contributed to the general poor quality of films that surround us, I have no doubt that equal harm has been done by critics … who keep peddling muddled notions about the art form.”
As Ray wrote numerous articles related to cinema in newspapers and magazines at home and abroad, many of his talks and writings remained dispersed even after Our Films, Their Films appeared. Out of these, a second anthology of his cinema-related talks and writings in English, 22 in all, has followed suit with a slick volume titled Deep Focus. It also includes a few of his sketches, his poster-illustrations of his films, his photographs and stills from his and others’ films under discussion.
In an early essay of 1949, which predates his film-making career, Ray complains scathingly about the films of Bombay which “devised a perfect formula to entice and amuse the illiterate multitude”, and of the average Bengali film in which the various arts “have remained as incongruous and clashing elements, refusing to coalesce into the stuff that is cinema”.
Such statements should not, however, mislead us into thinking that Ray was only content as a film-maker to satisfy the demands of cinema’s high canons. In a 1980 article, he writes, “the biggest boost for a filmmaker comes not from critical praise or the praise of a small coterie or from a festival prize; it comes from the acceptance of the film by the public for whom it was made.” However, it is a well-known fact that he bypassed his home market at the start of his career because he could not have survived as a film-maker without the success of his early films in the West.
In his most significant piece, “Under Western Eyes”, written in 1982 for Sight and Sound, Ray takes upon himself the task of explaining his methods and treatments in making the Apu trilogy, Devi, Charulata, Kanchenjungha, and so on. He argues that despite “the Western traits in my films” like “irony, understatement, humour, open endings, the use of leitmotifs…”, a Western viewer had to be fairly knowledgeable about Bengali or Indian customs and manners to understand them fully — notwithstanding the usual epithets of “classical” and “humanist” being conferred on his films by Western critics.
In the smaller pieces in “Pen Portraits,” Ray makes some acute, if not ironical, observations. He talks about Godard (“a Godard film assumes for me the aspect of a collage”); Antonioni’s Blow-Up (comparing the significance of the non-existent tennis ball sequence at the end of the film with the non-existent apparel of the naked king, that “I, for one, am still looking”); his meeting with Bergman, and there is a paean to his Nayak, Uttam Kumar. He compensates for a slipshod half-page piece of Charlie Chaplin with his superb sketch of the immortal tramp. The jocular piece of 1963 on his visit to the Soviet capital to sit on the Moscow film festival jury is a real treat.
One downside in this miscellany is that some of the views appear dated, due to the journey Indian cinema had made after Ray’s death in 1992. Its editor, Sandip Ray, could have evaded the recurrence of some of his ideas and arguments in more than one article. But an additional bounty that adorns the book, in contrast to its very stark-looking predecessor, is his brilliant illustrations and rare photographs. One may or may not agree with Shyam Benegal’s views in his Foreword of Ray being “somewhat elitist”. Ray could never have sacrificed his craft to formulaic tendencies of popular Indian cinema, even if he appreciated some of its significant qualities that Benegal says “held the largest number of people in our country in thrall”. What rings in many of its pages, however, is Ray’s helpless discontent. Barring the critics and filmgoers in West Bengal, where “I have not often been praised or blamed for the right reasons”, he whinges at the fact that in the rest of the country “I am only a name … It certainly gives one an odd feeling”.
DEEP FOCUS: REFLECTIONS ON CINEMA
Foreword by Shyam Benegal
HarperCollins; 171 pages; Rs 450