indian cinema heritage foundation

My Work and My Philosophy

27 Apr, 2020 | Archival Reproductions by Satyajit Ray
Satyajit Ray

It had been growing, but about 1946 or ‘47, I felt that I had to make a film. Before that I had, of course, illustrated an edition of Pather Panchali, and the book had attracted me as a possible film source. Then, around 1947, I started the Calcutta Film Society, and in 1948, I developed a new hobby. I was writing scenarios of films, based on books which had already been acquired for filming. If I read in the papers that a certain book had been bought and was being made into a film, I would write a scenario and later compare it with the treatment on the screen.

There were fewer films in those days than now. My general habits didn’t include the local products, and it was mainly American films that I saw, before we started the Film Society in 1947. It was ninety per cent American films. With an occasional British film thrown in and sometimes a chance French or Italian picture. We did get to see some Russian films, because the Russians were allies and they sent out things like the Maxim Gorky trilogy, Eisenstein’s films, some of Pudovkin’s. In fact, that is an important event… Pudovkin and Cherkassov came to Calcutta in 1950 or so. Before that I had seen ‘Ivan the Terrible’, and I asked Cherkassov how he managed to get his eyes so wide open, because he had the normal kind of small eyes, not deep set. And he said, “Eisenstein made me do it.” He was slightly critical of the way he was handled by Eisenstein, made to assume postures that were very difficult, so that at the end of the day, he had muscle pains all over his body.

The moment I discovered that Renoir was in town, I went and looked him up. He had a feeling for nature; a deep humanism with a kind of preference for the shades of grey, a sort of Chekovian quality; and his lyricism and the avoidance of clichés.
Renoir came in 1949. I had seen only American Renoirs, ‘The Southerner’, ‘This Land is Mine’. The Southerner seemed a remarkable film, very fresh, very unconventional, taking an American subject and giving it a kind of European colouring. The film was a very importance experience for me, and the moment I discovered that Renoir was in town, I went and looked him up. He had a feeling for nature; a deep humanism with a kind of preference for the shades of grey, a sort of Chekovian quality; and his lyricism and the avoidance of clichés. In one of his American films, you have a scene of a fight, which is shot almost static, from one viewpoint. Whereas normally you have cuts; the blows go this way, that way, cuts, intercuts; here is one big fight scene in a single shot taken from a normal viewpoint, nothing low, nothing too high up, no wide-angle, nothing. So that it seemed like a remarkable thing, a perfect harmony of form and content.

I was full of admiration for him. Sometimes one is disappointed meeting an artiste one admires, because as a person he turns out to be something you can’t warm to, can’t get close to. But Renoir was such a wonderful man, deep, gentle, humorous and full of wisdom… I went as many times as I could after my office, which would be around six o’clock in the evening. He would have worked the whole day on the scenario of ‘The River’, and I would pester him with questions about his French films, which I hadn’t seen, and then I went location hunting with him. I knew the Calcutta suburbs and nearby villages, for I had already started going around on my own, taking train trips outside the city, because I had the making of ‘Pather Panchali’ in mind. I told him about it: this is the kind of story, this is the kind of situation, make it, I think it will make a fine film.” 
Sometimes one is disappointed meeting an artiste one admires, because as a person he turns out to be something you can’t warm to, can’t get close to. But Renoir was such a wonderful man, deep, gentle, humorous and full of wisdom

He was shooting about ten miles away from Calcutta. Since I still had my job, I could only go on three or four Sundays. When I went, I stayed the whole day and watched the whole thing, but I actually saw more of him when he was here the first time and came to look for locations. I can’t say ‘The River’ was a film about the real India. The background was Indian and it was most marvelously used…riverside, the boats and the fisherman and the general landscape. But the story itself was a bit idealistic, not terribly interesting, about an English jute-mill manager and his family, adolescents mainly, and certainly not an Indian story, and even as a Western story in an Indian setting, certainly not so near the truth, because it had been idealized. There are characteristic Renoir touches there. I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t, of course, compare with his French films.

In 1950, I went to England to work in the head office of the Calcutta advertising agency. I was sent out for six months, and in the six months, I was able to see 100 or so films. The first film I saw there was ‘Bicycle Thieves.’ It was in a double-bill at the Curzon with ‘A Night at the Opera’. It made a very, very interesting combination. I was terribly excited because I already had this idea of making ‘Pather Panchali’, but I wasn’t whether one could really work with an entirely amateur cast.
The first film I saw there was ‘Bicycle Thieves.’ It was in a double-bill at the Curzon with ‘A Night at the Opera’. It made a very, very interesting combination. I was terribly excited because I already had this idea of making ‘Pather Panchali’, but I wasn’t whether one could really work with an entirely amateur cast.
But now I had the proof. And it was all shot on location, at least 90 per cent shot on location. I had the proof that one could shoot out there, in all kinds of light. I had been told by professional directors here that you had to have control over the light, which meant you had to have artificial light. “You can’t control the sun,” that’s what they said. “And if you want rain, you have to create it artificially, because, how could you control actual natural rain, it stops and goes and comes.”

Methods

I liked to do everything in the making of the film. For example, I had a very good cameraman, but after each shot, he would say, “We must take another.” I asked him why. He was never precise. He said, “Well….” That is very dangerous when one is shooting on a small budget. So I decide to take the camera myself. Sometimes in a tracking shot, where there is a lot of action, a slight shake is not important if the action is good. But he thought only about the shake. He wanted smoothness at any price. I realize 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 the exact frame. If one sitting on the side, one is dependent on the cameraman. He frames the shot, he does the panning, the tilting, the tracking - he does everything. It’s only when one sees the ‘rushes’ that one knows exactly what one has. I am so used to doing the framing now that I couldn’t work in any other way.

Not that I have no trust in my cameraman’s operational abilities, but the best position to judge the acting is through the lens.

I started with one cameraman, Subrata Mitra, who was a beginner. He was twenty one when he shot the first film; he had never handled a movie camera in his life. But I had to have a new cameraman, because all the professionals said that you can’t shoot in rain, and you can’t shoot outdoors, that the light keeps changing, that the sun goes down too fast, and so forth. I got a new cameraman, and we decided on certain basic things. We believed in available light. We aimed at simulating available light in the studio by using bounced lights. It didn’t happen with the first film, but with the second film, when we had to shoot interiors in the studio, supposedly of houses in Benares where there was a central courtyard with no roof and all the light came from the sky. It was a kind of top lighting, shadowless. We started using bounced lighting, with a cloth stretched over and the lights bounced back from it.
But I had to have a new cameraman, because all the professionals said that you can’t shoot in rain, and you can’t shoot outdoors, that the light keeps changing, that the sun goes down too fast, and so forth. I got a new cameraman, and we decided on certain basic things. We believed in available light.
When the studios were built in the north of Calcutta fifty years ago, this part of Calcutta was a village. It was during the silent period, in any case. There was no traffic, no noise, but now the city has grown. This area is a part of the city and one hears cars, motor-cycles, scooters. One day one can have perfect sound, but the next day there is noise and we have to dub it, so we have to dub everything.

All Indian films are dubbed, it’s the general practice in Bombay also. They have very sophisticated machinery with computers. It is what one calls ‘The Rock & Roll’ system and they dub everything. In fact, I have realized that in dubbing, one can improve the work of even a professional actor. Personally. I would like very much not to dub. I talked to James Ivory who was shooting here. He said there are marvelous sound engineers who can use all the sounds. In India, the young sound engineers have better equipment, very good directional mikes. But since they know everything will be dubbed, they are not specially careful.
As for colour, it is much better now than it was ten or fifteen years ago, when one didn’t know how to control it. Colour tended to make everything look too beautiful, too pretty, but now I feel that the advantage of colour is that it can give more details.
As for colour, it is much better now than it was ten or fifteen years ago, when one didn’t know how to control it. Colour tended to make everything look too beautiful, too pretty, but now I feel that the advantage of colour is that it can give more details. It must be used very carefully and I don’t allow the laboratory to change anything. If I choose the costumes for their colour, I want the film to show those colours. One can make changes by emphasizing the blue, yellow, but I am most satisfied when the colour is closest to what I have used. It is very carefully chosen and I don’t want the laboratoryto do any colour corrections.

I like to think of my films as being ‘composed’. I like to plan my films. They are very, very carefully conceived. I leave room for improvisation when we are shooting, particularly on location. One finds new angles, etc.  But everything is planned in the head as well as on paper. It’s a very economical way of working. In that way, one ensures that the cost does not go up.

Everything is more expensive, so one has to be more careful and my films, in general, are edited in the camera. Except for scenes of dialogues with two-three characters which can be cut in several different ways – where the editor and I try different variations - the one who is speaking, the one who is listening.

I never take a shot for safety’s sake. If it is really good, I don’t do a second take. Sometimes, one is obliged to take it twice, the maximum is three times for reasons of coordination. For example, in ‘Pather Panchali’, the two children are looking at an old man who sells sweets. The children decide to follow him, to run after him. This was the shot; the boy, the girl. The girl runs, the boy follows and there is a dog in the background who follows also. They have to be in the same shot, but it was not a trained dog. One chap said, “I’II call him.” The dog didn’t even get up. I had to do eleven takes. But it was important because it was supposed to be their dog and had to follow them. In the end, the little girl had a piece of food in her hand and the dog followed the food… On the screen, it was perfect.
 
Satyajit Ray during the shooting of Hirok Rajar Deshe (1980)
I don’t restrict myself to locations. I also shoot in a studio, but I am very careful about the art direction and the light and it does not show. One can’t tell whether it is a studio or not.
I don’t restrict myself to locations. I also shoot in a studio, but I am very careful about the art direction and the light and it does not show. One can’t tell whether it is a studio or not. It’s much easier. Location shooting in Calcutta is extremely difficult. There are always crowds and noise all around you. Sometime, of course, one has to go outdoors. In ‘The Middleman’, there are plenty of street scenes in Calcutta, but we work very fast and with handheld cameras. We arrive, we shoot, we go away. There can be problems if one has a long sequence to shoot. We can’t even use the police who don’t have a good image in India. The police attract an even bigger crowed because people come and ask what is happening. So we do our own policing. Everybody in the crowd wants to be in the shot; they don’t want to be there just to watch. I made a film in ’66-67 for which we were shooting eighty kms. from Calcutta in the heart of the countryside. We had constructed a set with a garden and a chicken coop. For a day or two, there wasn’t a soul, it was like in a studio. The nearest station was five kms. away. On the third day we heard a train stopping in the afternoon and half an hour later, we heard a terrific noise. It was a crowd of young people who had come from Calcutta. They were brandishing sticks of sugarcane and shouting. “We want to see the shooting.” They climbed on the tress all around, as if on balconies. We couldn’t tilt the camera upwards. The whole shooting plan had to be changed to tilt the camera down. One branch on which six people were sitting, broke. Fortunately, one of our actors was a doctor….

Generally speaking, I may be accused of nurturing a classical trend of mind. In rhythm, form and content, I like to follow a simple classical structure. There is no point in being excessively avant garde at this stage of the development of the Indian audience.

I like to present my stories, without making any kind of bombastic propaganda statements. They’re stories first and foremost, they’re tales, shall we say. I believe in plot. Because India has a great tradition of stories. And it makes for a kind of orderliness which helps an audience which is not used to intellectual subtleties. And yet it affords you to be subtle in other things.
Generally speaking, I may be accused of nurturing a classical trend of mind. In rhythm, form and content, I like to follow a simple classical structure. There is no point in being excessively avant garde at this stage of the development of the Indian audience.
I don’t mind slow films. Sometimes, I’m irritated by slowness, but I don’t think slowness, per se, is a fault. There is, for example, slow music, there is fast music… It’s much more difficult to make a successful slow film. I shall go even further and say that the cinema’s characteristic forte is its ability to capture and communicate the intimacies of the mind. This can be revealed through some movement, some slight gesture, some inflexion of the voice, some change in the light or surrounding objects. But there may not be any physical movement at all in a succession of shots. All the same, the character grows and is unfolded. To describe the most important characteristics of the film medium, I would even use the word growth rather than movement. The cinema is superbly equipped to reveal and trace the growth rather than movement. The cinema is superbly equipped to reveal and trace the growth of a person or a situation.
It’s much more difficult to make a successful slow film
I am a great admirer of Japanese Cinema. They are really the 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 transgressed all conventions even the 180° law. Here, we cheat a little by changing the position of the actors, Ozu is very particular about that. He never changes the geography. For us it is often a shock -  slightly disorienting. I have repeatedly seen some of his films and I thought, ‘My God, he does not follow the Hollywood model or the grammar. He has another approach, that of actors in their setting.”

Music

Music was my first love. Ever since my school-days I developed a tremendous interest, which has been growing and growing, in Western classical music. And then came our own classical music. So I started to build up a record collection. I would buy the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony one month and the second movement the second month, the third movement the third month, and so on, from the little pocket-money I had.

Now I don’t live with Beethoven any more really, except maybe some chamber music, but Bach is always there, and I am also extremely fond of Mozart. I play his operas and choral works quite a bit now. And baroque, mainly Scarlatti, Rameau, Couperin, the early baroque, things like Schutz and Palestrina. Even Gregorian chants and Monteverdi, things like that more and more. Some modern musicians. I like Bartok’s chamber music very much, his quartet. I can’t bear some of the romantics, like… some of Schumann, some of Schubert. The romantic stuff bores me.
 
The Rhythm of Ray
Cinema is a medium which is closer to Western music than to Indian music because in Indian tradition the concept of inflexible time does not exist.
Cinema is a medium which is closer to Western music than to Indian music because in Indian tradition the concept of inflexible time does not exist. Our music is improvised, one piece of music can last an hour, two hours, one-fourth of an hour. It is nothing which resembles a sonata or a symphony with a beginning and an end, irrespective of who the conductor is. There might be a minute of difference in the pace of the music, but it is the same model and it has to have a specific duration. The concept of a piece of music lasting twenty-five minutes, for example, does not exist in India. There are no “compositions” – the duration is flexible and depends on the mood of the musician. 

But cinema is a composition bound by time. That is why I feel that my knowledge of Western forms is an advantage. For one thing, the form of the sonata is a dramatic form with a development, a recapitulation, a code. Perhaps my films are slow, but that is another question. Slow music also exists, Bresson is slow, Ozu is slow and Antonioni is also slow, sometimes. 
Musical forms like the symphony or the sonata have much influenced the structure of my films. For ‘Charulata’, I thought endlessly of Mozart. In the Apu Trilogy, the theme of the train was used and developed for its visual and sonorous elements like the theme of a symphony.
  
Musical forms like the symphony or the sonata have much influenced the structure of my films. For ‘Charulata’, I thought endlessly of Mozart. In the Apu Trilogy, the theme of the train was used and developed for its visual and sonorous elements like the theme of a symphony. “Kanchanjunga’ is a kind of rondo, in which one begins by introducing the elements A B C D E, that return a certain number of times: In cinema, the use of a musical structure permits taking liberties with the material chosen and retained. I do not like arbitrary characters, disarticulated, cut off from life, as certain modern paintings. I direct my films in harmony with the rhythm of human breathing.

For the last elven years, I have also composed music for my films. For my six films - ‘The Trilogy’, ‘The Music Room’, ‘Devi’ and some others, the music was composed by other musicians. These were principally musicians who specialized in one instrument, the sitar. They were not really directors of music for films.        

Scripts

When I am writing a script, while it is difficult to disentangle the different processes at work, I confine myself to visual images. The dialogue also comes in sometimes. Of sounds, however, I am not so sure. Occasionally, as I visualise a particular scene, I am bothered about sounds. I mean sounds for building up authenticity. Not of sounds for other purpose. That comes much later.

I have written all my scripts, but I can hardly call it writing. I’ve developed a special system, because my feeling is that writing a scenario is not literary work at all, so I don’t waste literary effort on that. I merely write certain very laconic descriptions; mainly, it’s all in sketch and with little notes on the dialogue and movements.
I have written all my scripts, but I can hardly call it writing. I’ve developed a special system, because my feeling is that writing a scenario is not literary work at all, so I don’t waste literary effort on that.
However, literature has been the starting point in several cases. Novels and shorts stories have all been considerably adapted. There is always something in the story that attracts me. It does not have to be the whole thing, but maybe certain crucial things which strike me as being filmic. I read the story many, many times, and then I shut the book and leave it.

In Indian cinema, you are not supposed to show kissing or close embraces or intimate love scenes. Nothing of that sort, particularly not in 1958. But in ‘Apur Sansar’, I wanted something that would strongly suggest intimacy, the tenderness of married life, what it does to an erstwhile bachelor suddenly to have another pillow next to his own. Suppose his wife is gone when he wakes up in the morning, how can we suggest, without words, that he feels her presence close to him and that a change has come over his life? So there is a hairpin in the bed, something that could never possibly have been there six months ago. That was well thought out, but sometimes, of course, such things arrive at the very last moment.

Acting
   
Hollywood in its heyday used to buy properties and write stories to suit the talents of big money-making stars. One could say with a good deal of truth that the stars came before the stories.

This has been a common phenomenon in the performing arts for centuries. Mozart wrote important works for certain virtuosos. Ballets have been composed around gifted danseuses. In recent time, Benjamin Britten has been inspired to write a cello concerto for Rostropovich. So, too, in Hollywood and in films in general. Specially, stories were written for Garbo, Dietrich, Bogart, Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Wasn’t Chaplin always looking for something for the Tramp to do? And in more recent times what about Antonioni and Monica Vitti, Godard and Anna Karina, Fellini and Giulietta Massina? I doubt if ‘Wild Strawberries’ would have been made if Bergman had not felt like paying homage to Victor Sjostrom.

‘The Trilogy’ was one work of mine which was conceived entirely without reference to available acting material. As a result, most of the parts ha to be filled by new comers.

On the other hand, I wrote ‘Parash Pathar’ (The Philosopher’s Stone) with Tulsi Chakravarty I mind, ‘Nayak’, was written for Uttam Kumar, ‘Kanchanjungha’,’Devi’ and ‘Jalsaghar’ for Chhabi Biswas.

Many stories never get beyond the stage of contemplation because they prove uncastable.

In ’Pratidwandi’ and ‘Jana Aranya’, both about the city, the main actors were not known. One has to become an actor now, the other was in advertising at the time and has returned to it. I chose them because they suited the roles, because of the physique, the voices, etc. One had ambitions to become an actor, the other did not. He made just this one film for me because I felt he suited the role. He was a director in “Seemabaddha”. In ‘Ashani Sanket’, the actress came from Bangla Desh. I couldn’t find the kind of girl I needed in our side of Bengal. I always mix professionals with non-professionals. In the same films for equally important roles, I have a professional and a newcomer.
The public has always accepted newcomers, some of whom have become professionals after their initial experience with me.
The public has always accepted newcomers, some of whom have become professionals after their initial experience with me. Perhaps they have not always been successful later on. First of all, of course, I know the person and while writing the role, I think of him, and the kind of situation and dialogue which would suit him. Perhaps, in a later film by someone else, the actor is not given a good role or a role that suits him. But in my films, they have always been accepted. In the beginning, the audience is always slightly wary when seeing a new face. It reserves its judgement, but as the film proceeds, the audience begins to identify with the character, to like him, and ultimately to accept him totally. That’s what has happened everytime.
I think many rehearsals become necessary with my dialogue. All the actors say that my dialogues are very easy to speak, very close to life. I am very careful with words, of how they will come out of the mouth of the actors. How they match the action.
I think many rehearsals become necessary with my dialogue. All the actors say that my dialogues are very easy to speak, very close to life. I am very careful with words, of how they will come out of the mouth of the actors. How they match the action. That is what is most difficult - matching dialogues with action. Doing two things at a time. But they manage to do it because it feels natural, normal, they forget the they are acting. I rehearse only on the day of shooting, never before. One way of doing it is to rehearse for a month before shooting, but I can’t rehearse until each piece of furniture, each prop is there. Then I know exactly the movement and the placing of the camera. If there is one long ‘take’ with dialogue, then you have to take time to ensure that they know the text. Or if there is a long tracking shot of 1800 metres, two characters walking, talking, then you have to rehearse very carefully to get it all right. Otherwise I don’t rehearse much - it’s fresher, more spontaneous.
I never rehearse except on a finished set. This means - since we cannot afford to keep a set standing for too long - that rehearsals have to be kept to a minimum. I do not think it is important to discuss a part thoroughly with an actor, but if he so wishes, I have no fetish against obliging him. When rehearsing, I usually give brief instructions to my actors and ask them to act out a scene on that basis. They inevitably colour it with their own ideas about the scene.
I never rehearse except on a finished set. This means - since we cannot afford to keep a set standing for too long - that rehearsals have to be kept to a minimum. I do not think it is important to discuss a part thoroughly with an actor, but if he so wishes, I have no fetish against obliging him. When rehearsing, I usually give brief instructions to my actors and ask them to act out a scene on that basis. They inevitably colour it with their own ideas about the scene. The combined effect of those two I use as raw material on which I mould the performances.

Sometimes, with a minimum of guidance, an actor provides me with exactly what I want. Sometimes, I have to try and impose a precise manner, using the actor almost as a puppet. This is my inevitable method with children. Since it is the ultimate effect on the screen that matters, any method that helps to achieve the desired effect is valid.

Audience

Because of my language (Bengali), which is one of the eighteen spoken in india, I have a very small market. Bengali is spoken only in West Bengal and in Bangla Desh, which is now a foreign country. Bengal was divided into two, like Germany. We speak the same language, but I can’t sell them my films. There is no import-export because they want to develop their own industry. So we can’t show our films in Bangla Desh nor see theirs here. I have sub-titled some of my films in English for the other big cities like Bombay, but the distribution system is such that they are shown only on Sunday mornings in a few cinemas. So I have to depend on the foreign market for my films.
I think of myself as a Bengali and my films are aimed primarily at our own audience. I never know beforehand if the film will click outside India because I don’t know what other people are interested in. haven’t found out what parts or what aspects of India are interesting to non Indians.
I think of myself as a Bengali and my films are aimed primarily at our own audience. I never know beforehand if the film will click outside India because I don’t know what other people are interested in. I haven’t found out what parts or what aspects of India are interesting to non Indians. Generally, however, I find my period pieces and my rural stories well received outside the country, whereas films relating to contemporary India and the intermingling of Indian and Western ideas haven’t been as successful in the international market.

My films are most popular in Calcutta. I have an audience built up over the years. I have a very staunch following, as they say. Whatever I make will play in these cinemas in three parts of the city for at least six weeks. then, of  course, word of mouth takes over. But if word of mouth is weak, the picture will fold up.

Some of my recent films have had reasonably long runs in London. Some have been bought by Eastern European countries. The Soviet Union has bought a few. Czechoslovakia at one time bought two or three.

In India, my films are seen by the educated people. Not necessarily sophisticated as a film audience, but educated people who are familiar with the literary sources of the films. The films don’t reach the really suburban places where there is a dominance of the commercial cinema. There are no cinema houses to play our films there, but we have the big cities in Bengal.

Commitment

Unless one lives completely isolated from the general picture of life, a certain amount of commitment is unavoidable. But as an artist, I never want to be a propagandist, because I don’t think anybody is in a position to give answers to social problems, definite, final answers. No propaganda works really. Renoir said to me once: “There are lots of anti-war films being made; I made what is generally considered as the most humane anti-war film, ‘La Grande illusion’, in 1938, and in 1939, the war broke out.” Later, he made another war film, ‘Le Caporal Epingli’. It was more remote. Did it work? It didn’t work. I think I like to present problems and make the public conscious of the presence of certain social problems and let them think for themselves. But a certain taking of sides is unavoidable, if you have strong sympathies of your own. So, in a sense you are committing yourself; but I don’t think it’s necessary, important or right for an artist to provide answere, to say “this is right and this is wrong.”
But as an artist, I never want to be a propagandist, because I don’t think anybody is in a position to give answers to social problems, definite, final answers.
I am not really interested in directing films outside India. I have turned down many offers from the U. S. A. though I wouldn’t mind working with Amercan actors. In fact, I went to Hollywood about ten years ago for a project, which would have been filmed in Bengal, that needed an American actor. That is fine. But I wouldn’t like to work outside of my homeland. I feel very deeply rooted here. I know my people better than I know the Americans or the British. But it’s just that I react more immediately to things Indian. I would like to narrow it down even further and say things Bengali, because I think of India as a continent, and every state has its own topography, language, culture. There is an underlying link of Hinduism perhaps, but on the surface, the states are very different. You can move from the Himalayas to a desert. I think there is still too much left that I would like to do in my own country. One film takes so much time and energy and money and thought, and now I am getting on in years.
I know I have been criticized for not coming to grips with things, accused of turning my face away from strife and struggle, wickedness and violence, but I am not clear what the critics mean. Is it that there are no murders in my films or rapes or communal violence? The fact probably is that they do not interest me in the same way as does, say, the struggle of an inadequate man trying to be good.
I know I have been criticized for not coming to grips with things, accused of turning my face away from strife and struggle, wickedness and violence, but I am not clear what the critics mean. Is it that there are no murders in my films or rapes or communal violence? The fact probably is that they do not interest me in the same way as does, say, the struggle of an inadequate man trying to be good. Somehow I feel that a common person-an ordinary person whom you meet every day in the street-is a more challenging subject for cinematic exploration than persons in heroic moulds, either good or bad. It is the half shades, the hardly audible notes that I want to capture and explore. There is also the fact that violence in our country somehow gathers a debasing quality. An element of pettiness, of crudity, creeps in, which repels me. In the west, experience of violence can have a transmuting or ennobling quality. Think of the dimension in which they had it for such a long time. There is also the overburdening Christian sense of guilt.

They can even have a mystique of violence. But we just don’t have it. I cannot imagine any Indian raising evil to the level of a work of art, as, say, Bunuel does. In any case, and speaking for myself, I find the muted emotions more interesting. It certainly is more challenging for a film-maker.

Philosophy

My own feeling is that Man created god. But there is always this mystery about the beginning of life, and I like to think further back and take my mind right back to the beginning of time. But I don’t think that God is a useful thing to believe in. I don’t see the necessity of that at all. I think it’s more important now, in view of what has been happening, to believe in scientific knowledge.
I’m very optimistic, but I’m slightly fatalistic about india.. what could you do? What can you do? All the political parties have been disappointing. There isn’t one single person you can look up to.
I’m very optimistic, but I’m slightly fatalistic about india.. what could you do? What can you do? All the political parties have been disappointing. There isn’t one single person you can look up to. Corruption on all levels of public and private work continues to exist. A certain laziness and lack of values abound, with nothing to guide you. I think a certain amount of pessimism exists in me. That’s why I love to lose myself in my work.
On a political level, my films are strongly critical of the executive class, but I try to understand the members of that class on a human level. Even the British we had to understand, because the whole intellectual middle–class of India is a product of British rule.
On a political level, my films are strongly critical of the executive class, but I try to understand the members of that class on a human level. Even the British we had to understand, because the whole intellectual middle–class of India is a product of British rule. Without the colonialism and the British education, there would have been no terrorism. The British gave the Bengalis a liberal education, which ultimately turned them into revolutionaries. And it’s ironical that the British really created their own enemies. It took about a hundred years; and the beginning of the development is described in ‘Charulata’, when they start through newspapers to question the British rule. And in the early twentieth century you have the first terrorist movement against the British. That had no support from the peasants or the working class. It was a small intellectual group, whose leaders had read all the revolutionary literature, Garibaldi and the rest. They wanted to get rid of the British, and they thought why not throw bombs at them? It didn’t achieve anything; it was just an emotional gesture. But emotional gestures fascinate me more than ideological gestures.
In the early twentieth century you have the first terrorist movement against the British. That had no support from the peasants or the working class. It was a small intellectual group, whose leaders had read all the revolutionary literature, Garibaldi and the rest. They wanted to get rid of the British, and they thought why not throw bombs at them? It didn’t achieve anything; it was just an emotional gesture. But emotional gestures fascinate me more than ideological gestures.
 I can understand and admire Mao’s revolution which has completely changed China and achieved - at a cost - the eradication of poverty and illiteracy. But I don’t think I could find a place in China, because I am still too much of an individual and I still believe too strongly in personal expression. Over the years, I have understood art as an expression of a creative personality, and I don’t believe in the new theories which hold that art must be destroyed and doesn’t need to be permanent. I believe in permanent values. That’s my whole mental attitude, and I have to be true to myself. This doesn’t mean that I don’t sympathise with the young people, but, at the same time, I can see that when people grow beyond a certain age, they begin to have their own doubts. If something radical happens to you between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, then fine. If not, you are likely to become disillusioned as you grow older.
I believe in permanent values. That’s my whole mental attitude, and I have to be true to myself.
I’ve always stayed away from the rich upper class society. I have been very much of an observer and very solitary. The people who work with me on my films are close to me, but I have never been part of the group of people I describe. When I worked in advertising before making films, I had friends who were politically very active and supported the Soviet Union, but I have watched them grow over the years and they are big executives in advertising films. They don’t talk much about their political position of the 1940s; but if they do, they try somehow to rationalize their development and their careers inside the system. I myself have been active as an artist, which is fine for me, although people say that I don’t commit myself. Commitment to what? I commit myself to human beings, to making statements, and I think that is a good enough commitment for me.

I was closer to Nehru, I think. I admired Nehru. I understood him better, because I am also in a way, a product of east and west. A certain liberalism, a certain awareness of western values and a fusion of eastern and western values was in Nehru, which I didn’t find in Gandhiji. But, of course, as a man, as a symbol, in contact with India’s multitude, he was quite extraordinary. But as a man, I always understood what Nehru was doing, as I understood what Tagore was doing because you can’t leave Togore out of this, it’s a triangle.

The fusion of Western and Eastern values has been a strength, all along but you have to have the backing of your own culture very much. Even when I made my first film, the awareness was there. I had a Western education,  I studied English, but more and more over the last ten years, I have been going back to the history of my country, my people past , my past, my culture…Think, of starting right from the Sanskrit classics, you see the tremendous closeness to nature, even in the Upanishads and Vedas, and a profound kind of philosophy…the presence of the neutron, the atom, the whole idea of the Universe being also in a little point, as well as around and all over you, the Universe being contained in a microcosm.
This is the Indian tradition. It’s very, very important. The presence of the essential thing in a very small details.
I‘II tell you a story here. In 1928, when I was seven, I went with my mother to Tagore’s University. I had my little autograph book, newly bought, and my mother gave the book to Tagore and said, “My son would like a few lines of verse from you.” And he said, “Leave the book with me.” Next day, I went to collect it, and he brought it out and said: “I have written something for you, which you won’t understand it." It’s one of the best things he ever wrote in a small manner, and what it means is this: “I have travelled all round the world to see the rivers and the mountains. And I’ve spent a lot of money. I have gone to great lengths, I have seen everything, but I forgot to see just outside my house a dewdrop on a little blade of grass, a dewdrop which reflects in its convexity the whole Universe around you.”

This is the Indian tradition. It’s very, very important. The presence of the essential thing in a very small details. Which you must catch in order to express the larger things; and this is in Indian art, this is the classics, in Kalidasa, in Sakuntala, in folk-poetry, in folk-singings. This is the essence, I think. This is becoming more and more clear to me.  

This is a reproduction of the original published in Fifty Years Of Indian Talkies (1931-81).    

  • Share
600 views

About the Author

 

Other Articles by Satyajit Ray