Satyajit Ray: When the Filmmaker Dons His Critic Hat

Satyajit Ray brought to his film writing the same wit and poise that mark his best films.

In 1951, recently returned from London where his employers had sent him to work at their UK office, Satyajit Ray wrote an article for the bulletin of the Calcutta Film Society (CFS), a film enthusiasts’ community Ray and his friends had founded some years previously. The article reviewed some Italian movies that Ray had seen while in London.

The directors covered included Renato Castellani, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica and a few others, all of whom had made their name in the years immediately before or after the Second World War. Of De Sica’s work, Shoeshine and I Bambini are mentioned approvingly, but the film for which Ray reserves his highest praise is the 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves.

This movie, says Ray, “creates a norm which few films aspire to, let alone attain”.”It is a triumphant rediscovery of the fundamentals of cinema”, he adds, and goes on to explain why Indian filmmakers needed to learn from De Sica’s example:

“The simple universality of its theme, the effectiveness of its treatment, and the low cost of its production make it the ideal film for the Indian film maker to study. The present blind worship of technique emphasises the poverty of genuine inspiration among our directors. For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment. The Indian film maker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica, and not De Mille, should be his ideal.”

These lines anticipate Ray’s own career in films, for it would be another four years before Pather Panchali made its appearance. (And there is no question that De Sica, and certainly not De Mille, was Ray’s inspiration in filmmaking.) But what this article also tells us is that Ray had started writing about films years before he began making them.

Indeed, his earliest extant film writing is a piece he wrote for The Statesman in 1948 – ‘What is Wrong with Indian Films?’ He wrote with great self-assurance even in that early piece, no doubt hopeful that one day he might have a shy at directing a film himself:

“The raw material of the cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so.”

In France and in England, some of the most prominent filmmakers of Ray’s generation had established themselves as formidable film critics before venturing into film direction. Jean Luc Godard writing for Cahiers du Cinema and Lindsay Anderson for Sequence and Sight & Sound are but two examples. India had no comparable culture of serious film studies, and the vogue only began with Ray and his friends at the CFS. It is thus fair to say that Ray not only blazed the trail for the new Indian cinema, he helped start the process of bringing the new Indian film-goer up to speed as well.

Also read: The Unintended Emancipation of Women in Satyajit Ray’s Two Iconic Films

But he never wrote copiously, even if he might have liked to, for he wore far too many hats to be able to spend time writing about films. Let us consider this: he was, after Chaplin, the most ‘complete’ film director, involved with his films from writing the script through composing and scoring the background music to costume designing to planning and laying out the advertisement campaigns; he was a prolific and highly successful writer of whodunit and science fiction targeted at young adults; he also wrote over ninety short stories and novellas many of which are likely to be read and admired by generations of readers; he was, at one time, one of India’s best-known graphic artists and he also edited a widely popular children’s magazine for several years. That he still managed to write often and on a wide range of themes linked to the aesthetics and practice of filmmaking is a tribute to Ray’s astonishing vitality.

And his film writing is bound to make a reader crave for more. (He wrote both in English and Bengali, though here we are looking at his English writing alone.) Whether he is surveying the challenges that an Indian filmmaker faced in the 1950s and 1960s, or commenting on the work of a Kurosawa or a Chaplin, or reminiscing about a film shoot or an actor he worked with, Satyajit Ray is equally fluent and engaging in everything he writes. His finely chiselled prose is a delight to read any time. Here is a sample, from Ray’s essay on a Chaplin classic included in the 1976 book titled Our Films Their Films:

“The great silent comedians … realised the importance of believable settings for their stories; for these provided the ground-bass of sanity over which the slapstick could have its full contrapuntal play. Thus in The Gold Rush, the snow-bound hazards of gold prospecting are a constant and convincing visual presence. Even when a blizzard blows the cabin away and lands it on the edge of a precipice, the sheer technical expertise of the scene puts us in the right mood to enjoy the inspired comic business that follows.”

And here again is a snippet from the essay on another Ray favourite, Kurosawa’s Rashoman:

“Even after fifteen years, whole chunks of the film come vividly back to mind in all their visual and aural richness: the woodcutter’s journey through the forest, shot with a relentless tracking camera from an incredible variety of angles – high, low, back and front – and cut with axe-edge precision; the bandit’s first sight of the woman as she rides by, her veil lifted momentarily by a breeze, while he lolls in the shade of a tree, slapping away at mosquitoes; the striking formality of the court scene with the judge never seen at all; the scene of witchcraft with the medium whirling in a trance, and the wind blowing from two opposite directions at the same time…”

Also read: Fifty Years of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’

Here is a virtuoso filmmaker analysing for the reader’s benefit the work of another virtuoso, and doing it not only with supreme self-assurance but with an infectious joie de vivre that communicates itself to the reader as well. But let this not suggest that Ray is not a master of understatement, of the tongue-firmly-in-cheek comment.

It is 1949, Ray is working at his desk at D.J. Keymer’s Kolkata office while his life in films is still in some indeterminate future, when Jean Renoir arrives in the city to shoot for his film The River. An excited Ray is persuaded (by someone who knows both him and Renoir) to call on the great Frenchman at his downtown hotel one evening. He reaches the hotel, all hung-up before the interview. But

“(a)s it turned out, Renoir was not only approachable, but so embarrassingly polite and modest that I felt if I were not too careful I would probably find myself discoursing upon the Future of the Cinema for his benefit.”

John Ford, whose films Ray grew up watching and learning film-craft from, was a particular favourite, and Ray comes back to him time and again in his essays. Here is a glimpse:

“In a John Ford Western – I think it is ‘Fort Apache’ – a platoon of cavalrymen under a foolish and stubborn Henry Fonda faces an onslaught of Red Indians and is wiped out in a matter of seconds. Men and horses sprawl on the ground and a cloud of dust slowly rises to conceal the pain and ignominy of defeat.”

Then there is that memorable episode involving John Ford and a young Lindsay Anderson, then transitioning from film criticism to filmmaking.

“Lindsay Anderson – whose adulation of Ford amounted almost to deification – had just made an hour-long documentary called ‘Every Day Except Christmas’, which showed what went on behind the scenes at London’s famous Covent Garden Market. It was a fine, poetic film, primarily a film of mood, vaguely akin to Ford in its images of working-class camaraderie, but on the whole a very different kettle of fish. John Ford happened to be in town and Lindsay was anxious to show his film to his mentor. A screening was arranged, and Ford was persuaded to come after having been told who made the film and what it was about. Ford was well aware of the high regard in which his work was held by this young critic-turned-film maker. At the screening, Lindsay sat next to the Master. For half an hour after the film commenced, Ford said not a word. Then, just as the conviction had begun to grow in the chela that the guru had succumbed to the spell of the film, Ford turned to Lindsay and said: “Now, when are we going to see those goddam vegetables?””

Ray could also be cuttingly ironic when he wanted, which admittedly was not often. In a short essay on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, whose plot, Ray believed, was premised on an irresponsible sleight of hand, he allowed his mordant wit full play:

“One could, perhaps, accept Blow-Up as a slick film about shallow people, but what, then, is the symbolic Felliniesque tennis match doing at the end? There is nothing in the rest of the film to justify a rounding–off with a deep metaphysical comment about illusion and reality. But that is exactly what Antonioni is trying to do with all those painted-up mimes swiping away at non-existent tennis balls. Thomas (the hero) is made to watch this game of make-believe, and be affected by it to the extent that when the ball is lobbed out of the court, he picks it up and throws it back to the players.

Perhaps the artistic significance of Blow-Up is like Antonioni’s tennis ball, which a vast number of critics and filmgoers seem to have picked up and handed back to the Maestro. I, for one, am still looking.”

Also read: Book Review: The Actors and Characters of Satyajit Ray

Nearer home, Ray did not, understandably enough, write often about contemporary Indian films, except in the general terms of where they were headed and what handicaps they usually suffered from. But occasionally, if he came across a film that he thought deserved to be seen by wider audiences, he eagerly endorsed it, like he did for Garam Hawa and Ankur , both debuts by their makers and released within a few months of each other in 1974.

He wrote warmly about director M.S. Sathyu’s “calm, assured and entirely free from frills” treatment of his story in Garam Hawa and about Balraj Sahni’s “quiet authority and magnificent presence” as the film’s chief protagonist. In Ankur, he found enough “to make one look forward to (director) Benegal’s future with keen anticipation”. Ankur’s use of the camera Ray commended highly: “… the static shots are as well judged as the mobile ones, and ensure that interest is sustained even through comparatively uneventful passages”. As for another debutant, Shabana Azmi as Ankur’s female lead, Ray wrote presciently about her future career:

“Shabana Azmi, who plays the farmhand’s wife, does not immediately fit into her rustic surroundings; but her poise and her personality are never in doubt, and in two high-pitched scenes she pulls out all the stops and firmly establishes herself as one of our finest dramatic actresses.”

Alas! Ray was disappointed with two other young filmmakers, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, whose films Duvidha and Mayadarpan he reviewed at the same time as Sathyu’s and Benegal’s maiden offerings. Ray finds their visual styles “replete with clichés..” and self-indulgent, and their handling of the human element “gauche”. His most telling critique, though, is by way of a comparison of their work with another contemporary of Ray’s –Ritwik Ghatak:

“It is strange that both Kaul and Shahani should acknowledge their debt to Ritwik Ghatak, who taught them at Poona, when the only Ghatak trait they seem to have imbibed is a lack of humour. In every other respect – in their avoidance of strong situations and full-blooded characters, in their lack of concern for social issues, in their use of camera and cutting, there is not a trace of Ghatak to be discerned.”

Reading Ray’s film writing, one’s only regret is that he did not write more.

Anjan Basu freelances as cultural commentator and translator of poetry. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.