A discussion about the narrative styles of Satyajit Ray in different films like Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Charulata, Jana Arnya etc. In this context comparison with Godard, Eisenstein and other directors and schools are done. Sanjay Mukhopadhyay discusses with Bibhuti Bhusan Mandal and Dr. Arup Ratan Ghosh
Sanjay Mukhopadhyay (SM): The discussion that we are going to begin is about Satyajit Ray and his films. To be more precise, the topic sounds as ‘Satyajit Ray and the narrative style of his films’. I want you to highlight the salient features of his narrative style . When Satyajit Ray came to the film industry he had already developed a film sense. He had written a lot of essays in the Calcutta Film Society journals. These volumes help us to know Ray’s theory about the cinematic aspects of film. For example, during Dada Saheb Phalke or Jamaibabu period (silent era) we find that theatres and novels had a lot of influence on cinema. In these essays we find that the theatrics of these films have been criticised. Satyajit Ray and his contemporary critics like Ram Haldar, Chidananda Dasgupta, Hari Sadhan Dasgupta et al. censures the excessiveness and melodrama in films. This criticism received a boost when The Bicycle Thief was screened in Calcutta in 1952. People could experience that a film can be made without any excessiveness and without the doctrine of larger than life image which had an impact of the Italian neorealism. Satyajit Ray unhesitatingly incorporated the neorealism in his films and incidentally it was The Bicycle Thief which changed the style of his script writing. He scripted Pather Panchali in an experimental way. He made a permutation of audio and visual elements. The language that was produced through Pather Panchali was a language of silence, While in Shantiniketan he came across the essays of Rudolf Ernheim who is known as the most famous theoretician at Hollywood during the late silent era. In Pather Panchali Satyajit made a sensible use of sitar, (though not always) deep focus, soft focus, transparency and other annotations of film editing.
Arup Ratan Ghosh (ARG): What do you mean by transparency?
SM: Actually before Satyajit Ray, we don’t find a simple transparent storytelling technique in Indian films. Most of the films are full of emphatic statements loaded with a lot of melodrama and exaggeration. Later Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak pointed out the ailments of Indian cinema in their essays like ‘What is wrong with Indian cinema’ and ‘What ails Indian film making’ respectively. Satyajit felt the urge of story telling. In his renowned films like Pather Panchali and Aparajito he introduced symbolism and suggestiveness at some climatic junctures.
Bibhuti Bhusan Mandal (BBM): It is primarily a method of silent era. Satyajit Ray was highly influenced by Eisenstein. Then how was it possible that Satyajit brought both Eisenstein’s and Hollywood’s classic narrative styles together in his films? Did he make combination of these two?
SM: It can be said only about Aparajito.
BBM: We could hardly find any influence of silent era in Satyajit’s films. Rather generally he has followed the classic narrative styles of Hollywood.
SM: It is to be noted that Satyajit Ray deliberately followed Eisenstein while filming the Benaras Ghat sequence. But it was not a copy of Odessa Steps sequence. The significance and the communication were different. Eisenstein propounded discursive cinema which gave more emphasis on thought than on audio-visual aspects. We find that in the films of Ritwik Ghatak and Godard the dominance was that of subject or context to that of story. At the same time both of them did not disregard the narrative styles of commercial films. However there is only one instance that Ritwik Ghatak was successful in the circuit. That was Meghe Dhaka Tara and the rest failed to do the same.
BBM: We started our discussion on the narrative style of Satyajit Ray — the influence of Eisenstein on him. It is to be mentioned that Eisenstein weaved a pattern of his own. Before Eisenstein there was montage but not in the form of Eisenstein’s — I mean in his manifestations. There was deficit regarding the use of sound. But later when the self-sufficient system was introduced, a term coined as ‘Statement of Sound’ emerged. The system itself raised a sense of ego among the film makers. From then onwards Eisenstein took it as granted that whatever might come in the way it must be a contrapuntal use — mostly in dialectical method. Now the question that arises whether the dialectical system has made any impact on Satyajit Ray’s thinking or not. I would like to add that Satyajit Ray is basically a story teller. He adopted the Hollywood narrative style as and when required. He imbibed the style of invisible editing of Hollywood in all his films except Pratidwandi. He used to adopt a smooth story telling technique but whenever he found an opportunity he followed Eisenstein’s style. Say for example in Charulata — in the sequence of Charu’s writing we find that the camera aims at the eye first. Then a bigger close up of the eye followed by the increasing speed and size of the shot. The rotation of the whirligig (nagar dola) revolves followed by the rotation with the wheel with more speed resulting in an Eisensteinian montage. It is to be noted here that there is total absence of sound in this sequence. Satyajit Ray has beautifully and quite successfully incorporated the theory of Eisenstein in this sequence.
ARG: This sequence remembers us a painting by Chagall, ‘I and My Village’. There we see head of a goat, different images of village life can be seen behind it. That has a strong resemblance with the montage of Charulata.
SM: Yes. One point may be noted that in this particular sequence we did not miss the sound altogether. For example din of the fair etc.
BBM: But Satyajit Ray handled the element of sound as a contrapuntal support. The whole sequence is based on Eisensteinian method. Can we say that Satyajit Ray did not stick to any of this said principles but employed the deep focus and other methods whenever he got a chance?
SM: When we tried to understand Satyajit Ray’s films — style and manner for the first time, he was labelled as a neorealist. The primary reason was that the film Pather Panchali, which was done on outdoor locations with nonprofessional actors and actresses and with new lighting systems etc. forced us to call him a neorealist. But we made a mess of it because there is a clear demarcation in the events of neorealist films and in the events of Satyajit Ray’s films (not in the sense of story). It can be said that Satyajit Ray has blindly followed neorealism in sequence of adventurous Apu-Durga in Kash ban or in the death sequences of Durga or in the sequence when the necklace is thrown into the pond. Satyajit Ray himself was divided in his application of the theory. However Aparajito was termed as a neorealist film. In my opinion, the death sequence of Sarbojaya is very much close to painting. We find that Sarbojaya’s yearning for her son is something more than just waiting. We can guess that Satyajit Ray has tried to bring an overtone in that particular sequence. The stress was given on Sarbojaya’s pale and indifferent look. Here it can be said that Satyajit Ray intended to give importance to the statement. One thing is very clear that Satyajit Ray deviates intentionally for the general characteristics of the neorealist trend. Later in his essays in ‘Our Films Their Films’ and in some of the speeches we find his deep reverence for Ford and Wells and his close kinship with the narrative style of Hollywood films. But Satyajit Ray was never swayed away either by the Hollywood style or by the Italian neorealism. So it will be wrong to label him as a neorealist. He was fascinated by Ivan The Terrible and incorporated some of the elements in his films. For example in Charulata — in its column arrangement of different compositions of Charu — we can relate with the Gothic structure of Ivan the Terrible. Eisenstein was basically trying to prove that film is basically a way of expressing thoughts. Eisenstein wanted to project the mere thought of Das Capital when he tried to film it. Now-a-days the importance is given on message rather than context. Ritwik Ghatak also echoed the same in this context. This theory was first introduced in literature in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses and in Brecht’s drama ‘Drams in the Night’. If we look at the analytical cubism of Picasso we find that a multiple perspective is built up. Similarly when the camera operates from various angles then it almost does the work of Cubist painting. If we closely study the later works of Eisenstein we can discover that he wanted to incorporate elements outside the institutional sites of film making. Satyajit Ray and his contemporaries believed in the purity of art. Satyajit Ray conceived that the convention of story- telling, mystery, hints, gestures, symbolism etc. can be attuned but at the same time he did not want to break away from the art of story telling, what Ritwik Ghatak tried to do consciously.
BBM: What emerges from our discussion is Satyajit Ray was bona fide in the tradition of Rabindranath or Viswa Bharati. Satyajit Ray has assimilated every thing in his art. He was influenced by Eisenstein and Renoir but we never miss the classic narrative style of Hollywood. At a later stage we find that Godard and his subsequent film school failed to exert any influence on Satyajit Ray and his narrative style. His narrative style has come to a stagnation.
SM: Well, it would be wrong to say that he has abandoned his narrative style. He rather maintained his own style. Satyajit Ray in his anthology ‘Our Films Their Films’ remarked that Godard was the most talented film director of his time. He was very sorry to find that Godard was poorly imitated in Indian films. Once he commented that Godard’s experiment was justified because he was competent, but not for most of the Indian directors who lack the basics of film direction. In this context he may be compared with Rabindranath. Rabindranath towards the end of his life had to face a lot of criticism. Tagore tried his best to pacify the baiters but he didn’t believe that literature should be like that. Satyajit Ray also believed like that. From this we can conclude that Satyajit Ray was the first classical Indian director. He brought some changes in the subject but did nothing to form. In Aranyer Din Ratri we find a beautiful close-up of Satya Bandopadhyay sitting in the darkness of load shedding. A Rabindrasangeet chhaya ghanaichhe bane bane can be heard. Why he used this romantic Rabindrasangeet here? What Satyajit Ray tried to mean here is the melody of a romantic song may prove futile in some situation although it leaves a permanent impression on mind.
BBM: Here I would like to mention one thing — he deliberately uses raga of a particular time in completely different time. Satyajit Ray has also skilfully use Rabindrasangeet in Jana Aranya. When we listen to the song we do not listen to the words of the song properly — we concentrate on the overtone that comes out of it rather than the actual meaning of it. This overtone is gloomy, as if darkness is engulfing everything gradually. Satyajit Ray used it nicely. This indicates his mature handling of narrative. I would like to say that ultimately he could not resist himself and utilised the techniques of the New Wave in Pratidwandi. But soon after that he could realise that this can not be his style. And we can see that he changes the subject of cinema, not the narrative style in his subsequent ventures.
SM: One point which should not be missed is that he resisted the temptation of being influenced by two great film personalities. In Jana Aranya where we find the photograph of Vidyasagar is gradually being lowered. The statement which Satyajit Ray tried to raise is the negative reply created an object of fear to the existing ruling class. He could not approve of the actions taken by the then ruling classes. I agree with you that when Satyajit Ray speaks through his films, he is then the absolute master of speech. He enjoys supreme control over words, the images plays truant. In Jana Aranya we find Somenath - a man with broken morality who goes in a nocturnal expedition in search of a call girl to run his business. We see Somenath loitering at night in Calcutta. But such an image is not new to us. But it makes us ashamed . We discover the exact picture of the city, Calcutta. Finally we find that Somenath awaiting for the confirmation of the order with typical middle-class mentality. The reason why I raised the point is that to bring a comparison with Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live, 1952). Here too, we find a nocturnal journey where a corporation staff came to know that he is going to die very soon. So he chooses a life of fun and frolic - roams in the city at night, fully intoxicated with Mephistopheles as his companion. He is often found haunted by the question - why man must exist? He asks himself what is life? Subsequently, Ritwik Ghatak also made Subarnarekha and the same nocturnal expedition is found. Ritwik is found to have referred frequently Upanishadas. Here we find that Kurosawa and Ritwik are more bold in their statements of nocturnal journey. Their statements are deeply philosophical. But Satyajit Ray in Jana Aranya was far from being philosophical because he did not believe in it.
Satyajit was very categorical in his assertion that in films it may be examined whether we are optimistic about the existence of civilization or not. However his conviction and faith was lost somehow in his last film. He became rather doubtful about the characteristics of the language of the cinema. In this context we may recall Godard. He said, "Broadly speaking, we get our authenticity, cinema is returning to sound track". In Gordard’s film, sound has the predominant role. In Roy’s Agantuk we find that he was too concerned with dialogue and less about visual properties. The reason may be that he was very ill at that time and had to rely much on dialogue. But to me, it seems that though Satyajit Ray was deeply influenced by Godard and other film personalities right from the beginning of his career, he went smooth on his own way except his last two or three films.
ARG: After Satyajit Ray fell ill we find that almost in all of his films like Shakha Prashakha and Ganashatru - the element of theatricality. Can we ccall them Chamber films?
SM: No, we cannot designate these films as Chamber films. Bergman’s Persona was a Chamber film.
BBM: It may be told that Ray concentrated on such type of film due to his practical problems regarding health. We can correlate Shakha Prashakha with Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander visually. Here we notice that very carefully he has transformed the style that he has followed in almost all his previous films. The film is a bit theatrical and emotional - he used dialogue whenever there is an opportunity. In Agantuk also the tendency of using dialogue has increased considerably.
SM: Yes, this is absolutely true, one who was accustomed to the economy of words has turned verbose.
BBM: Now regarding the transparency we see that Ritwik was more transparent because he was more emotional. But Satyajit Ray is not so transparent . He puts a veil behind his story and if you are capable, then you have to overcome the story and then you have the taste of his art.
SM: In other words we can say, if you want to understand you must be artistically cultivated.
BBM: But this is not true with Godard. He makes us understand why he is experimental— why he wants to return to sound track. Finally, he said that if he is unable to make a film he will write a notebook. It can be seen that while Godard is interested both in writing and films Satyajit does not want to come out of the world of cinema — this is what strikes us.
SM: It is unjustified to correlate Satyajit and Godard. The reason is Godard is basically a film critic whereas Ray, a devoted director and craftsman. When Godard came to the world of cinema he said that there is no fundamental difference between film-making and it’s criticism. He is still a critic and only instead of writing, he films them. If we talk about his Breathless, we find that he is more concerned about his discourses—the images are less significant to him. This is very much true to Ritwik Ghatak. He entered the world of film only to communicate with a larger number of people. He opined that if he finds a better and suitable medium to express his thoughts he will leave film-making, because he does not love films. But this is quite in contrast to Satyajit Roy. He was so deeply involved with cinema and it’s manifestations that it would be totally absurd for him to utter such comments. If he wanted to be swayed away by the thoughts of Godard or other film makers then it could have happened in the seventies.
Transcribed translated from Bengali to English by Sandeep Ghosal. The transcribed is republished on the blog to preserve some of the articles, interviews written by eminent professors and cinephiles on several online freeware site that are slowly disappearing.
Pic- Pather Panchali title card