Satyajit Ray, 'What's wrong with Indian Films?


Justify Full
The year is drawing to a close and top-ten lists have already started hitting the Internet. While going through several list of the, ‘Best movies of the year- distributed and non-distributed,’ it’s sad and remarkable to see the omission of Indian films. Over the years, there seems to be either ignorance on part of film festivals, critics, organizers about our cinema or in a country of over billion people,we are not able to make one worthwhile film that could transcend boundaries and cultural space- irrespective of being Indian. Beside let’s make this clear- Slumdog Millionaire is not an Indian film as the media seemed to project, rather it’s a British film with an Indian context. And so instead of proclaiming this as our conquest on the global stage, we should lament why anyone from our own industry couldn’t achieve this feat.

While it's high time we should move on from talking about our scripts reaching the Oscar library or the growth of Bollywood in the US and UK box-office since it's still we Indians who are watching these films, and not truly ' global' in terms of everyday tom, dick or harry going for our films. Instead the elementary question is, ‘Why can’t we make films that are not global only in terms of its monetary returns but aesthetic value?’ So in order to know what ails us today, it’s important to understand what did we lack 60 years back and has anything changed ever since. Or are we not looking at the brightside of our growth. This and many more questions Ray asks and put forward in his essay, and so it's important for us to know the struggle of a cinephile(Ray) back then, to what we will be facing in days to come, since the essay seems relevant today as it did 60 year back.

What's wrong with Indian films?
Satyajit Ray


One of the most significant phenomena of our time has been the development of the cinema from a-turn-of-the century mechanical toy into the century’s most potent and versatile art form. In its early chameleon-like phase the cinema was used variously as an extension of photography, as a substitute for the theater and the music hall, and as a part of the magician’s paraphernalia. By the twenties, the cynics and know-all had stopped smirking and turned down their nose.

Today, the cinema commands respect accorded to any other form of creative expression. In the immense complexity of its creative process, it combines in various measures the functions of poetry, music, painting, drama, architecture and a host of other arts, major and minor. It also combines the cold logic of science with the subtlest abstractions of the human imagination. No matter what goes into the making of it, no matter who uses it and how- producer for financial profits, a political body for propaganda or an avant-garde intellectual for the satisfaction of an aesthetic urge-the cinema is basically the expression of a concept or concepts in aesthetic terms; terms which have crystallized through the incredibly short years of its existence.

It was perhaps inevitable that the cinema should have found the greatest impetus in America. A country without any deep-rooted cultural and artistic traditions was perhaps best able to appraise the new medium objectively. Thanks to pioneers like Griffith, and to the vast-sensation mongering public with its constant clamor for something new, the basic style of filmmaking was evolved and the tolls of its production perfected much quicker than would be normally possible. The cinema has now attained a stage where it can handle Shakespeare and psychiatry with equal facility. Technically, in the black and white field, the cinema is supremely at east. Newer development in color and three-dimensional photography are imminent, and it’s possible that before the decade is out, the aesthetics of film making will have seen far-reaching changes.

Meanwhile, ‘studios sprang up’ to quote an American writer in Screenwriter, ‘ even in such unlikely lands as Indian and China’ One may note in passing that this spring up has been happening in India for nearly forty years. For a country so far removed from the centre of things, India took up film production surprisingly early.

The first short was produced in 1907 and the first feature in 1913. By the twenties it had reached the status of big business. It is easy to tell the world that film production in India is quantitatively second only to Hollywood; for that is a statistical fact. But can the same be said of its quality? Why are our films now shown abroad? Is it solely because India offers a potential market for her own products? Perhaps the symbolism employed is too obscure for foreigners? Or are we just plain ashamed of our films?

To anyone familiar with the relative standards of the best foreign and Indian films, the answers must come easily. Les us face the truth. There has yet been no India Film which could be acclaimed on all counts. Where other countries have achieved, we have only attempted and that too not always with honesty, so that even our best films have to be accepted with the gently apologetic proviso that it is ‘after all an Indian film’.

No doubt this lack of maturity can be attributed to several factors. The producers will tell you about the mysterious entity ‘the mass’, which ‘goes in for this sort of things’, the technicians will blame the tools and the director will have much to say about the wonderful things he had in mind but could but could not achieve. In any case, better things have been achieved under much worse conditions. The internationally acclaimed post-war Italian cinema is a case point. The reason lies elsewhere. I think it will be found in the fundamentals of film making.

In the primitive state films were much alike, no matter where they were produced. As the pioneers began to sense the uniqueness of the medium, the language of the cinema gradually evolved. And once the all important functions of the cinema-eg movement- was grasped, the sophistication of style and content, and refinement of technique were only a matter of time. In India it would seem that the fundamental concept of a coherent dramatic pattern existence of time was generally misunderstood.

Often by queer process of reasoning, movement was equated with action and action with melodrama. The analogy with music failed in our case because Indian music is largely improvisational.

This elementary confusion, plus the influence of the American cinema are the two main factors responsible for the present state of Indian films. The superficial aspects the American style, no matter how outlandish the content, were imitated with reverence. Almost every passing phase of the American cinema has had its repercussion on the Indian film. Stories have been written based on Hollywood success and the clich├ęd preserved with care. Even where the story has been genuinely Indian one, the background has revealed an irrepressible penchant for the jazz idiom.
In the adoptions of novels, one of two courses has been followed: either the story has been distorted to conform to the Hollywood formula, or it has been produced with such devout faithfulness to the original that the purpose of filmic interpretations has been defeated.

It should be realized that the average American film is a bad model, if only because it depicts a way of life so utterly at variance with our own. Moreover, the high technical polish which is the hallmark of the standard Hollywood products, would be impossible to achieve under existing Indian condition. What the Indian cinema needs today is not more gloss, but more imagination, more integrity, and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium.

After all, we do possess the primary tools of film making. The complaint of the technician notwithstanding, mechanical devices such as the crane shot and the process shot are useful, but by no means indispensable. In fact, what tools we have, have been used on occasion with real intelligence. What our cinema needs above everything else is a style, an idiom, a sort of iconography of cinema, which would be uniquely and recognizably Indian.

There are some obstacles to this, particularly in the representation of the contemporary scene. The influence of Western civilization has created anomalies which are apparent in almost every aspect of our life. We accept the motor car, the radio, the telephone, streamlined architecture, European costume, as functional elements of our existence. But within the limits of cinema frame, their incongruity is sometimes exaggerated to the point of burlesque. I recall a scene in a popular Bengali film which shows the heroine weeping to distraction with her arms around a wireless-an object she associates in her mind with her estranged lover who was once a radio singer.

Another example, a typical Hollywood finale, shows the heroine speeding forth in a sleek convertible in order to catch up with her frustrated love who has left town on foot; as she sights her man; she abandons the car in a sort of a symbolic gesture and runs up the rest of the way to meet him.

The majority of our film are replete with visual dissonances’. In Kalpana, Uday Shankar used such dissonances in a conscious and consistent manner so that they became part of his cinematic style. But the truly Indian film should steer clear of such inconsistencies and look for its material in the more basic aspects of Indian life, where habit and speech, dress and manner, background and foreground, blend into a harmonious whole.

It is only in drastic simplification of style and content that hope for the Indian cinema resides. At present, it would appear that nearly all the prevailing practices go against such simplification.
Starting a production without adequate planning, some-times even without a shooting script; a penchant for convolutions of plot and counter-plot rather than the strong, simple unidirectional narrative; the practice of sandwiching musical numbers in the most unlyrical situation; the scope, and at the same time when all other countries are turning to the documentary for inspiration- all these stand in the way of the evolution of a distinctive style.

There have been rare glimpses of an enlightened approach in a handful of recent films. IPTA’s Dharti ke Lal is an instance of a strong simple theme put over with style, honesty and technical competence. Shankar’s Kalpana, and inimitable to the peak of cinematic achievement. The satisfying photography which marks the UN documentary of Paul Zils shows what a discerning camera can do with the Indian landscape.

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.

Satyajit Ray
published in the Statesman, an English daily.
RePublished- ' Our films Their Films'
Orient Longmam

Pic- Satyajit Ray- wikipedia.


Anonymous said…
Hi Nitesh.
Offtopic-can you tell me where can I find a DVD of Cafe Lumiere in Delhi?
Anonymous said…
Great one... I just got Ray's book and hoping to see more such stuff in it.

As he says, the condescension and complacency towards indian cinema should first stop. I feel Indian films should look towards the Iranians for inspiration. Culturally integrated, singular and powerful. One feels "why don't we make such films. We have more than what we need..."
nitesh said…
@ Thanks for the comment dedalus...sadly its hard to find in Delhi, I had a copy of the film but misplaced it somwhere, but if you want any films of HHH let me know, shoot me an email.

Thanks for the comment, great to see you finally reading the book. Love the words of Ray...sadly our films...hmm..quite true we have more than we need, don't know where going wrong.
Yayaver said…
Hi nitesh,Hollywood is copied not adapted in this part of world.We believe in think without thinking.Ray has such a fine vision of our worse conditions 60 years before.The word original is lost in economic values.Hollywood is also driven by money but they are.We have not developed the visual language risk taking ventures.42 year of isolation from the globe has cut off evolution in Indian cinema.When west was progressing on private entrepreneurship for parallel cinema ,auteur of alternate cinema were dependent on government.Few exceptional gems of alternate cinema are present,but exceptions are present in each field.Now, when mass awareness has arose by watching their flicks and our plagiarized film industry,we are going for introspection.Stories like Mahabharata or Panchtantra are hard to find anywhere in world.We are well ahead in painting,music and dance or any art form in comparison to west but why not cinema. America is a country without any historical roots of just 300 years.They have developed one of the best infrastructure and public opinion with artistic cinema.Both Shakespeare and sci-fic are well applauded.
We are now awakened on the dawn of globalization.
The lack of quality education in cinematic industry is major drawback in our system.FTII pune alone cannot produce gems required for industry.We are lucky to have people like Anurag Kashyap as director but more producers like UTV venture are required.

Ray was indeed correct absolutely about our stagnation in cinematic advancement.

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