PRINT May 2015


Satyajit Ray, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), 1955, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 125 minutes. Apu’s father, Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), and mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee).

ANTHONY KORNER: I wanted to begin by asking you about the significance of gesture in your work—the idea that a movement on film, as in private life, can mean so much more than the words it would take to express the same thing. In Pather Panchali [1955], for instance, the father returns home after many years, bringing a sari for his daughter, Durga, who he does not know has died. The mother takes the cloth and puts it to her mouth as if to tear it. In that moment, the grief that is expressed is more intense than if she had shouted, “But your daughter is dead!”

SATYAJIT RAY: Well, one thing I believe in very strongly is that the crucial moments in a film should be wordless; they should be expressed through images. Gesture is one part of an image, you see. I didn’t want the mother to say, “Your daughter has died.” I wanted her to collapse, to break down, because on the day Durga dies she doesn’t cry, she doesn’t weep—she’s like a stone sculpture; she sits with absolutely no expression on her face, and this other woman, her neighbor, comes and embraces her to give her solace. But she doesn’t respond. She holds back her tears until her husband returns, and when he gives her the sari, that is the point where she breaks down completely. And this is how I wanted it. I didn’t want her to cry twice—it would be too much, excessive. So in the earlier scene I didn’t make her cry. I knew that when her husband returned she would have to cry, she would have to tell him then that their daughter has died. But she doesn’t tell him; she takes the sari and just does this [mimics her biting the garment], saying that Durga is no longer there . . . she’s no longer there. And the husband, of course, cries out, “Durga! Durga!” but the wife just collapses.

You see, right from the beginning I had decided not to use words where images or gestures could do the work of expression. All through my years of filmmaking, I have tried to maintain that. Of course, I was an illustrator before I became a filmmaker, so I had been an observer of human behavior and human action, of what people do in certain circumstances, how they use their hands and where they look and what kind of look they give. All this I had observed almost without my knowing it; I had done it by instinct. When it came to illustrating, those observations were very useful. And it’s the same sort of thing extended to the cinema.

AK: Is this a conscious show of affection for the silent films you have obviously studied?

SR: Silent film had a different kind of gesture altogether. A lot of those movies live because, since there were no words, they had to express things through gestures, and those gestures were often larger than life. I can hardly recall any silent film in which naturalistic performances took place. Anyway, silent films didn’t influence me at all. When you’re telling a story there are certain obligatory things that must be said to establish the plotline—and even establishing character has to be done partly through dialogue. Not his necessarily saying, “I’m such and such a kind of person,” but the way the character talks, the things he says, tells you what kind of person he is. He may be talking about other things, not about himself at all, but the way he expresses himself tells you what kind of person he is.

Some people talk a lot, some people are silent or very laconic in their speech, and so all these various characters will come across as distinctive. People talk in a certain way in summer, in a different way in cold weather—you have to be conscious of these things. Words have their importance, but if you can use gestures, there’s nothing better than that.

Actually, my first film [Pather Panchali] didn’t require much talking. It was the kind of film where things happened; there were lots of long scenes where no words were spoken. Things happened, and people behaved in a certain way. In this way, I learned the use of gestures. The very first day I was shooting the scene in which Apu and Durga go to this place where tall reeds grow and where they see the train, and the sister has gone off somewhere, and Apu is looking for her, and he has to walk a certain distance and turn right and then take the right way. This walk was so important. When the boy walked, it didn’t look convincing at all—it was wooden, it was completely artificial, and I said, “My God, what am I going to do?” So I put little obstacles in his path, little sticks and things and said, “Cross them.” So he did that. He was very conscious of doing that, and then his way of walking was all right. That sort of thing you see particularly when you are handling children. I’ve used all sorts of methods that have given good results. Durga didn’t need any direction at all—the girl who played her [Uma Das Gupta], I mean—she was so intelligent; she was older, much older. The boy [Subir Banerjee] had to be handled, all the way through, very carefully, because he was not a natural actor. It is the conception that children are natural actors; this is wrong, this assumption: They are not actors at all. I took this boy because he looked right for the part and then I had to work very hard, giving all kinds of instructions, even talking during the take, “Do this, do that, turn your head this way, blink, don’t blink,” that sort of thing. For my first two films I worked mainly with nonprofessionals, and therefore I had to work very hard. Because they know nothing about acting, you have to give them practice.

Still from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, 1955, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 125 minutes. Apu’s mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee).

AK: In The Music Room [1958], again there is a gesture that is absolutely crucial to the entire film—I mean when the zamindar, a landowner whose fortunes are on the decline, puts out his cane and stops this nouveau riche neighbor from throwing money to reward the young female dancer.

SR: The cane was an important element in the film. I like to use objects and things again and again, like leitmotifs, here finding various uses for the cane. Even later, when Huzur’s servant pours the whiskey or brandy or whatever into the bottle, and tries to withdraw the bottle, Huzar stops him with his cane—that cane which ought to suggest that he’s getting old. There is one shot where Huzur [Chhabi Biswas] looks in the mirror and turns . . . you see his profile and he pats his paunch. So he’s getting old and he uses the cane, and I felt it would be interesting if he were to use the cane to stop this man from giving money to the dancer.

AK: Do you encourage improvisation on set?

SR: I rarely depart from the master plan of the story, but in details, yes. On location, lots of new ideas come out, new viewpoints, new angles, a certain kind of weather, the climate, clouds or mist or sun or whatever. And you get fresh ideas that are not in the script but are dictated by the location itself, which I incorporate into the film. Working in the studio, I use less improvisation, except that when people are talking, when the actors are talking, I often substitute one word for another. The dialogue gradually becomes more like normal speech; the actor feels more and more comfortable with the words, you see.

And, of course, the movement of the actors while they are talking—it’s very important to combine action with words, and it is one thing where even professional actors have great difficulty. To combine a piece of business with words, breaking up words. I used a very old man in Aparajito as the greatuncle—I found him at the Benares ghats. He’d never seen a film in his life. He’d only known the folk theater, and I asked him if he would be interested in acting in the film. He immediately said, “Yes, why not? I have nothing better to do, I’m too old.” So in a scene toward the end of the film, after the mother’s death, Apu and the old man are sitting on the veranda. Apu is very dejected, and the old man tells him that parents don’t live forever—you have to accept the situation. Now that was the longest speech he had to make in the film. So I gave him a hookah—you know, a hubble-bubble—and I told him, After this sentence, take a puff and then carry on with the next sentence, take another puff, and so on. This action, combined with the words, made the scene very real. It made it a longer scene, but it made it a better scene. That’s how I work, always.

AK: I’m very interested in another gesture—the rejection of Apu by his son, near the end of the third film in the trilogy [The World of Apu, 1959]. But when Apu walks off, presumably for good, the boy changes his mind.

SR: The second time the boy asks, “Who are you?” Apu very wisely says that he’s a friend. He knows that if he says, “I’m your father,” the boy won’t accept it. Because he doesn’t know his father at all. And the child would think the man was lying. So he says, “I’m your friend.” A boy would trust a friend to find him his father. So he now accepts him and runs to him, and they go off together. I didn’t want the ending to be easy; it should come by gradual stages, you see, the relationship between the two and the little boy’s acceptance of Apu. So psychologically I think this is convincing, the child rejecting the father but then accepting him as a friend.

Satyajit Ray, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), 1959, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 105 minutes. Aparna (Sharmila Tagore).

AK: Obviously, music—both classical Bengali music and Western music—is a passion of yours. How does this affect your filming? You’ve already spoken of leitmotifs. . . .

SR: Well, I’m very conscious of pace, rhythm, the flow of a film. In the early days, critics would often complain that my films were very slow. And even looking at Aparajito, I can see that it was. It shouldn’t have been that slow. One of the reasons is that Ravi Shankar didn’t supply me with enough music. Some silent scenes need music for the audience to have at least something to react to, you know. But there was no music. He was working in such a hurry, and at the time we were making Aparajito he was not living in Calcutta—he was living in Delhi or somewhere—and he would come for maybe two or three days and not even look at the film. I would have to describe scenes to him and then let him think of a theme for the film. He did that, and then variations—on the sitar, or maybe using other instruments as well. Three minutes, three minutes, three minutes. If I told him I wanted music that lasts twenty-seven seconds, he would just throw up his hands and say, “No, I just can’t do it.” So, three minutes . . . and everything was done in the editing room. Ravi didn’t even know where in the film the music would be used. The theme of Pather Panchali, the flute theme, he thought of when I wrote to him in Delhi, saying that I wanted him to do the music for my film. By the time he came to Calcutta, he said, “I have a theme for your film.” He hummed it, I liked it, we used it. It was like that.

We had many shots on idle days when the weather went wrong. We would be sitting by the pond doing nothing, or just chatting, and we noticed these little insects skating on the water and we took shots. We just said, “Well, that’s interesting. I don’t know how to use them, whether I’ll use them at all, but let’s take the shots anyway.” So I have lots of footage of these insects, grasshoppers settling on little branches, this and that. And I said, Why not use this sequence at a happy moment in the film, like the one relaxed moment when the mother is happy? So we started the sequence with that and then added music, that lovely music. That was definitely improvisation. But nowadays there is hardly anything left on the cutting-room floor.

AK: You use everything?

SR: I know exactly how to cut, where the cut will come. Maybe in dialogue scenes the editor has a few creative suggestions, which I accept. It’s necessary when three or four people are talking. Where to cut on the reaction, where to cut on the speech, or the speaker. There are various ways of doing it. So you decide on the best. And the editor may have his suggestions. But more and more, I have become precise. I have learned to be economical. I know where the cuts will come, and I shoot accordingly.

AK: You never lose a whole scene? You never cut a scene that you have come to realize was superfluous after all?

SR: One or two shots maybe, scenes, no! Not for a long time. I can’t remember the last time I dropped a scene.

AK: Let’s talk generally about cinema. It seems to me that the cinema fulfills two functions in the twentieth century. First of all, it’s the only real twentieth-century art. Everything else existed before, whether it’s dance or painting or sculpture or whatever—even photography was nineteenth-century. But cinema is of our century.

SR: Absolutely.

AK: It seems to have emerged from, and ultimately replaced, two traditions: One is opera, because besides revivals, opera has, arguably, declined in importance over the past century; and the other is storytelling, the tradition of the bard who holds an audience spellbound by telling an epic tale. Do you feel this? Or do you think that is too simple an account?

SR: What about stage plays, the theater? That’s still something which exists in time. You have to think of mediums which exist in time, because cinema’s not like a piece of canvas that you can look at for three minutes or half an hour or whatever. Here the whole film has to unfold before you’re conscious of the form. It takes us in time. I have never thought in terms of opera. But certainly storytelling is very much a part of my films. Cinema is a twentieth-century medium that uses technology, which is constantly improving. So that affects our style. New lenses, new kinds of tracking shots, the zoom—which was invented around the time I was shooting Charulata [1964]. I was so enamored of the device that I started operating the camera myself. I used the zoom constantly, improvising with it. If I were taking a shot of the boy and the girl and they were talking and I felt the need for a little emphasis, I would zoom in a little. People are not conscious of it at all. There are hundreds of zoom shots in Charulata.

I have never thought much about opera. But certainly music itself, which also exists in time, is very close to cinema—particularly the music of a certain period. Let us say, from Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven onward, when the sonata form evolved. First subject, second-subject drama, human element, climax, coda, and so on. Of course, the music never tells a story; even a symphony doesn’t really tell a story. You can hear bird noises occasionally and things like that, but the music doesn’t tell a story. You don’t know what’s happening. But otherwise, the conception of the pace, tempo, rhythm—all this applies to cinema, and sometimes in order to maintain the rhythm you have to make modifications to the story. You want the pace to be right, the rhythm to be right, the tempo to be right. For a long dialogue scene, you use tracking shots; you move around the table and the scene becomes more interesting visually. In addition to the words, there is something to look at and the composition keeps changing—it’s not static; it may start like a painting, but when the camera moves, you cease to think of paintings completely. It’s only when the camera finally comes to rest that you have to have a satisfactory composition, as you did in the beginning. But in the middle, when it’s moving, there’s no relationship to painting at all.

AK: Your affection and talent for painting, does that come before film, for you? Which feeds the other? is really what I want to know.

SR: I was a student of fine art painting, at university in Shantiniketan. I did two and a half years of it, but I knew that I would never become a painter. I was never a painter. I was fascinated by graphic design, book design, typography. But I felt I needed a background in Indian arts. I needed to know about Indian traditions. When I went to an advertising agency after Shantiniketan, I introduced traditional elements into advertising design—calligraphy, for the first time, and a style of illustration that is derived from Indian artistic traditions, also for the first time. I was recognized as an innovator.

I had never thought of becoming a filmmaker; I just got more and more interested in the cinema, at first as a fan, when I was a boy, then as a student. I learned about directors, then tried to recognize their hallmarks. Warner Bros. had a kind of look, that sort of thing. When we started the [Calcutta] Film Society, I developed a real passion for the cinema. We had to talk about it, we had to think about it. We had to get more people interested in this art. And then I had the idea of making Pather Panchali. I gradually lost interest in advertising, because you had to deal with a client and you had to listen to these stupid people. They would turn down something I thought was very satisfying. They would say, “No, I don’t like it. Do this, do that.” I wanted to be my own master. So I thought filmmaking was one way of doing it. Becoming the director, where nobody would dictate. And from Pather Panchali to today, nobody has.

I have been totally free. I think this applies only to me, among all the directors in the world. I don’t know about Bergman. No producer has ever told me what to do. They often didn’t even know the story. They often wouldn’t come to the set; they would see the finished product. But they had reliance on me, because I had built up a foreign market and they knew that I was a very economical director. I would make films as cheaply as possible. So they knew they wouldn’t lose money. There was always somebody willing to put up the money, and I still am very economical. I had a forty-five-day shooting schedule on An Enemy of the People [1989]; I finished in twenty-eight days. And I only shot twenty-eight-thousand feet of film, which is a two-and-one-half-to-one ratio. I read an interview between Antonioni and Godard. Godard asked him about his shooting ratio. “Very, very low,” he said. “Ten to one.” [Laughter.] I couldn’t dream of spending that much on raw film stock. So this problem of not having a large market has had its good side, because you don’t waste anything. Generally, the first take is the best take.

Satyajit Ray, Charulata (The Lonely Wife), 1964, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 119 minutes. Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee).

AK: When you set out to make a new film, what appeals to you? What do you look for in a story?

SR: I don’t look for anything, generally, except lately I have had the feeling that I would keep on making films about contemporary problems, Calcutta, urban problems. I don’t want to go back to the village, definitely, for a good length of time. And I also don’t want to go back in time to a past period. All that has been done many, many times, and I feel that there are so many things happening around me that they should be put into films.

AK: In one of your essays, writing about Orson Welles, you said something to the effect that “music can be abstract, painting can be abstract, but the only person who approached abstraction in film was Orson Welles.” I wondered what you meant by “abstract.”

SR: I don’t recall this, but there is a lot of film that appears abstract to me these days, that I find incomprehensible. So that sense of the word doesn’t apply anymore. But when I first saw The Lady from Shanghai [1947], it seemed very much like a sort of atonal film.

Atonal. That kind of storytelling I was not familiar with at all. It was not a kind of storytelling that is incomprehensible. You could follow it, but it was told in a very special sort of way. Broken up. Unexpected cuts here and there, unexpected development, camera placement, everything. It seemed like an experimental film. And it worked. I enjoyed it, I recall. So that’s what I meant. This was many years ago, mind you, when I made that remark, and films have changed completely in the past ten, fifteen years. It started with Godard. But now it’s all over.

AK: All over the place. [Laughter.] All over, I hope not. Actually, I think you said to Renoir that India is filled with stories that ought to be filmed.

SR: Yes, I did. In fact, Renoir himself made practically the same remark after staying here for a few weeks. He said that this place is so rich in material, why don’t the directors use it? Why do they persist in making these stupid commercial films? Well, we both agreed on this.

AK: You said once that—it was a very surprising remark—you said that if you were to take one movie to a desert island, it would be a Marx Brothers film. [Laughter.]

SR: I said that? Facetiously, of course. On a desert island, one would want to laugh and be entertained instead of having to think on serious subjects. I love the Marx Brothers. The first film I saw when I arrived in London was [Vittorio De Sica’s] Bicycle Thieves [1948] in combination with A Night at the Opera [1935]. It made a fantastic double bill, I can tell you that.

AK: Do you not find Groucho Marx and Chaplin have a certain—similarity is too much, but . . . something parallel, in the way they walk? It’s so distinctive.

SR: Yes, but the words, the jokes, all the funny lines—Chaplin has never done that kind of thing. In fact, when he tries to be funny verbally, he doesn’t always succeed. When he started using words he became philosophical, in a rather heavy sort of manner. You see that in Limelight [1952]. There’s a long speech he makes to the girl. A King in New York [1957] is a very bad film. So there you are. Groucho is quite different from Chaplin. I don’t think the two have any similarities at all. Nobody else could get away with that painted mustache.

AK: Do you think there is any subject that simply cannot be shown on film? Of course one can show anything, but I’m thinking in larger, more philosophical terms. Is there any area in which you think film would be too intrusive? If, for instance, one wanted to film the worst kind of poverty in Calcutta, would one be able to do so—or would the intervention of the camera break the delicate fabric one had set out to capture on film?

SR: Maybe you’re right. I have not made a film about really poor people, except for one that I made for television. Do you know Deliverance [1981]? It’s not quite an hour long, a very simple story about an untouchable. It’s one of my very best films.

AK: You said this was the only time you went into a really poor—

SR: Yes. I don’t know whether you can film a story about the slums in Calcutta or about the pavement dwellers. I don’t know how far you can go. But there is such a thing as going too far, I’m sure there is.

AK: I have no more questions, but is there anything further you’d like to say—anything you’d like to tell people?

SR: I don’t know, I would say keep working. Work is what really matters. I’m never idle, I’m always working, and there’s never been a day when I haven’t done something. When I’m not shooting, I’m writing stories or I’m illustrating, so I think that—I don’t know what message to give. I’m very bad at messages. I say what I have to say through my films.