A Review by Guest Reviewer : Prakash Gowda
“These pieces, which were beyond access for contemporary readers for a long time, offer revealing insights into the evolution of my father’s thoughts on aspects of cinema as a visual art, his own craft of film-making, and his views on such other great directors like Chaplin, Bergman, Godard and Antonioni.” – Writes Sandip Ray in the foreword of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Deep Focus – Reflections on cinema’ edited by Sandip Ray, Member Secretary of Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Films, Kolkata, and most importantly, son of the auteur, Satyajit Ray.
Renowned as one of the world’s finest film-makers, Satyajit Ray’s films, right from Pather Panchali in the mid-1950s to Agantuk in the 1990s, changed the way the world looked at Indian cinema. Satyajit Ray was not only a great filmmaker, but also author of best selling novels and short story collections. He is perhaps, the only Indian film-maker who wrote prolifically on cinema. The book, ‘Deep Focus – Reflections on cinema’ is a treasure trove that every film buff or film-maker worth his salt must explore.
The book is divided into two parts, ‘The film-maker’s craft’ and ‘Pen portraits’, which seems to be Satyajit Ray’s own way of depicting the dichotomy of visual arts – silent cinema and talking cinema – something we witnessed in the recently released Oscar winning film, ‘The Artist’.
Satyajit Ray begins the chapter sharing anecdotes of Jean Renoir, whom he assisted while making the film ‘The River’. He points out at the meticulous detailing of the atmosphere of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) that Jean Renoir looked for while making his film. He illustrates umpteen examples right from Chaplin and Sergei Eisenstein who demonstrated universal gestures of mime in their repertoire of silent films. “Somewhere between the two extremes lies a film like ‘The Childhood of Maxim Gorky’, as poignantly evocative of the soul and soil of Russia as Fydor Dostoyevsky or Modest Moussorgsky.
But what of our own Indian cinema? Where is our national style? Where is the inspiration to transform the material of our life to the material of cinema?” writes Satyajit Ray, who ends it with the suggestion, “So let us start by looking for that clump of bananas, that boat in the river, and that temple on the bank. The results may be, in the words of Renoir, fantastic.”
He shares his source of inspiration to make Pather Panchali, by admitting that it was simply because it was the most filmable of all Bengali novels. He delves into the details of making Pather Panchali and adapting the novel into celluloid, which raised many an eyebrows of literary critics and literature aficionados.
The book nestles rare sketches, still shots of classics in the making, and photographs taken by Satyajit Ray. A sketch by Ray of Outram’s study for the film, ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ is sure to leave you awe-inspired by its meticulous detailing – something he probably picked up from Jean Renoir. It has a checklist on its right side, which encompasses mundane things found in a study room.
“Need the director, as a conscientious artist, be reluctant to use another’s idea” the dilemma is addressed convincingly by Satyajit Ray in the book, where he offers logical examples right from Shakespeare to Kalidasa. The Apu Trilogy is discussed elaborately, where the director shares interesting anecdotes and insights on the craft of film-making right from film-making techniques, script, screenplay, financial backing, critics, and even scepticism. He even states: If I were asked to name the six most important events of the twentieth century, the birth and the phenomenal growth of cinema would certainly be one of them.
On the changing face of cinema, Satyajit Ray states, “With the emergence of a crop of gifted film-makers in the country in the last eight years, it is certainly legitimate now to talk of a new Indian cinema. What sets these film-makers apart from the commercial ‘All India’ ones is a preoccupation with serious, rooted subjects which are put across with an imaginative use of modest resources.
Films were now more life-like, everybody said. Here were men and women who walked and talked like you and I, and didn’t do odd things with their limbs and eyeballs. If the silent cinema was art, who cares? This was life or as near life as you could hope to get without actually getting involved in it. You only had to pay your nickel, lean back in your plush seat, and glance up at the charmed rectangle. This was cinema – this was what we’d all been waiting for. No wonder silent films made a silent exit!”
Having written almost a eulogy for silent cinema, Satyajit Ray admits that he doesn’t intend to belittle sound films as he could hardly do that, being so happy involved in it himself. He writes, “The point I am trying to make is that sound film is not an improvement on the silent film, but an independent art form with its own special appeal and its own special aesthetics. Ideally, the two should have coexisted.”
Well, we’re sure the makers of ‘The Artist’ would have agreed and so would the current crop of short filmmakers, who deem silent films as the best way to convey their message. Nevertheless, the filmmaker brings to you umpteen examples of talking films, right from the gems from South like Samskara, Kaadu, Nirmalayam, Chomana Dudi, Ghatashraddha, Kodiyettom, Thampu – which dealt with rural themes, to the ‘new wave cinema’ by Mani Kaul, Govind Nihalani, Muzaffar Ali, Biplab Roy Choudhury, and Sai Paranjpye. While appreciating their films, Satyajit Ray also admits that such films hardly find takers and gradually handholds us to the world of Bimal Roy, Godard, Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Charlie Chaplin, and his experiences at international film festivals.
To sum it up, Satyajit Ray’s ‘Deep Focus’ is a textbook for cinema aficionados – unlike school textbooks, this one not only engages you for hours together, but changes your perception towards cinema. A must-read!