Did this for Business Standard - it appeared in today’s edition.
The late Satyajit Ray often expressed regret about the lack of quality writing on cinema by its own practitioners. "Filmmaking is such a demanding process that directors – especially those who keep up a steady output – rarely have time to assemble their thoughts," he said. Time constraints aren’t the only factor; many leading directors tend to be reluctant to discuss their own work at length, much less expound on cinema in general. But Ray himself is one of the exceptions. Non-Bengali readers might be familiar with his earlier work, Our Films, Their Films, a collection of essays that was first published in 1976. Now we have Speaking of Films, a translation of a collection known in Bengal as Bishay Chalachitra.
It’s taken a puzzlingly long time for the first English version of Bishay Chalachitra to appear, but it was worth the wait: Gopa Majumdar’s translation is impeccable, retaining all the qualities we associate with the director - gentle yet firm, avuncular, instructive but conversational. In the 18 essays collected here, Ray covers topics ranging from the history of Bengali cinema to the importance of background music in a film ("in India the problem a composer must face is not one of paucity but of abundance"). There are reflections on great directors of the past, personal glimpses into the vicissitudes of the filmmaking process, and anecdotes, like the amusingly incongruous one about Kanu Banerjee - Pather Panchali’s Harihar - ruining a shot by repeatedly saying "mohanbagan" (the football club) instead of "mohanbhog" (the sweet). Ray also uses the scenarios of some of his movies to illuminate the problems in translation from page to screen. And there are moving personal profiles, based on his experiences with the blind painter Benode Bihari and with the extraordinary Chunnibala Devi, whose performance as the old pishi in Pather Panchali was one of the miracles of screen acting (and of serendipitous casting).
The master director discusses, at some length, the synthesis between form and content: the two qualities must ideally work in unison, he says, but it is possible for some films to aspire to high artistic achievement even with an abundance of one quality relative to the other; the austerity of the Japanese director Ozu (who refused to employ even widely accepted cinematic devices like the dissolve and the pan) can coexist with the joyful experimentation of Nouvelle Wave enfant terribles like Truffaut and Godard. At the same time, however, Ray sounds a cautionary warning to those who would seek to break established cinematic norms without a clear understanding of them, "for the creation of new rules requires a thorough knowledge of the old ones". This essay, written in the late 1960s, has a strong contemporary resonance, given the dilettantism and the "anything goes" attitude we see so much of today.
Even Ray’s biggest fans sometimes feel alienated by the levels of perfection the man reached (hence the frequently voiced preference for the erratic brilliance of Ritwik Ghatak over the polished finesse of Ray’s best films). This extended to his personal conduct too; he never came across as the sort who would, for instance, deign to participate in a messy verbal scuffle. In that context it’s fun to see him take on critics who wrote uncharitable things about Apur Sansar and Charulata. The occasional traces of peevishness in Ray’s tone here ("I do not know if Mr Rudra understands anything of literature. Of films he understands nothing, but it is not just that. He doesn’t understand even when things are explained to him.") are more engaging than his counterarguments (which are brilliantly made anyway).
But these little glimpses of petulance notwithstanding, almost everything Ray did was marked by empathy. His ability to see various sides of a debate (mirrored in the boundless grace of his movies, where even in situations of extreme conflict and turmoil, one can relate to the predicaments of several different characters) brings richness and depth to his writing. Rarely has a major director been so generous in articulating his thoughts, not only about his own films and the cinema of his country, but also about the history of the medium and how it has been influenced by societal backdrops in different regions. For all this, and for the lucidity and perceptiveness with which he did it, we can continue to be grateful.