I did not regret my decision to buy Satyajit Ray’s book Speaking of Films for even a second. After seeing my friend off, I started reading the book while traveling on my way back home. I was completely captivated by the book for next hour. So much that after the Metro dropped me at the station near my home, I headed straight to a small park that was en route my home. My reading continued, while I had comfortably ensconced myself in a bench at park. My reading was interrupted only when I received an anxious call about my whereabouts from my grand father on my cell phone.
The book in question is an insightful beginner’s guide to the art of film making. Speaking of Films is a collection of Satyajit Ray’s writings on cinema that were published in 1976. Ray is India’s most prolific director who has also penned several memorable characters and stories in his books. His Apu triology movies—Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar are some of his best known work. He won a special lifetime achievement Oscar award 1992 just a few days before his death. As a kid, I remember reading in Bournvita Quiz Book about Ray’s famous reaction when he lifted the Oscar while in his sick-bed. It was something like, “It’s so heavy!”
This book begins with Ray recounting the story of his life and work. He loved music. He left no stone unturned to explore all the music that caught his fancy. He wanted to become a commercial artist. He joined Tagore’s Shantiniketan against his own wishes “in deference of his mother’s wishes.” He dropped in the middle of his five-year course at Kala Bhawan—College of Arts and Crafts at Shantiniketan. Shantiniketan groomed him to discover his roots. His repertoire of work has been clearly indicative of culture and development of Bengali cinema. He had, learned two other things from Shantiniketan that would perhaps later aid him as a film maker- to look at paintings and nature.
He traces an enlightening outline of evolution of cinema from the silent era to the color films. Though he chiefly speaks about evolution of Bengali cinema, he has also recorded the development of other cinema such as Soviet cinema in some articles. He speaks about every aspect of film making—adaptations from book, imagery, script writing, music, dialogue, use of color, etc. As if to present an example, there is a chapter “The Making of a Film: Structure, Language, and Style” that explains frame-by-frame how a scene from the original book has been translated into his movie Pather Panchali. He speaks about old films like De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that influenced him deeply. He keeps referring to tidbits from Soviet Russia’s Sergei Eisenstein, whom he considers one of the greatest directors of the world. His unmistakable admiration for Eisenstein’s lectures and theories is so profuse, I decide to Google Eisenstein at the next opportunity available.
Ray writes about difficulties directors face while adapting books into films. The difference is in the language of the medium. Writers use words in their books, while film directors use images and sounds to narrate their stories. He enumerates several examples of challenges encountered by him while translating various stories from books that often lacked visual details into his screenplays. He explains his discontent with available Bengali literature with these words:
“I don’t now if it is a reflection of the Bengali temperament, but many of our writers seem more inclined to use their minds, rather than their eyes and ears. In other words, there is a marked tendency to avoid concrete observation.” (22)
He deftly analyzes his movie Charulata, based on Tagore’s story Nastneeer, to defend why a director needs to invent or modify details while narrating the same story from the original book on the large screen. Perhaps if you read Ray’s analysis on the subject, you will gladly absolve the sins committed by likes of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Pradeep Sarkar, who presented their magnum opus adaptation of original novels of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay in Devdas and Parineeta respectively.
Ray is open in expressing his admiration and reverence for the Bengali writer Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. Most of Ray’s famous films such as Pather Panchai, Ashani Sanket, Aparjito, Apur Sansar have been based on the works of Bibhuti Bhushan.
Ray candidly writes, “If film books did not help me much, I was helped enormously by Bibhuti Bhushan. He is one writer whose stories are a gold mine of cinematic observation, and it is fortunate that I developed a taste for him right at the start of my career. Even in his lesser works—and there aren’t many that rise to the heights of Pather Panchali and Aranyak—his eye and ear produce marvels of observation.”(19)
He goes to the extent of advising the aspiring screenplay writers:
“However, if a scriptwriter wishes to learn how to writes such lines by studying literature, I can recommend one writer without slightest hesitation. He is the late Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. No other writer can be looked upon as a guru in the matter of writing dialogue for a film script.”(122)
Ray goes on to express his views on the complicated love-hate relationship between a film critic and movie director. He asserts that it is a critic’s main responsibility to “build a bridge between the director and audience.” A critic, according to Ray, should “substantiate his praise or criticism with appropriate evidence.” Ray is quite merciless when he counters his critics:
“From the lines quoted from Bibhuti Bhushan, it becomes quite clear that the critic has neither read Pather Panchali nor Aparajito with care; or else the only intention behind quoting these lines was to belittle the script of Apur Sansar.” (136)
Sample his following comments for another unfortunate critic, Mr. Rudra:
“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 when things are explained to him. In other words, he is totally beyond redemption. He may have seen good films abroad. But who has told him that anyone who has seen good films can automatically appreciate them, or has the write to write about them?” (143) 👿
And unlike his critics, Ray never fails substantiate his counterpoints with rock hard evidence.
When I was in school, I had often heard cynics complaining that Ray only chose to showcase rural Indiain his movies, did he find urbane India lacking the soul of nation? Ray confronts this with two practical reasons: mounting costs and the problems that crop due to huge crowds that always assemble during the shooting of a movie in Indian cities.
Ray reminisces characters, actors from his movies and stray incidents that occurred during the making of his various films. He concludes his writings with:
“….., I can say at least this much with confidence: if I read a good story, or think of one, I can now turn it into something suitable for cinema and present it in a cohesive form. ….”
Fair enough, Mr. Ray!