Satyajit Ray: a moral attitude

An extended interview with the great Indian director, compiled from a long series of conversations with his biographer Andrew Robinson in the years before Ray’s death in 1992.

Andrew Robinson
Updated:

from our September 2013 issue

Satyajit Ray photographed by Nemai Ghosh on set of The Adversary (1970)

Satyajit Ray photographed by Nemai Ghosh on set of The Adversary (1970)

Across his three-and-a-half-decade career, the celebrated Bengali director Satyajit Ray authored over 30 films, revolutionising Indian cinema and introducing the nation on screen to audiences worldwide. For author Salman Rushdie, Ray was “the poet par excellence of the human-scale, life-sized comedy and tragedy of ordinary men and women”. Akira Kurosawa believed that “not to have seen the cinema of Satyajit Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”

To coincide with the centenary of Indian cinema and a two-month retrospective of Ray’s films at the BFI Southbank, Andrew Robinson has compiled this interview from a long series of conversations he had with Ray while researching his biography Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, in the years before the director’s death in 1992.

Andrew Robinson: Have you ever wanted at any time to be rich?

Satyajit Ray: I’m pretty rich, I think [laughs]. I mean I have no money worries as such – thanks to my writing, not from films really. My books bring in a steady flow of income. I’m certainly not as rich as Bombay actors, by no means, but I can live comfortably. That’s all I need. I can buy the books and records I want.

What about the trappings of being a film director? The cult of personality?

I never imagined that I’d become a film director, in command of situations, actually guiding people to do things this way or that. I was very reticent and shy as a schoolboy and I think it persisted through college. Even the fact of having to accept a prize gave me goose pimples and things.

But from the time of Pather Panchali [1955] I realised I had it in me to take control of situations and exert my personality over other people, etcetera – then it became a fairly quick process. Film after film, I got more and more confident. Even public speaking: I can face a crowd. I’m not bothered at all – but only when I am in command and I’m talking about things that I know.

What is your moral attitude as a filmmaker?

I don’t like to be too articulate about it because it’s all there in the films. One has to see the films and read them. I don’t begin by formulating a moral attitude and then making a film. I think it’s the business of the critic to form his own conclusions. I don’t want to add footnotes to it. I’m very unwilling to do that.

But have your moral attitudes to people and society changed since your first film Pather Panchali? Have you become more cynical?

Not necessarily. I have become more aware of my surroundings. I was probably a little isolated from things in the early days, being so immersed in my various pursuits. I can imagine other young people being more aware of, say, politics. I was not. I gave more time to my intellectual pursuits. I was developing myself as an artist. And I had so many interests right from the beginning that I felt I couldn’t take on any more.

Book cover designed by Ray for his first detective novel. His young sleuth protagonist Feluda proved very popular and Ray later adapted two tales for the big screen, The Golden Fortress and The Elephant God

Book cover designed by Ray for his first detective novel. His young sleuth protagonist Feluda proved very popular and Ray later adapted two tales for the big screen, The Golden Fortress and The Elephant God

If you have strong artistic gifts, do you think politics are almost irrelevant?

If you are a filmmaker of course your surroundings, politics and whatnot make up the social milieu — that becomes relevant. From 1960 onwards I was becoming more aware of my surroundings and introducing more of such elements into my films, apart from what is contained in the plotline itself.

Company Limited [Seemabaddha, 1974] need not have had a reference to politics but there are bombs being heard at the cocktail party and people make comments about that. Just as the element of load-shedding [power cuts] is there: the broken lift and all that. That film was not about mechanical gadgets failing, but they enriched the story.

The main character of The Adversary [Pratidwandi, 1971] shares a flat with his younger brother, a bomb-making Naxalite (communist) militant. Do you admire the courage of activists like him?

Oh yes, I do. Because I don’t share that kind of courage, the kind that can face bullets and even lay down one’s life. This aspect of Naxalism has always fascinated me. The extraordinary amount of courage that they have – the sheer physical, elemental courage. I don’t think I could face a situation like that. One can’t avoid admiring such courage.

The Big City [Mahanagar, 1963] shows the impact on family life when a middle-class Calcutta housewife gets a job. Is the working woman’s dilemma something you saw in your own family?

My wife used to work before we got married at what was the Supply Department during the war. And she worked as a teacher.

Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee in The Big City (1961)

Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee in The Big City (1961)
Credit: BFI National Archive

So was The Big City in some sense a personal response?

Well, one understood the story [by Naren Mitra] and the context in which the story took place. Therefore you make the story not like an outsider, but as if you’re part of the milieu. It was easy because the story was very revealing, and many of the elements in the film came from the story.

Do you see a common thread running through your films, that women are psychologically stronger than men?

Yes, they’re stronger that way. My own experience tells me that.

Any speculation as to why that is?

Well, I think because they are physically the weaker sex. Some balancing element was needed, so nature made them that way… I’m not thinking only of Bengali society, but women in general. Women everywhere. Women as a species.

Chandana Banerjee in Three Daughters (1961)

Chandana Banerjee in Three Daughters (1961)
Credit: BFI National Archive

I suppose one example would be the extraordinary actress, Chandana Banerjee, who plays the servant girl in ‘The Postmaster’ section of Three Daughters [Teen Kanya, 1961], your adaptation of stories by Rabindranath Tagore.

I found her in a dancing school. She turned out to be an absolutely fantastic actress: ready, no tension at all, and intelligent and observant and obedient — perfect to work with.

Anil Chatterjee, who played the postmaster, was constantly worried that no one would look at his performance with her there on the screen.

Relationships are very strong elements in your films, especially within families.

That may be said to be a speciality of mine. It comes naturally to me, instinctively. I think I understand human psychology.

For example, the conflict between the brothers as their father ails in (Ray’s penultimate film) Branches of the Tree [Shakha Proshakha, 1990]?

You can feel closer to a person who’s not related to you, much more than your own brother, your own flesh and blood. That was one idea that was supposed to be conveyed through the film.

Are relationships on the screen difficult to establish?

Everything in a film is difficult. There’s no easy solution to anything at all. It needs thought and careful observation and it needs calculation and understanding.

Did growing up in an extended family with your mother in the house of your maternal uncles help you in depicting psychology on screen?

I must have been observing a great deal in my childhood about people, because of being a loner, in the sense that I had no brothers or sisters, and I was alone much of the time with my thoughts and with my little preoccupations. So this process has probably been going on a long time even without my being aware of it. I was surrounded by people who were all older than me. I was the youngest. I must have imbibed a lot in my childhood.

You once told Sight & Sound that you had never consciously analysed whether you were part of a tradition or not. That surprises me.

No, I have not. Does one have to? I don’t know. I mean, you do your work.

Would you ever call yourself a humanist?

Not really. I can’t think of being anything else but what is represented by my films. I am not conscious of being a humanist. It’s simply that I am interested in human beings. I would imagine that everyone who makes a film is to some extent interested in human beings…

I’m slightly irritated [laughs] by this constant reference to humanism in my work – I feel that there are other elements also. It’s not just about human beings. It’s also a structure, a form, a rhythm, a face, a temple, a feeling for light and shade, composition, and a way of telling a story.

Pather Panchali (1955)

Pather Panchali (1955)

I suppose it was Pather Panchali that made critics label you a humanist. What do you think of that film now?

I would re-edit the film. It would improve. The pace sometimes falters; not in the second half though. We shot the film in sequence, and we learned as we went along, and so the second half hangs together much better. But it would definitely improve with cutting.

And there are certain things we couldn’t do anything about, like camera placements. I don’t think the relationship of the three little cottages [within the family house where Apu grows up] is very clear in the film. Because you see, in a film, you have to choose a master angle which you have to keep repeating so that people get their bearings. If you keep changing the camera angle, it becomes very confusing. In your mind the plan is very clear but to make it clear on the screen you have to use certain devices which we didn’t know at the time.

As your career progressed, you seemed to go more and more for stories that take place in a much shorter span of time than the Apu trilogy, especially in your original screenplays, such as Kanchenjungha [1962], The Hero [Nayak, 1966] and the short Pikoo [ 1980].

Yes, I lost my taste for the saga kind of story after the Apu trilogy. Too many lapses of time. It’s a kind of novelistic approach.

For the cinema it’s much better to be more concentrated in time. It’s an instinctive feeling: I can’t put it into words why I feel like that. The film’s better if the period is a day or a week or fortnight or a month, so that nobody grows up: everybody’s as they were in the beginning.

You also, with time, came to write more and more of the music for your films, ending up composing all your film scores and many songs. Your first song, for Devi [The Goddess, 1960], was a devotional song in praise of the goddess Kali, composed in the style of a well-known 18th-century Bengali poet and composer, Ramprasad. Did you find that difficult?

I have never found songwriting difficult… But I didn’t start out by writing this song. I explored the whole of Ramprasad, but I didn’t find a song which fitted the situation so well. Many songs using that same melodic structure in the style of Ramprasad had been composed later by other composers. So I felt I had no qualms about writing another one [laughs].

The two Ramprasadi songs I wrote were sung by a man who had been in school with me who was one class my senior. As soon as he came I immediately recognised him. “Weren’t you in Ballygunj School?” He didn’t recognise me. Then he sang the songs very well. Afterwards, I heard that he was a police officer of the most ruthless kind, beating and kicking prisoners.

A sheet from Ray's own musical score for The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha (left) and the poster he designed for the film (right)

A sheet from Ray's own musical score for The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha (left) and the poster he designed for the film (right)
Credit: Satyajit Ray Society, Kolkata

In your fairytale The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha [Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 1969], did American musicals provide you with any models?

No, I don’t think so. Goopy Gyne was completely original. I had no models in mind at all, so far as I can recall, certainly not American musicals. The film grew from the story — which was adapted from an original story by my grandfather — and the songs grew from the situations…

In the Goopy Gyne script-books, first I drew the outline of the plot as it would be developed for the screen, and along with that, on the left-hand side of the page, were written the words for the songs; I was scribbling ideas. And so the songs came once I’d got the story structure in my mind. When the situations presented themselves, I stopped writing the story and began working on the songs. In most cases they were more or less retained as they came.

So the music of the songs was not drawn from any Indian styles?

It does draw on Indian folk songs and classical songs, and there are even Western touches – the orchestration is certainly very Western.

And there are parodies of certain singing styles. One song comes straight from South India. The accompaniment is South Indian; I used a vina [Indian stringed instrument] and percussion as played in the South Indian manner. It’s the song where Goopy and Bagha are really caught, but Goopy suddenly bursts into song and that’s how they escape. They do the neck movement while running away — that’s also a South Indian dance thing.

But overall, in Goopy Gyne and its sequel The Kingdom of Diamonds [Hirak Rajar Deshe, 1980], the songs are my songs if you come to think about it. I have definitely set a style of singing which doesn’t come from Rabindranath Tagore, doesn’t come from Western music, but which is essentially me.

Ray's sketch of the composer, poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore (left) and the poster he designed for Charulata (right) a film he adapted from a Tagore novella

Ray's sketch of the composer, poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore (left) and the poster he designed for Charulata (right) a film he adapted from a Tagore novella
Credit: Satyajit Ray Society, Kolkata

What do you think is distinctively Indian about Indian art? What qualities are found in it that are not found in other art?

Indian art is not one thing. Indian art is so many different schools and styles.

[Nevertheless] I think lyricism, the love of nature, the symbolic aspect of art (like showing rain in a few lines of dots in a Rajput miniature) the looking for the essence in natural forms and human forms, and then going for the essence rather than the surface – that I think is primarily what distinguishes Indian art from Western art.

Not just Indian art but Eastern art in general. Chinese and Japanese art also, if you come to think about it, have the same qualities as Indian art.

In an article on Akira Kurosawa’s films you spoke of this oriental quality in art. Would Kurosawa fit into your view of Eastern art?

Kurosawa I do not consider a very oriental artist. Kurosawa is 50 per cent Western, I think.

Satyajit Ray's sketch of Akira Kurosawa

Satyajit Ray's sketch of Akira Kurosawa

What about you?

Yes, so am I, I think, so am I — which makes me more accessible to a Western audience than someone who’s not to the same extent influenced by Western models. I think Ozu and Mizoguchi are far more Eastern in that way.

Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa during a trip to the Taj Mahal in the mid 1970s

Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa during a trip to the Taj Mahal in the mid 1970s

And Tagore?

Rabindranath I don’t know — he’s a completely isolated phenomenon. I find it very difficult to classify him, to put him into a pigeonhole.

Talking of Tagore, what was the process of thought in Charulata (1964) that led up to your decision to end the film with a freeze-frame on the hands of Charu and her husband Bhupati, followed by the still images of them and the servant carrying a lamp?

That was not in the script. In the script the husband accepts her hand and the two of them walk back into the bedroom, seen from a distance – we see the entire veranda.

The original story ends with one single word. Bhupati is about to go to Mysore and Charu suddenly tells him, “Take me with you.” And he hesitates and Charu says “thak”, which means “let that be” in Bengali.

This was a kind of very abrupt, logical conclusion to the story, and I wanted a visual equivalent of the thak – instead of the word, an image, which would suggest that the two are about to be reconciled and then are prevented from doing so.

I couldn’t end with the word because I have a feeling that the really crucial moments in a film should be wordless. The really crucial transitions and climaxes, where you want to make a crucial point – it’s better if it’s made visually rather than verbally. So my ending is the visual equivalent of the word: they attempt to come together but the idea is that the process will take time.

The final scene of Charulata (1964)

The final scene of Charulata (1964)

What about the servant’s lamp?

Light is always associated with awakening or understanding. And the servant also stops. These are still photographs that come at the end after the freeze. It’s very difficult to express what was precisely meant to be achieved with that series of still shots, but something told me instinctively it would be the right conclusion for the film. I can’t explain beyond that.

And what about that final mysterious shot of The Big City, with one bulb in the Calcutta streetlight working and the other one missing. What did you have in mind there?

The double lamp happened to be like that. The shot was taken from the balcony of the office where we shot most of the exteriors.

It so happened that I needed a long shot of the two characters merging into the crowd after office hours. And I saw, as I tilted up the camera as they were walking away, a lovely shot of these two lights in the foreground. One of the bulbs was not working and [laughs] – my God – the amount of interpretation that has taken place because of that one missing light is incredible!

I had nothing in mind. I didn’t want to suggest anything at all, except that it was typical of Calcutta for the streetlights not to be working properly… It makes the shot more interesting, because it adds another layer of meaning to it which I’m afraid was not intended.

As I discovered it, I was quite happy. I felt it was better than both lights working.

What meaning would you attribute to it now?

Oh I don’t know — it just shows a lyrical side of Calcutta.

There’s no symbolic meaning?

No.

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