Mastering the Language of Cinema
Second in a series of articles published in India Post
By Dilip Basu
A Bengali Bergman? A sort of reincarnated Renoir? These are Andrew Robinson's cries of high hosannas while placing Satyajit Ray, the subject of his well-known biography, in the pantheon of world film makers. Michael Sragow, a noted film critic, is more subtle. In a longish essay entitled "An Art Wedded to Truth" in the Atlantic Monthly (Oct. 1994), he describes Ray as the most sublime movie maker to emerge since Renoir and de Sica. Then he adds a careful caveat — unlike the two European masters, Satyajit Ray made "great" and "near great" films throughout his long career producing some twenty-nine features.
Robinson and Sragow are among a host of Western admirers who have attempted to understand Ray's art in the idiom they know and in the categories they are comfortable with. It is commonly assumed that Ray, artistic and somewhat off-beat, must have emerged from India's long and prolific motion picture tradition which is as old as any. In India, Ray was initially dismissed, especially in Bollywood, as a peddler of poverty, as someone who made low-budget features with the foreign markets, international film festivals and awards in mind.
Even forty years after Pather Panchali made its first splash, proper appraisal of Ray's creativity and originality, whether in India or in the West, hangs in a precarious balance. In the Western appreciation, Ray is compared to his European counterparts, as no peer in America and Asia, except Kurosawa in Japan, can be found. In India, Ray is increasingly revered as a cultural icon, a multifaceted genius who towers above others in India's film world and yet escapes being an integral part of it.
There is truth in both views. What they lack, however, is a recognition of Ray's autonomy as an artist and film maker, something he achieved by assiduously studying in his usual limpid way the elementary aspects of his craft. The first and foremost among these was the language of cinema.
That this language is complex Ray learned quite early in life. To him a film is pictures, words, movement, drama, music and story — a film is a thousand expressive visual and aural elements. These, he pointed out, can be packed for simultaneous display in a segment not lasting even a minute. In several essays, Ray describes how an understanding of this complex language dawned on him along with its intrinsic affinity to music, and marked difference from theater.
While a student at Santiniketan, Tagore's rural university, he spent much of his spare time listening to Western classical music. "My response to Western classical music was immediate and decisive," writes Ray. "If films were fun and thrills and escape, the pursuit of music was something undertaken with deadly seriousness." The discovery that something fun and something serious could be joined together gave him great delight. Both film and music unfold over time, interact with pace, rhythm, and contrast; both express a wide range of varying moods and emotions.
He notes that this affinity does not extend to Indian classical music, which he sees as improvised over time, and essentially decorative rather than dramatic. It builds up from a slow beginning to a fast conclusion, becoming more and more intricate and ornamental in the process. It is, Ray writes, rather like an Indian temple, which builds up from a solid base, goes through narrower and narrower layers of ornamentation, and ends up in the dizzy heights of its pointed pinnacle — the shikhara. The mood of the music is predetermined by the raga, and convention demands that there should be no departure from it. What the musician aims at is to give the ideal form to the concepts implicit in a particular combination of notes. Indian music is at its best when it is in the hands of its most adept exponent. In the process of execution, the musician can achieve beauty, tension, excitement and sublimity, but not drama. The reason is simple: there is no conflict in this form of music.
Unlike Indian music, Western music can depart from the tonic or Sa, and much of the drama arises from this modulation of certain basic melodies from key to key. It is comparable to the change and variation occurring among the characters in a story. At the end, the music has to return to the tonic or Sa, which is like the resolution of a conflict, where one feels nothing more needs to be said, as the drama has come to an end.
Ray finds it significant that most of the pioneers of motion pictures — those who helped to create its grammar and its language — were responsive to music. He specifically mentions Griffith in the U.S., Abel Gance in France, Eisenstein and Pudovkin in the Soviet Union. Ray is especially taken by Griffith, who virtually created the language of cinema. Griffith realized that images could be invested with meaning, and such meaningful images could be strung together like sentences in a story, and the story could be made to unfold with the grace and fluency of music.
After Santiniketan , while working as a graphic artist in Calcutta, Ray constantly thought about the craft of cinema as practiced by pioneers such as Griffith. With few like minded friends, he helped found the Calcutta Film Society. All the films they screened and discussed were foreign. "To be quite honest," Ray writes, "we found nothing worth studying in Bengali films from an esthetic point of view." He watched shooting in Calcutta studios and found it identical with traditional theaters and Jatra: speech dominated over images with songs and melodrama directly inducted from stage productions. During the 1940s and 1950s, the period of Ray's most active apprenticeship in the art of film making, Bengali cinema or the blockbusters from Bombay continued to yield to the hegemony of speech, melodrama, song and dance — defying the language of cinema as Ray defined it.
While taking the plunge with Pather Panchali Ray was prepared to break all conventions of Indian cinema. Little did he realize that such a resolution would also extend to conventions of Western cinema. "One day's work with camera and actors taught me more than all the dozen books," Ray admitted later. He had to find out for himself "how to catch the hushed stillness of dusk in a Bengali village when the wind drops and turns the ponds into sheets of glass, dappled by the leaves of shaluk and shapla, and the smoke from the ovens settles in wispy trails over the landscape and the plaintive blows on conch shells from homes far and near are joined by the chorus of crickets which rises as the light falls, until all one sees are the stars in the sky, and the stars that blink and swirl in the thickets." Capturing the chorus of crickets or fireflies at night-fall on camera presented Ray with the kind of challenge that he loved to face in ingenious ways. Here he was forced into improvisation — not of the musical sort, yet something that remained a Satyajit Ray hallmark of film making. The light that the fireflies gave off was too weak to be filmed. So Ray and his crew figured out a way to show the blinking lights a bunch of bare-bodied assistants wearing black loin-cloths and holding tiny flashing bulbs hopped around in total darkness. The audience sees this simulated dance of fireflies in Aparajito, the second film of the trilogy.