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Meetings with the master: A 30-yr-old conversation with Satyajit Ray

Sometime in 1984-85, Rinki Bhattacharya met Satyajit Ray at his home in Kolkata. What ensued was a warm conversation over a cup of evening tea. Thirty years later, we get to hear snatches of it

Published: May 4, 2015 06:54:59 AM IST
Updated: May 12, 2015 02:17:30 PM IST
Meetings with the master: A 30-yr-old conversation with Satyajit Ray
Acclaimed filmmaker: Satyajit Ray won an Honorary Academy Award in 1992, the year he passed away

“Satyajit babu, this is my-son-in-law, Basu. He is a director, as you know. And my eldest daughter, Rinki.” Ma raised her head, not seeing me in her line of vision. Slumped in the low Jacobean sofa, Ray turned 180 degrees to look at my husband, Basu Bhattacharya, and me. His baritone echoed in the vast sitting room, “You must be the one who writes,” he said, looking at me. Ma had invited Ray—Manikda, as I began to call him—and his wife Bijoya for dinner.

Inspired, in fact emboldened, by his encouraging words, my correspondence with him began through notes, letters, cards; all promptly answered in his distinct handwriting. My Kolkata trips always included a visit to Manikda’s home; he was a natural raconteur, ever ready for a hearty adda.

In 1976, Manikda was shooting for Shatranj Ke Khilari and his invitation—“Why don’t you come over this afternoon? I am shooting with Richard [Attenborough]”—made me drop everything else. What a privilege! Watch him at work, and see Attenborough in person.

During a visit in 1983, I left a copy of the magazine Manushi, with my interview on living in an abusive marriage. I was apprehensive about his reaction. “The Manushi interview,” he wrote, “was exceptional in its boldness and honesty. I can’t recall having read anything so candid in the Indian media before and I wholly endorse the spirit that prompted it.”

In 1984, I was having tea in his apartment when BBC Radio broke the news about Indira Gandhi being assassinated. Visibly alarmed, Manikda ordered us to head home before chaos broke out. His anxiety was apparent; he asked several times, “How will you go? Do you have a car?” “I will take a taxi,” I assured him. “Go home and call me,” he said.

If I admired his films, I admired the individual—the sensitive man of vision behind the filmmaker—equally.

The following tête-à-tête is something very close to my heart, precious and private like a sepia-tinted document. Excerpts:
Rinki Bhattacharya: There is perhaps nothing new to be written about you or your body of work. But, at the same time, I feel your recent recovery deserves to be celebrated. One way of doing this is by sharing what your future plans are. One can’t ignore the enormous enthusiasm there is about what you plan to do next.
Satyajit Ray:
What am I planning next? Well, I have no definite plans at the moment. Because I am not making anything before the winter of ’85. So I am not in a hurry. There are a few stories I’ve read… the trouble of mentioning names at this stage is, of course, that other people may get to know. And you never know what it might lead to. So, I am a bit chary. Whatever I have in mind concerns rural environment, rural people. Possibly from the Dalit class. More on the line of Premchand’s Sadgati. But a contemporary work. And…  that’s all I can say at this moment; I don’t want to be more specific because I don’t know whether I will end up doing that or something else. I am very interested in doing something that is a complete contrast to Ghare Baire. As you know, Ghare Baire was a period piece that dealt with upper class people. [My next] is almost certain to be a rural subject and most probably in Hindi. For obvious reasons.

RB: By obvious reasons do you mean problems of marketing regional films?
Well, it is the market mainly. Primarily that, and also the fact that there is a wider choice of actors, actresses in Hindi than in Bengali. At the moment at least, I am on very good terms with them. My experience of working with them is extremely pleasant… I wouldn’t mind repeating that!

RB: I saw Sadgati again. I was reminded of a frequent allegation your critics make. It is about your absence of anger… a point Pakistani actor and director Zia Mohyeddin makes. Although I don’t agree with them.
Sadgati is a film about great suppressed anger that does not surface; the anger is seething just beneath the surface. I felt very angry about it. But, you know, my way of doing things is never to let it explode. I personally believe this kind of suppressed anger leaves a strong impact.

RB: What comes through is the helplessness, and the anger at this helplessness of the Dalits.
Yes. One gets the feeling that why don’t they do something, rather than can’t they do something? It is as tragic as that. Well, in my next film, if it is to be on that kind of subject, there will probably be a direct outburst of anger. When Premchand wrote the story, in the 1930s or 1940s, he couldn’t get beyond that point, nor would it have been realistic. And for me to go beyond that point wouldn’t have been realistic either. There is a story by Mahasweta Devi which is on the cards and there is an explosion in the end. If I make it, the explosion will be there as it occurs logically. This is a reaction of the helpless people to their exploitation.

Meetings with the master: A 30-yr-old conversation with Satyajit Ray
Image: Corbis
Genius at work: Considered as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Satyajit Ray was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1992

RB: Like a mass uprising?
Yes. This comes through not with mass action, not as if there is a revolution in the offing. It is not a planned uprising, but guided by somebody… it’s not concerted, it happens at an individual level. But there is a definite expression of anger. Perhaps also, at the same time, helplessness, as it cannot achieve anything. The fact that the individual has the courage to show anger is already an advancement over the 1930s’ situation.

RB: In Sadgati, one does feel that this man is confronted.
Do you mean the Brahmin?

RB: I felt the lower caste man has an unconscious gnawing that he is being exploited by the upper caste man.
The very next moment, you find he is helpless. It goes like that. When he throws the axe away and it lands at the feet of a Brahmin, he does it out of rage. But then he is cowed by the fact that he has confronted a Brahmin!

RB: Which is relevant of the period it was written in.

RB: What perplexes me is the lack of spontaneous response to your delightful fantasy films—for example, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne or Hirak Rajar Deshe—from your Western critics. Why is that?
These works are meant essentially for Bengali audiences. Generally, what happened in the past was that films took three to four years to reach the foreign market. There was a definite time lapse of three years in showing it here and there.

Meetings with the master: A 30-yr-old conversation with Satyajit Ray
Image: Ray Society
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is a fantasy adventure comedy film made by Satyajit Ray

RB: Has this happened with your earlier films?
I am talking of all my films. For instance, they open in Calcutta [now Kolkata]. Then it takes two years to get to the foreign market. The whole process is slow, subtitling etc takes time. You send it to a foreign festival where it is seen by critics. They come out with a review and the distributors get interested, or not, as the case may be. Then they buy it, show it. So there is a considerable gap between showing here and there.

Take Paris, which is a new market for me, but a good market. Jalsaghar was shown 25 years after it was shown here. You see? So, how can you really depend on the foreign audience? I never know with a film whether or not it will go down with the Western audience. I am often surprised by the fact; I am surprised with Jalsaghar doing so well. I am extremely surprised, considering the film is crammed with a difficult kind of classical music… that there isn’t much happening, and there are just one or two characters. I am completely flummoxed by this reaction! Anyway, it is good while it happens. But it isn’t easy to analyse or account for it.

RB: This may sound simplistic to you but please allow me to satisfy my curiosity. I felt that you wanted to tuck in a message, or something close to message, in the final scene of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. About the futility of war, or that feuds can be sorted otherwise. It is an anti-war film.
Yes, of course. I did put a very simple message, which the young can absorb. Apart from the [message of the] need for friendliness between nations.

RB: You mean averting war at any cost?
That is one way of putting it. The same kind of message, but not the same message, is there in Hirak Rajar Deshe. In a realistic film, or naturalistic film, as most of my other films are, I am not concerned with a message. When you are making a film for the very young, who are at an impressionable age, I think it is important to give a simple message. A good moral tale; all fables have messages: Hitopadesha, Panchatantra or even Aesop’s Fables. These stories have messages in the end. I had that in mind. I deliberately planted a message; making it entertaining [and] at the same time not making people aware of the message all the time; it only comes in the end. But no one sort of says: ‘You must do that’!

RB: I doubt if anyone expects your films to be obvious in that way. Manikda, what do you think are the main fears confronting serious filmmakers today?
I am afraid I don’t know much about the others. I can talk about myself. Obviously everybody is concerned with the economic aspect. There possibly are directors who are not really concerned whether the producer gets his money back or not. I put myself among those directors who are extremely aware of the fact that somebody else is making it possible for you to be creative. Without somebody else’s help, you are helpless, you can never be creative in films. Making even the simplest of films costs money and you don’t always have that kind of money yourself. So you have to depend on others. Thus, the need for communication.

Meetings with the master: A 30-yr-old conversation with Satyajit Ray
Image: Ray Society
Sadgati is a film about suppressed anger that does not surface

I don’t think India is the place to be obscure, or avant-garde, or abstract. Unless you are making a film on Super 8 [a film format] or using your own funds. Then you can do whatever you like. And it’s good to do experiments from time to time. But when you consider yourself part of the commercial set-up, as I do, subconsciously you always think of an ‘ideal’ audience. You are thinking of an audience. Not necessarily the lowest common denominator but an ‘audience’. And you expect that audience to respond to what you are doing. After a certain degree of experience, you more or less know what that audience is capable of responding to. One keeps that in mind.

RB: Many of the contemporary filmmakers find it increasingly difficult to select relevant subjects. Is this one of today’s problems? Finding the suitable story?
That should not be a problem. India is such a vast country; with so many issues. [There is] such a rich fund of stories that there is enough for one lifetime. But there is such a thing as an ‘uncastable’ story. If you want to make, for instance, a Bengali film with a character like the zamindar in Jalsaghar, in the absence of the late Chhabi Biswas, I can’t think of anybody else to play that role.

RB: Or you might even talk of Nayak.
Well there you are! No, there is no Uttam Kumar either. And Uttam, with whatever one might say, had a certain flair in a certain direction; a screen presence very few actors have. No question about it. As Chhabi babu had, of course. I made four or five films with Chhabi babu and all the characters were written—well not all, Kanchenjungha was written by me—by others. When I was actually writing the screenplay, I had Chhabi babu in mind all the time. I wrote dialogues that would suit him, which he could turn into something interesting.  
Chhabi babu is gone. Uttam is gone. And most of the actors over the age of 55, who were professionals and could be depended on to do demanding roles, are just not there. That is why I think more and more in terms of Hindi. In Bombay [now Mumbai] and elsewhere you have more actors to choose from. This is important I think. Any story that I take up to read, I try to cast for it at the same time. You always do that.

Meetings with the master: A 30-yr-old conversation with Satyajit Ray
Image: Ray Society
Jalsaghar was released in 1958

RB: I am no filmmaker, and yet, I often find myself casting for a story imagining it as a film!
Yes, I agree. We used to do that in our college days while reading a book. One of our texts was Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. In class, we speculated who would play what.

RB: It was casting that delayed your new work Ghare Baire.
Certainly. In the early part of my career, I had Ghare Baire very much on my mind. No sooner had I completed Pather Panchali that I considered Ghare Baire. Again, after Aparajito, I began to think of making Ghare Baire. It went on like that… getting buried. I began to think of it as an unfilmable, uncastable novel. Then suddenly it happened.

RB: I wonder if you are aware of what Mari Kuttna, a Hungarian film critic based in the UK, a great admirer of yours, calls you. She wrote somewhere that “among filmmakers, Ray tends to be treated like a superstar”. I think this is true to some extent. Do you agree?
I personally do not think I am treated like a superstar by the movie industry. These days, I think I have a bigger following among kids who read my stories, rather than watch my films. I think I have a tremendous fan following among teenagers who read me. Most of the younger filmmakers consider me passé.

RB: I did not mean filmmakers think of you as a superstar. But, in general, few inspire that kind of reverence or awe that you do.
Subconsciously, I feel that after having done so much, some kind of credit is due to me. I am happy when people treat me with respect.

RB: Manikda, we could go on talking for a long time. But I am afraid you are prohibited from talking for more than half-an-hour?
No no, go on, it is fine with me.

RB: What I find amazing is your accessibility: One has to just take the trouble of climbing these stairs and there you are. It is incredible.
That was precisely what I was coming to next. I am in the phone book, you can knock on my door. Everyone has access to me; everyone, in fact. People who visit me on Sunday mornings are ordinary folks, no big stars or anything. Some are old friends or colleagues from my advertising days. It is rather stupid to raise a wall around you. This way it is more interesting, rewarding, even exciting.

RB: For us, it is certainly rewarding to just drop in and relax with you. It is an invaluable experience!
It is rewarding for me as well. Absolutely… no question about that!

(This story appears in the 15 May, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Dr.a.jagadeesh

    Great interview with Great Director. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

    on May 7, 2015