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Review: Deep Focus, Reflections on Cinema

An anthology of unpublished essays by Satyajit Ray, reflecting on cinema as he knew it

books Updated: Jul 13, 2012 17:23 IST

Harsh Mander

Deep Focus: Reflections on Cinema

Edited by Sandip Ray

Harpercollins India

Rs 450 pp 171

In the preface to a new anthology of previously unpublished essays by Satyajit Ray, filmmaker Shyam Benegal recalls his first encounter with Pather Panchali, in a matinee show in a south Kolkata cinema. “The experience was indescribable... Here was a film, the like of which I had never seen before... It was beyond anything I had imagined films of being capable of achieving; a true watershed in Indian cinema.”

As a young man smitten with cinema, my own first encounter with Pather Panchali was very similar. I immediately fell in love with it, and it remains, with Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard, my favourite film to date. The extraordinary aesthetics and consistent humanism of Ray’s entire body of work, and his incisive, gentle commentary on human relationships and social transitions, remain rarely matched.

The articles, archived and edited by his son Sandip Ray, are a small treasure for those who love his cinema. The book Deep Focus: Reflections on Cinema is an eclectic collection, the earliest — an essay on Jean Renoir — written in 1949, long before Pather Panchali was even imagined.

In one essay, Ray explains that when he chose Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali for his first film, he was careful not to resort to a “slavish translation” of the novel, but to its cinematic adaptation. His challenge was to be entirely true to the spirit of the writer, retaining his ‘lyricism and humanism combined with a casual narrative structure’, yet adapting and transforming the material offered by the novel into a legitimate work of cinema. In another essay, he underlines that books are not primarily written to be filmed; therefore they need to be reshaped to meet the demands of cinema.

Among the many traits which make Ray’s films special is his understated and gentle humour. One piece in this new anthology best reflects this aspect of his personality, and is one of my favourite in the book. This is his description of his arrival at Moscow to participate in a film jury, and his utterly frustrating encounters with the bureaucracy and chaos of the State socialist system, but also his unfailingly civilised responses to his hilarious travails.

Most of the essays, however, are reflective and critical commentaries on cinema. In a lecture to film students at the National Film Institute in Pune, Ray suggests that the challenge of film-making is the need to communicate with a larger audience, without losing the film-maker’s artistic integrity. He explains that for him “the term ‘commercial’ held no overtones of stigma. It only helped define an economic axiom: since a film cost a good deal of money to make, it had to be seen by a great number of people for the money to be recovered”. He also cautions against blaming audiences for “failing to rise to the level of the film”. Drawing an analogy with cooking, he says: “When a large number of people having a meal find a certain dish unpalatable, the cook is in no position to blame them for failing to rise to the level of his concoction”.

Yet Ray does not hide his rather elitist dismissal of mainstream Indian cinema, whether produced in “Bombay (which) has devised a perfect formula to entice and amuse the illiterate multitude”, or Bengal which he finds technically inferior, churning out a pretentious “nameless concoction devised in the firm conviction that Great Art is being fashioned”. Cinema of the West also depressed him as a whole. “It is a cinema of the youth turned cynical, heretical. Nothing is sacred any more. Conventions are to be scoffed at, flouted ... In cinema, the plot and grammar and logic of cinema are thrown out of the window, and out with them go coherence, comprehensibility and conviction”.

In these uncharacteristically trenchant critiques from a person noted for his understatement, one finds clues of the kind of cinema he believed in and tried life-long to create. He observes that Western critics often describe his films as ‘classical’ and ‘humanist’; generally as compliments, but occasionally, he suspects, as euphemisms for ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘not innovative’. He responds: “If classical implies an orderly unfolding of events with a beginning, a middle and an end — in that order; a firm rein applied to emotion, and an avoidance of disorientation for its own sake, I will be only too happy with the label”.

There could be no better description of what I love in Ray’s grammar of cinema, his classical yet innovative narrative structures, his intense human and social engagement, his unshaken but non-didactic ethical convictions, and his compassion. This anthology is an opportunity for nostalgia for an older generation, and to those born after he left us, an introduction to one of contemporary India’s tallest artistes.

Harsh Mander is a member of the National Advisory Council

First Published: Jul 13, 2012 17:23 IST