Cinema Is Visual Art
Ray and Reality in Films
[‘In The Question of Reality’ published in ‘Four Times Five’, 20th anniversary brochure, Films Division, 1969, Satyajit Ray wrote, ‘‘The sharpest revelations of the truth in cinema come from the details perceived through the eyes of artists. It is the sensitive artist's subjective approach to reality that ultimately matters, and this is true as much as documentaries and fiction films. Details can make both of them real, in the same way and to the same degree, while lack of details can make both into dead matter in spite of verisimilitude that camera and microphone can impact.’’]
One sees in Nayak (The
Hero), the 1966 produced
film, in the introductory portion, the Matinee idol of Bengali film is asking an young lady with cognisible sophisticated background coming for an autograph, 'It is assumed that you do not see Bengali films'. In answer she confirms, 'Rarely', as there is often lack of reality.
The question of artistic reality thus forms the most important attribute that haunted Ray in his own films as for evaluation of other films made in India, particularly in Bengal.
Feature films are wish fulfilling which documentary films often do not. In essence, most fiction films are extension of reality in order to cater to voyeuristic taste of audience en masse. Side by side, major works of Ray are fiction films based on foundation of artistic reality. Those were all commercially profitable projects marketed judicially all over the world presented to global connoisseurs.
Film is a director's medium. Like a writer using his or her pen to express an idea in creative writing, the film director uses behaviour of human beings to express an idea through photography coupled with sight and sound in reality. After innovation of sound track in cinema, four types of sounds obtained entry in films, 1st dialogues (for which movie films were renamed as talkie), 2nd vocal and instrumental musics in combination i.e. songs to express emotions of characters sublimated over or instead of dialogues, 3rd incidental sounds that characterize and establish the situation in film and 4th background music illustrating the theme for which it is called theme music as well.
What is the way out to bring details of reality to cinema economizing on cost to optimum level? Satyajit was successful in excelling in making films which are all recognized by world as of classical standard, while he was used to work on shoe-string budget. It is relevant to mention here that another world recognized director Mrinal Sen also worked on making his legendary films on shoe string budget with similar motive to attain artistic independence.
Since Ray had not digital technology available in his days not invented yet, he made his screenplay complete with holistic details, dialogues written in brief accuracy, instruction to director of photography e.g. cameraman completely given with hand drawn illustration of frame after frame so that retake of shots need not be taken, use of raw stock of celluloid films be as much as possible optimized. He had respected professional sincerity of Uttam Kumar who in one take could make each shot OK while both worked only in two films together.
Thus Ray reconciled art and industry with thumb rule on symbiosis of economics of production cost and art of reality in film making innovated in his own style. It is further evident in his choice of making fiction films much more in number than documentary films.
Fiction films, basically commodity made for sale, can be shown to public at large while documentary films have in that sense no mass market at all. So objective reality which is essence of documentary films, have amidst the same milieu no market at all and have no similar chance to recover cost of production by ticket sale by commercial projection. Even Film Finance Corporation later named National Film Development Corporation also rarely finances documentary films except on special occasions like life of Tagore made on his birth centenary in 1961 made by Satyajit Ray. King of Sikkim financed a documentary film on Sikkim by Ray. Here supply side of government money considered no return but wanted to commemorate Tagore as a centenary tribute to him. King of Sikkim might have wished to highlight his own remote mountain range country to outer world in order to create visitors' interest in touring the country to promote livelihood of his subjects.
Reality in cinema and real understanding of how to convey it to audience is most revealed to advertising experts by nature of their profession. Advertisement does not sell itself but it trains the audio visual advertisement makers in order to make it a vehicle to sell a product or service. It has to understand the people’s state of mind and the communication skill to convince the visual audience to convince the suggestion to accept a new good or service and/or continue consumption of a well known branded product. So it is either to sustain or generate demand.
When an advertisement expert moves over to fiction film making, he with his audio visual presentation skill, is able to sell a branded literature (either famous author or a famous literary work is brand by name) to the current milieu whom he has already understood by experience.
Starting from Ray all the advertisement makers have become more or less successful because of their knowledge of the craft of film making in use of audio-visual instruments and their effectiveness in use, in order to communicate an idea. Every film conveys an idea to audience on any current topical issue or a classical branded issue already accepted by people at large. All films based on popular literature thus have become successful in audio visual presentation. So in Bengal people often referred to a film as a Boi [Fiction) haunted by their love of the branded literature now becoming more real in audio visual presentation. Novels and short stories of Saratchandra, Bibhutibhusan, Tarashankar as well Tagore are most glaring examples of commercial artistic reality, how films based on popular literary products provided ready market for reality based films. It must be noted that all such fiction films were and are still now having same title as their literary forms as a sure success marketing tool.
It is another commercial reality to note that names of popular sleuths Byomkesh and Feluda are sure shot cinematic brand names oven while depicting their different well known realistic episodes. However Ray made 'Chiriakhana' (The Zoo) in 1967, an episode of same sleuth with confidence that name of the popular novel and his own reputation as a good film maker would be making the film commercially successful. Thus artistic reality and commercial reality had converged in Ray films. In essence, Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay enriched Indian literature with articulate outstanding of details of reality in all kinds of his vast literature.
Movie film was invented in America and Hollywood became the Mecca of commercial production of films. Fiction films world in its own interest has created star system by several rewards ceremonies. American culture has a good aspect which is its unpretentious actions while starting Oscar award ceremony, the announced purpose was clearly to promote the market of its products. Films which will get award for direction, script, photography, acting, music will be enjoying a boosted market. Awarded artists would become stars to cinema visitors ,on whom investors can play safe bait across the global market.
The fiction films have a ready market for the star attraction of fans and at the same time reputed artists are economic in terms of time and money spent in studio as they need less retake for their skills to work in sophisticated industry environment. Ray worked both with stars and ordinary and extra ordinary character actors even with children with equal ease by his ability of perfected direction. In days of Ray, in Bengal film industry despite its worldwide recognition ,even the star artists had nominal pay as compared to Mumbai or south India. So making Bengali films reconciled cost economy with art of cinema for both human and non-human elements utilized in judicious manner. Ray himself becoming an international brand from release of his global multiple awarded first film 'Pather Panchali' (Song of the Road), a global market was ready for watching his films whoever may be the actors.
Indoor films production being less expensive compared to outdoor shooting, fiction films offer better opportunity to shoot indoor compared to documentary where moving to the location with the production team is essential and compulsive. Variable cost of production steeply rises in outdoor shooting.
What is pen for a writer, camera is that for a film maker. So while finesse of literary creations is expressed in language and development of a plot, that of a film comes from appropriateness of photography, production made by proper composition of close up or long shots by use of close up, zoom or wide angle lens.
Literature is artistic presentation of reality of a milieu related to its past, present and future or may be creative combination of these three periods. Apu Trilogy of Ray borrowed from literature of Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay where cinegoers get in 'Pather Panchali' child Apu in a Bengal village ambience amidst pristine beauty of nature occasionally aroused by movement of train causing fast changing reality of Bengal villages getting connected to a new world where everything is too fast changing though in British colonial interest. Bulk materials were stolen by British to acquire fuel and metallic natural resources/ores as fodder of so-called Industrial Revolution in Britain. They had destroyed not only plain arable fertile lands but also forests and hills evicting without compensation to the aboriginal community living over centuries in Indus valley. So there Ray had shown a moving railway train as a motif of changing reality of India under colonial exploiter the British Raj.
Then one finds Apu in still a living but the most ancient city of India Kashi in which feudalism still ruled the milieu and there art and culture with archaic religious rituals dictated by ruling priest community. 'Aparajita' highlights an ancient India where time has stalled having British no interest there, it not being a port city or nearby it as well having no subsoil, forest or mineral rich area to exploit. Third part of the trilogy 'Apur Sansar' brings Apu to the then Calcutta where second capital of imperialist British rulers were developing a cosmopolitan culture, disputably called Indian Renaissance, which offered Apu the essence of modernity enlightening his mind coming out of age old conservatism in Brahmin vested culture which stunted growth in its own order which was a disorder to economy.
Thus Ray in his most appreciated fiction films borrowed from Bengali and Hindi gems of literature presenting Indian reality in his movies to local and global community. He also used his own fictions in quite later stage as he himself admitted that he started writing creative literature in the compulsion of regularly publishing 'Sandesh', an illustrate multicolour cover children magazine initiated by his Grand father Upendra Kishore Ray, subsequently by his father Sukumar Ray suffering long but doomed to an early age death by Kala Azar.
Ray was a socially committed artist of multiple skills. In due course, his world outlook was developed by company of leading progressive intellectuals of his time mostly with left leaning who later recognized as all time great leaders in different artistic and learning pursuits.
Artists are conscience keepers of a nation state as well beyond the borders across the globe. In three of his fiction films, Pratidwandi, Jana Aranya and Seemabaddha, Ray had discretely made his political pro- people stand overt and clearly woven in the storyline.
In Pratidwandi while the sister has become a nut-bolt in the profit making machine of mercantile business world with no regret for that ,the elder brother is a confused person who understands that a revolt against the system is necessary but realizes that individually it cannot yield any tangible result. The youngest sibling is a committed revolutionary who joins a radical party and faces murder by state power (police force).
In Jana Aranya, Ray highlights the educated middle class groomed to take up service in government or private sector. The old father is finding the crisis of the hopeless youth justifying their joining a radical political party under the banner of a splinter group of Communist movement believer in armed struggle. His son ,a conservative young graduate becomes a middleman and a sister of his bosom friend being an young lady becomes a call girl in desperation to make a living in an economic system running on mercantile corruption. In every crisis ,either in peace or work women had always become the worst victims.
In Seernabaddha, a Shakespearian scholar turned a greedy careerist is ready to kill an employee by cooked up bombing in saving his British corporate firm from a major crisis and gets his reward of a lucrative promotion. Degeneration of men in Capitalist order is a clear political statement of Ray.
Though like Tagore, Ray was successful in every art form in which he tried his hand and soul. Making of films is a composite art form assimilating all kinds of ink and paper combining with all kinds of performing arts as well still art like preparing a movie set supported by great artists like Bangsi Chandra Gupta.
To the world as well Indians at large, Ray is well known as film director. So far India is concerned, people of all economic classes are fond of watching cinema as most holistic entertainment for individuals and family audience. For majority of Indians who are poor, cinema watching is most economic entertainment because of the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing their dreams come true amidst their historic deprivation of all good things of life in reality. The phenomena of 1947 Indian independence is crude colonial exploitation replaced by Indian semi-feudal exploitation in agriculture and comprador bourgeois exploitation in industry and trade. Economic inequality due to upper class exploitation has increased after so-called independence. So realistic fiction film making in India has to be aware of the reality of audience composition fond of not realist but escapist art.
Reality of cinematic production is dependent upon the language of cinema by judicious use of optical machine (Movie Camera) and its various accessories. The first is arrival of synchronized sound track capturing dialogues, songs, theme music and incidental and environmental sounds. Secondly colour has arrived to make cinema more realistic as the earth is not a black and white planet. It is multicoloured space having definite impact on human mind in land (city, village, plains, hills & forest), water (ocean, river, water falls ) and sky (morning, noon ,evening and night in daily cycle and clear blue, cloudy white or black, raining , stormy depending upon multifarious natural factors).
Ray made two classic quality children films which takes viewers to fantasyland when kings ruled the earth. The theory of origin of state and its evolution over time from priest rule to the warrior class led by kings, emperors down to modern bourgeois democracy is quite a complicated chapter of political science, not easily intelligible by children. Ray continued the time honoured tradition in literature which were initially told and later printed in books after invention of press. So his children films 'Gupy Gyne Bagha Bain' and 'Hirok Rajar Deshe' had their storyline built on the feudal periods of kings.
In GGBB Ray told stories of brothers who were twins. One was peace lover having even no brute force like army or police, as if subjects are happy, even kings do not need coercion. In sharp contrast, the minister of the other king uses hypnotic drugs to convert him into war monger. Here Ray very subtly expressed his crusade against war which benefits only the military war industry as of USA and Europe. Here kings moved across the story lines directly.
In HRD, Ray had shown under autocratic rule misuse of science directly sponsored by the ruling class to brainwash the impoverished subjects to accept the existing order which is exploitative rule of the state and forget about rebellion. Here subjects depict the storyline reflecting more mature audience to understand the nature of state.
Ray films never looked like political drama but political undercurrents are implicit in storylines. Since man formed a multilayered society for development of plural civilization, immediately man became a political animal. Politics impacts on life not overtly in chores of parliament, assembly, meeting and processions but in dictating human behaviour every day in and day out. Progressive themes of Ray films in a subtle way carry the political undertones.
If anything film is a major avenue of entertainment of common people. So whenever Ray made films, wit and humour carry out the task of his films as a saleable commodity to critical mass of audience in order to break even the sales revenue with cost with a comfortable margin for producers.
Ray's formal academic training in Economics in graduate studies in Presidency College, Calcutta and institutional training in visual art in Shantiniketan as well professional background in advertisement industry was an appropriate background preparation to emerge as one of world's most acclaimed director. Ray achieved demand supply equation, demand being generated by his skill of story telling by adroitly made and drawn script, more explicit through visual images than verbosity because like Charles Chaplin, he believed that language of cinema is a visual art in assortment of moving images. It is not photographed drama which depends more on emotive dialogues.
His scripts were attractive for appeal of musical score, witty conversation and above all the pleasure in viewing for his enormously powerful imaging through appropriate photographic style and content. He optimized cost of production by completely planned work schedule incorporating all essential details.
So he proved that reality in film can be achieved by reconciling internality and externality. He was well aware that film is an art which is successful by liking and appreciation by viewers. He never endorsed the idea of dichotomy in between Art Film and Commercial Film. He said, cinema is the highest form of commercial art.
In India, just like all film producing countries, producers are banias, mostly new age business barons who come to make film for a quick buck high rate of return on investment. So they are risk averse go getters not interested in long term interest of cinema as an art making industry.
Hence sex is an obsession, romance is nothing but chemistry of male and female in any acceptable order, when tragedy sells, one after another films are made on tragedy. Superstars like eminent artist Dilip Kumar (Eusuf Khan) was made tragedy king. Later Rajesh Khanna became a superstar by his tragic death in every film as sacrifice for love.
Advancement of technology is of use for run of the mill productions only for glamourising the looks of artists and locations against Ray's appreciation was that advanced technology can economise cost of film making with opportunity of visualizing frame and content of films with much more creativity contributing to art of films.
Till Film Finance Corporation and subsequently National Film Development Corporation came up, Ray was always in search of low budget in order to get rid of profit chasing producers and thus made few films out of self financing. Then his pursuit of art and industry combination can be in free mode of symbiosis.
Vol. 48, No. 29, Jan 24 - 30, 2016