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[It’s one of my long-cherished dreams to see on the bookstalls—while they are still around—a well-produced volume of Satyajit Ray’s talks with the students at the Film and Television Institute of India. Much like everything else by that master, his words remain wise and valid 40 years after they were spoken and 20 years since he’s gone. 

My dealings with publishers so far can only be described as a game of hide-and-seek. Earlier I wouldn’t be ready with the manuscript, now they tend to feel it’s too technical for popular readership, that there’s no ‘market’ for the book. A book based on Ray’s own words; given his voice, with a rich potential for an audio version; and given his rare, one-on-one, often passionate discussion with students, with assured rounds of fresh debate and controversy, has no market? Certainly the great filmmaker wasn’t in the Institute narrating to us his latest children story… 

The present article, Ray at the Institute, gives an account of his two visits to the Institute and was commissioned for an encyclopedia on him towards the end of 90s. As it happens, it’s also a good summery of the book, minus of course the text of the talks. 

Your ideas, thoughts and suggestions would be much appreciated.]  

 

The story of Ray’s association with film academics starts with contradictions and ends with irony. A wholly self-taught filmmaker, he burnt his fingers in the country’s premier film school but had another one—albeit posthumously—named and started in his honor.

Satyajit Ray visited the Institute altogether twice. (Luckily I was present on both occasions.) First when we were Film Institute of India (FII) in 1969 and the second time when we had just become Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in 1974. In fact during the second visit—to address the film wing convocation—he also inaugurated the new building of the TV wing on the campus. Earlier too he had once been invited to address the convocation in 1968 but couldn’t make it due to a last minute illness. So, for the record, his dates on the FTII campus would be: 1968 when his convocation address was read in absentia by principal Jagat Murari; 1969 when again on Mr Murari’s invitation he brought his latest Goopy Gayne Bagha Byne and met the students over two days; and 1974 when the then FTII director Girish Karnad invited him to address the convocation a second time. On this second occasion however his meetings with the students were stormy, hostile and at times even insulting. That was the last we saw of him in Pune. Shortly thereafter he wrote all he had told us in an article Four and a Quarter without mentioning the Institute, but privately did nothing to hide his sense of disgust with the students’ behavior.

Prior to his visits, Ray’s had been a strong presence on the campus through his films. When I joined the Institute in 1968, I was one of the nearly fifty drawn from all over the country and barring Bengalis, our first look at a Ray film happened at the Institute. Our seniors were full of admiration for whichever of his films we had and saw—the trilogy, Jalsaghar, Samapti. Without doubt, the ‘epicenter’ of this unqualified enthusiasm for Ray was our professor of film appreciation Satish Bahadur. Having been virtually handpicked for the job by another more distinguished admirer Marie Seaton, Bahadur had even named his son Apu after the trilogy hero.

The only classes I remember from my student days at the Institute are Professor Bahadur’s, especially those analyzing Aparajito. Looking at the film reel by reel over months, he would keep rolling cigarette after cigarette raising penetrating questions on its structure. (I don’t think even he knew at that time that the Wills emblem on his tobacco pouch had been designed by Ray.) Considering that the modern amenities like photocopying, VCR’s and PC’s were nowhere around, the labor alone that Professor Bahadur put in writing, proofreading and cyclostyling version after version of his notes would seem monumental. Had he actually been able to put together all that material in a book as he kept saying he would, we would today have a work of rare insights into the Ray oeuvre. But seeking endlessly to match in writing his mentor’s level of perfection in filmmaking kept holding Professor Bahadur back from ever signing off that book.

We saw Goopy Gayne Bagha Bayne on the very evening of his arrival in the Institute’s Main Theatre. After giving a brief introduction, Ray took a seat in the front row and sat right through the screening. (Sitting down, he didn’t fuss with his height as we expected and those immediately behind quietly shifted to adjust.) Mr Murari sat beside Ray and did him honors, himself getting up and going to the projection booth asking frame adjustments from time to time.

The film itself however was a big disappointment for us—and not the least because it was an un-subtitled print. We thought doing a period fantasy like that was stretching neo-realism way too far. Instead we saw in Goopy an ‘unmistakable’ closeness to a certain Bombay stunt filmmaker Babubhai Mistry, and a ‘regrettable but inevitable’ fall to commercialism after valiant efforts at staying Art. What goes up must come down, we wisely said. Et tu, Brutus? Went our silent wail! We hadn’t seen De Sica’s Miracle in Milan, nor Ray’s own early Paras Pather, both fantasies and first breakaway efforts from the standard neo-realist mold. But so put off were we that it seemed futile asking him anything about Goopy the next day. Instead the discussion kept going back to the safety of his classics.

Listening to the tapes of his ’69 visit—yes, both of Ray’s visits were recorded and a book on them is now under production—it is clear that he had specially prepared himself to meets academics. On our part, all teaching and production activity had been suspended on the first day to enable the whole community to hear him, while the second day had been kept only for us, the direction students. Jagat Murari moderated all sessions.

Starting from his observations on the diploma films he was shown, he spoke at length on the fashion statement of the times, the nouvelle vague. Highlighting that only Jean-Luc Godard was a true iconoclast, Ray pointed out that any attempt at emulating Godard, as students all over the world tended to do, invariably showed up as imitation Godard. Further on questions from the faculty, mainly CV Gopal and Samiran Dutta, he did a general survey of the world cinema—European, American, Japanese—with anecdotes from his encounters with some of the makers. (The famed Olivier-Kurosawa brush on Kurosawa’s interpretation of Macbeth was in all probability first narrated to us in these meetings.) For the direction students the next day, at the instance of their head Professor Mushir Ahmed, he elaborated on what constituted a film story and how, while it needn’t be heavy handed, it can’t be dispensed with either.

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By the time he came in 1974, India’s own nouvelle vague was on and raging. Hitting the shores (near Bombay) with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, the wave’s chief ideologues had been Institute’s Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, and its chief patron, Filmfare’s editor BK Karanjia who, additionally as head of government’s Film Finance Corporation (FFC), was responsible for financing all three and more. In 1971, Ray had written a longish article The Indian New Wave? giving his analysis of experimentation down the history of cinema and suggesting possible lines along which the Indian effort could go. Calling as an elder filmmaker to strive for clear, unambiguous communication in their low-budget films, the article had worked like a red rag among, not just the filmmakers but all others looking for a possible career in the Wave. The reactions had been varied, ranging from seeing the article as Ray’s panic reaction to the threat of being dislodged(!), to an effort on his part simply to sabotage the Wave(!!). Since then, prompted by the press—mainly the Times of India group—and their sense of loyalty to their ‘seniors’ in the charismatic Mani and Kumar, the shrillest voice of protest seeking attention had long been that of the direction students on the campus.

That’s when Ray’s second visit to the Institute came about.

Interestingly, the most valuable contribution to the debate on Mani and Kumar films in the Ray sessions comes from one of the most articulate of the Wave loyalists, then a student on the campus, Arun Khopkar. Holding forth a measured irreverent stance, necessary (or rather essential) to countering a giant that size, Khopkar engaged Ray to extract from him, not just his objections to Duvidha and Maya Darpan in preference to MS Sathyu’s Garm Hawa, but also later some rare pronouncements on Neo-realism. But as anybody in the teaching profession knows, for one bright student in a class, there are two each of innocents, arrogants, clowns and idiots. These were the ones who, driven by their unique complexes and itching to connect with a genius, kept cutting him short, puncturing discussion at high points, and raising jeer. Having brought film schools a bad name, all of them went on to make their diploma films and promptly disappeared into oblivion. All film schools face this problem and eventually suffer neglect from makers.

Professor Bahadur’s role in this entire episode, however, was curious. As a senior teacher, rather than step in and intervene, he remained tight-lipped throughout, if not in acquiescence, certainly from a degree of awe of the Wave. Girish Karnad would surely have made a difference but he was busy in his office overseeing convocation preparations. As subsequent developments showed, ever so keen to go Bollywood bashing in the juiciest of coinages, Professor Bahadur was prepared to go no further than giving vend to an occasional private outburst against the Wavers and their methods. Tragically, in the event, he gets a place under none of the three ‘suns’ of the Indian cinema.

In his first convocation address Ray had told us, “—ever since the FII came into being, I have been asked time and again to come out here and talk to the students. I think I’d feel a lot lighter if I were to tell you now why I have refrained so long from doing so. To be quite frank, I have developed, over the years, a sort of bias against institutions. This may well be because all the things I do well, or with reasonable competence, are things I taught myself to do. I realize I may be an exception in this, but I don’t think I can be blamed for arriving at certain conclusions on the basis of my own experience. I can’t help looking upon art schools and film schools with a certain skepticism.”

Eventually his two visits to the Institute vindicate his position. In our 40 years, we may have contributed to producing a Wave of films, but we have yet to produce a Gem of a maker. Let’s hope now that two of our film schools—one bearing his name in full and in his city of Calcutta—are better than one.

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