Alain Resnais, Anwar Hossain, Apur Sansar, BIFI, Centre National de la Cinematography, Cinematheque Francaise, CNC's Bibliotheque du Film, Dance of Wind, Dev Benegal, Dilip Padgaonkar, English August, Farida Mehta, FEMIS, FIFA, Francois Truffaut, FTII, Genesis, Goethe Institute, Henry Langlois, Jai Ganga, Kartikeyan, Ketan Mehta, Les Archives du Film, Madame Michelle Aubert, Mani Kaul, Maya Memsahib, Mrinal Sen, Musee L'Orsay, NFDC, nouvelle vague, OEDEC, Pathe Studio, Pather Panchali, Rajan Khosa, Raoul Coutard, Renoir, Roman Polanski, Smoking/No Smoking, The Ninth Gate, Vidhwans, Vijay Singh
[In 1998, Goethe Institute invited me for an extended 3-week long “Contact and Information tour” through Germany. Since I was going to be right next-door, I requested the French embassy for an additional week in Paris visiting their film schools and related facilities. This brief visit turned out to be a rich, memorable experience. For one, I got to spend an hour with Satyajit Ray’s ‘red book’ on Apur Sansar and second, I got a chance to meet Roman Polanski while shooting his latest The Ninth Gate.
The following two-part extract of my Paris diary captures the magic of these and other adventures.]
I was in France—in fact just Paris—between June 24 and 30 . Thanks to Xavier Guerard of the French embassy, whom I had met briefly at the inaugural day of Raoul Coutard’s workshop [November 1997; also see my article Coutard of the Godard Fame], and whom I later wrote to seeking a week’s hospitality in Paris mainly to visit FEMIS and the famous Cinematheque, my hosts in Paris were their Ministry of External Affairs, no less! Which, it turned out, meant that in addition to booking me a hotel room at a prime location, they also provided invaluable assistance of a man who daily picked me up in a car, drove me around various addresses and also work as interpreter. Without this man—Monsieur Bertrand de Lorgeril—I wouldn’t have made it to half the number of people and places that I eventually did.
Apart from the two film schools—FEMIS and a polytechnic—my schedule in Paris consisted of visits to mainly the government establishments dealing with cinema, talks with their officials and on the basis of these talks if I found another place worth a visit, quickly fixing an appointment and visiting there. Thrown in on the intervening Saturday was a visit to a historic chateau outside Paris and on Sunday, what can be better than visiting one of the famous museums—tickets are much cheaper there on Sundays—the best known of which were within walking distance from my hotel? I had been through Louvre on an earlier visit; so this time I spent the whole day in the company of the impressionists at a much more compact Musee D’orsay.
A Bengladeshi ex-student of FTII, Anwar Hossain, who is married and settled in Paris, called on me one evening. I had written and directed his diploma film Vidhwans while he was at the Institute in 1978.
Anwar handed me for our library two volumes of collection of his still photographs. He also expressed a desire to give a weeklong workshop for our cinematography students while on his way to or from Bangladesh and would write to us when such an occasion came.
Discovering FEMIS is a story by itself. On reaching their Pathe Studio address, we found construction work going on there and a notice which said that the school was temporarily shifted to another premises while its new building came up!
It turned out that Monsieur Lorgeril had been given the old address in the perfectly reasonable assumption that film schools don’t change addresses all that often! The route to the new address was very confusing and took time, so that by the time we were there, we had just one hour to go round and wrap up the place.
Philippe Coutant, the English speaking “International Relation” in-charge of the school received us and showed us around. A classroom encounter with the students, which he and I had been in correspondence about, was now out of the question. Instead I had brief exchanges with the students wherever we found them—in the cafeteria, at the Steenbeck or Avid, or just in the corridors. Coutant and I talked about students of our two institutions who had spent time in each others’ school—our Kartikeyan who he recalled had not completed the course at FEMIS, and one of their girl students who spent a semester at FTII designing and constructing a set for one of the diploma films on the basis of which she got her own diploma. Coutant did not know Dilip Padgaonkar, that the eminent Times of India editor had been a student decades back, not at FEMIS but its earlier avatar, OEDEC. He however dug up the name from a directory of the ex-students much in the manner of our own Mehboob sahib at FTII.
At present FEMIS is scattered among hired spaces of a commercial studio, which itself is a scattered establishment among blocks housing all kinds of other businesses, like godowns, warehouses, transport company offices etc. The place is such an amalgam that a casual visitor would see neither the atmosphere of a studio, nor a film school. Next year the building would be ready and the school would find a permanent home “for at least ten years” at its Pathe Studio address “where Renoir once shot.”
The other school I went to was Ecole Nationale Superieure Louis Lumiere where its director Georges Dadoun gave a brief background to the activities of the school. Housed in its own 3-4 storied single block building on the outskirts of Paris, the school offers courses in Still Photography, Cinematography and Sound Recording. When asked why with all the necessary equipment and production facilities they don’t offer Direction courses as well—after all they need directors for their diploma films and other exercises—I was given a rather strange reason. The school cannot afford the extra faculty positions which will be needed for an additional course! Teachers’ salaries, it was made out, constitute a major expense of running a film school.
Centre National de la Cinematography, CNC, is the French equivalent of our NFDC where we were briefed by their Director of Public Relation, Monsieur Decaudaveine. Apart from running film festivals, funding productions and handling distribution too, CNC takes pride in a scheme under which they subsidise foreign productions. The Indian list of films produced under this scheme starts from Mrinal Sen’s Genesis, Ketan Mehta’s Maya Memsahib, Dev Benegal’s English August, Vijay Singh’s Jai Ganga and our own Rajan Khosa’s Dance of the Wind. Mani Kaul and Farida Mehta (with their Naukar ki kameez and Kali shalwaar), among others, are in the pipeline.
None of the French institutions is perhaps as much loved and admired—as also visually referred to in their films—by the directors of the nouvelle vague as the one where they were all virtually raised, the Cinematheque Francaise. On my first visit to Paris in mid-eighties, passing casually in front of a building on my way back from seeing the Eiffel Tower (what else?), I was struck by a strange familiarity. Wasn’t it the same staircase that you descended in order to get into a basement projection theatre? That was an image from Trauffaut’s Stolen Kisses, and this indeed was the frontage of the famous premises. So this is where they all gathered evening after evening to get their diet of films, you said. You even saw in your mind’s eye the portly, rotund figure of its legendary director Henri Langlois conducting the vibrant place. [Henri Langlois would be France’s PK Nair.]
Regrettably, I was told that those premises of the Cinematheque have since burnt down in a fire and its functions have been shifted to different locations. On my schedule was a visit to its main office at rue de Longchamp where one Monsieur Marchand advised us to visit their film archive outside Paris. An appointment was made and the next day Monsieur Lorgeril and I drove to the place following a map.
There is a whole tradition in Europe of converting old buildings to modern use by keeping the exterior intact. If Musee L’Orsay housing the work of impressionists was originally a railway station next to the Louvre, the film archive where we were now going, Les Archives du Film, had been a castle which during the II world war was used for stocking all kinds of war ammunition. Camouflaged as it is by grass covered mounds and dense greenery, the approach to the place is quaint. The check post at the entry looks as though gun-toting, metal-stud booted soldiers would walk in any time.
The small built but intense, extremely energetic curator of the place, Madame Michelle Aubert received us at the check post and aided by an assistant immediately began to tell us about the place and show us the vaults. The concealed space of the castle had been put to ingenious use aiding temperature and humidity regulations so necessary for film storage. She showed us a whole range of weird sprocket holes on strange gauges of film from the origins of cinema, some of which I photographed.
Further inside in the middle of the compound is a modern, double-storied building specially designed for office space, restoration work space, projection hall and the like. Back in her office, Madame Aubert, who is also the president of FIFA, presented me with brochures, two VHS cassettes and a CD-ROM on Lumiere Brothers, all as it turned out in French.
My last day in Paris, 30th June, was full of surprises—all pleasant—and even a bit of a “live” chase sequence. I had been enquiring whereabouts of the original screenplay books of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (the famous ink-wash sketches which have been reproduced in various books) which I knew had been gifted by the master to the Cinematheque. The search brought us to CNC’s Bibliotheque du Film, BIFI, where the young “Directrice de la Mediatheque” Fortunee Sellam received us. After a moment’s pause, she clicked on a computer, spoke on the phone and smiled. “I think Mr Chawdhary it would be easy for us to satisfy you,” she said.
After coffee, Fortunee Sellam showed us around the ultra modern, high tech, skylight lit reading hall. A couple of cardboard models of landscape on two tables caught my eye. These were representations of the two film sets that were designed and used by Alain Resnais for his iconic twin films Smoking/ No Smoking.
We had recently seen this strange film in the Institute. Taking place all outdoors but shot exclusively on two elaborate studio sets, we NEVER realised that all the characters there (5 males and 4 females) had been played by just two actors! The action flowed so smoothly the impression came all 9 were free to walk in the frame any moment!
Finally an assistant brought what I was after. Wrapped carefully in a red cloth, this appeared to be 2-3 volumes. But when placed on a reading table and opened, this was one single notebook wrapped in layers of paper. Also, instead of Pather Panchali, this turned out to be the Apur Sansar screenplay. Red cloth covered and stitch bound—traditional account books called Khero Khata—this was about a hundred page unruled journal with sketches drawn in Ray’s known hand. I spent about an hour with the book, took pictures of some interesting pages and asked a sequence over 5-6 pages photocopied.
On the left are his doodles of Satyajit Ray Production logo. Apur Sansar was the first film produced by Ray.
These frames refer to the humorous moment when Apu reads snatches of his wife’s letter in a crowded bus. A sweaty dark man ogles.
These pages cover the entire morning sequence where Aparna lights up coal fire as Apu watches from the bed. Shot numbers run from 1 to 29. The famous hair pin shot is here, as is a close up of the cigarette packet (Scissors brand) where he sees her warning note. At the end can be seen Apu playing flute.
The chase I refer to pertains to locating Roman Polanski who happened to be shooting his latest in Paris…