Akira Kurosawa, Aparajito, Apu Trilogy, Battleship Potemkin, Bicycle Thieves, Film and Television Institute of India, Film Appreciation Courses, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Indian New Wave, Ingmar Bergman, Kumar Shahani, Kumar Shahani Tarang, Mani Kaul, NFDC, Rashomon, Rather Panchali, Satyajit Ray, Sergie Eisenstein, Shyamala Vanarase, The Pather Panchali of Satyajit Ray, Throne of Blood, Uski Roti, Vittorio DeSica, Wild Strawberries
It’s 30 years since Professor Bahadur left the Institute and 5 years, at the age of 85, the world. I was lucky to have enjoyed his best teaching years as a student and later as a junior colleague and close confidante, right until both his as well as my own superannuation and even beyond. For us, his students, the very idea of cinema is inseparable from the persona of Professor Satish Bahadur.
Taking a long look at his life and times, it would not be an exaggeration to call him the pitamah of the Film Appreciation. We had known criticism before but learnt of film appreciation only upon coming to the Institute. Since then criticism looks like faultfinding while appreciation is a positive, generous and altogether constructive activity. I’m quite certain that the designation Professor of Film Appreciation was coined with Bahadur sahib’s unique personality in mind and should have been discontinued when he retired. Others after him—and I intend no disrespect to individuals; they are all friends—have worn the shoe really very loose. If today all the Film Appreciation courses in the country, first conceived and started by him, were to pay a copyright fee for the title alone, then Bhabiji would be a rich lady. (Not that she needs any of that.)
Having honed his skills on masters like Ray, DeSica, Kurosawa and Bergman, the coming of Indian New Wave early in his career posed Bahadur sahib a great moral dilemma. All the makers were either his students or friends and he couldn’t decide what public posture to take upon them as bad filmmakers. The might and machinery of the government of India backed the Wave and far too many careers were at stake to allow one adverse opinion to succeed. Soon all of them began to give him a royal ignore: a cute smile followed by silence. The message was clear: If you weren’t body and soul with the Wave, you would be declared as out of tune with the times. A fatwa or sorts. Even Ray’s image (at least in India) was seriously dented after he wrote an article criticizing the New Wave. Personally I have been witness to Mani Kaul making faces as Prof Bahadur turned to put down Uski Roti’s plot details on the black board and Bahadur sahib’s acidic remark when Kumar Shahani’s second film Tarang, almost given up by NFDC and everybody else as bad loan for 12 years, got a release of additional funds. “Having now to complete this film, Kumar has lost his chance of being a martyr!” he said.
Although I shared his excitement for Satyajit Ray in full, in later years even I had my differences with Prof Bahadur and we discussed and debated them endlessly. Whereas other FTII students had only a 3-year slice of the man limited to their student years, mine went to over 40 years. It’s impossible for any one to sustain the admiration of a growing young man for that long; even children can and do feel suffocated and begin to challenge their parents. To me doubts began to arise in relation to his catchy coinage somewhere in the late 70s, “Film criticism is the obverse of filmmaking.” In the same vein albeit jokingly he would say, “Looks like Ray consulted me shot by shot as he made Pather Panchali!” In my experience approaching filmmaking through analysis and criticism is like asking a centipede to stop and understand how he manages his hundred legs in order to walk. That to me is the end of the centipede’s career in walking. There is a strong component of the instinctive and intuitive in the practice of arts that is beyond analysis. The greatest moments in the Cinema are best savoured whole. Analysing them is undermining them.
I would like to reproduce two independent extracts from my book The Pather Panchali of Satyajit Ray in one of which I recall my fondness for Prof Bahadur’s classes as a student and another in which I deal with my reservations about his method of analysis in later years.
In our second year we were required to do a detailed study of a feature film of our choice. My impression is that Professor Satish Bahadur sweet-talked us into asking for Ray’s Aparajito (Pather Panchali we were already saturated with in first year) and the reason became apparent as our weekly sessions advanced—not only was he himself discovering the film along with us but also his method of analysis at the same time. Those were the best sessions we had at the Institute.
“Ramien!” Professor Bahadur would call out the projectionist from in front of the Classroom Theatre screen, and then with a flourish of hand entirely his own, “Start!”
“Yessir!” and the lights would go off. Just as Ramien could hear us through the projection portholes (the sound proof glass removed for the purpose), so also could we hear him activate the 35mm Westrex in a deft little sequence of operations, and afterwards the projector noise all through the reel as well! “That’s alright, it’ll help you keep a distance from the film,” Professor Bahadur would coolly say and proceed with whatever he had to tell us or ask, mostly ask.
“Ramien! Let’s see the same reel again, this time in half lights.” Again the reel would be shown with half the teasing lights of the CRT kept on. “Can you switch off the sound track this time, Ramien?” And next, “Let’s try keeping the picture out of focus so we’ll be able to see the graphics. And also the sound a little low because I want to keep talking, OK?”
“Yessir!” “Yessir!” and “Yessir!”
Needless to say that all the fun of those classes went to the genial, efficient and ever-smiling Mr Ramien projecting the reels (often just one in a 3-hour session), while we the 3-4 survivors from a class of fourteen were supposed to be studying.
“But that’s it!” Professor Bahadur would repeatedly conclude. “Design-making is what good cinema seems to be all about. And that’s what I want you to see. Look for motifs. Look for them in picture as well as in sound. And in editing as well—.” Often some of us wondered if we hadn’t ended up seeing much more than the filmmaker ever intended. “I can agree with you for any other filmmaker but not Satyajit Ray,” suddenly a charming Professor Bahadur would go very firm. “I tell you, just nothing escapes this man!”
Today after dealing with “this man” for forty years, I have come across no evidence to the contrary.
Grappling with problems of structuring a film, we at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) were raised on the notion that Pather Panchali was a film cast in a three-act mould. Our professor Satish Bahadur laboured us through repeated screenings of single reels of the film in half lights, followed by chalking dense diagrams on the black board, and even handing us take-home cyclostyled sheets afterwards—this was much before photocopying came along—showing how not just the whole film but its successive break ups too followed a pattern of threes. That each of the three acts had three sub-acts and each of the three in turn had three sub-sub-acts and so on. Having arrived at the smallest unit, Satish Bahadur would then go on to demonstrate how very logically each unit relayed the story before passing the baton to the next. Given Bahadur’s charming manner and sheer determination—in admiration of Ray, he had even named his son after the Apu trilogy’s hero—we were impressed, and stayed impressed in the underlying belief that a great film cannot but be structured in great complexity. That inverted tree structure came to represent to us the essence and abiding achievement of great cinema leaving everything else as second or third or fourth in importance.
Luckily—and our stars be thanked for that—Satish Bahadur also once got to put his model to Satyajit Ray himself. By Bahadur’s own account, Ray patiently heard him out and fully agreed with him on the end objectives, but pointed out that his method of arriving there was different. After years of reflection on that pithy comment I like to think that Ray was underscoring the generic difference between a maker’s approach and a critic’s. That you cannot synthesize a film using the same tools and sensibilities as those for analyzing one. (And certainly those dogmatic limits of sub-divisions can only work from the Film Studies’ end—those guys live in a different world I’m convinced—never from the filmmaker’s.) But not being a filmmaker and banking heavily on Sergie Eisenstein’s famous 5-act structure essay for his Battleship Potemkin, professor Bahadur was happy to take Ray’s response as a compliment and kept going as before. In his later years he even expanded his list and brought a variety of other films—Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Bicycle Thieves, Wild Strawberries, even Hiroshima Mon Amour—to fit his 3 or 5-act model regardless of the diverse personalities of the makers and their working conditions and methods. In organized academics, it’s amazing how a well-meaning teacher can sometimes end up blocking clear view rather than facilitating it.
Hard words those for a piece such as this but I’m afraid they are in the book. Have been for the last 3-4 years.
I should like to conclude with a note of personal regret in relation to Prof Bahadur’s career. Working in the system that he was, he was singularly unlucky with formal honours and awards. I think it was chiefly because he wrote very little. In fact whatever he wrote, was mostly extracted out of him by dedicated well-wishers and friends. The only book he could write after a life long declared intention to do so was a laboured slim volume on Apu trilogy coauthored and cajoled out of him by Dr Shyamala Vanarase. However I am grateful the hard copy came out posthumously because he would have been heart broken to see it. The book is neither well produced nor does it do full justice to his vast scholarship, which at the very least was liberally interspersed with humour. “I’m a teacher and not so much a writer,” he often despaired. “Writing is another discipline.” It’s in cases like his that you miss the availability of recoding devices such as iPhones, so that we could today sample a flavour of his live classes.
But equally it has to be a reflection of our times that a performing teacher is not recognised unless he also publishes by the kilos. The American dictum, “Publish or perish”, has seeped in too deep in the system to allow for exceptions such as him. Committees seem afraid of being challenged in the courts and publications serve as a necessary threat of proof—but mostly only that, threat—that the man was deserving of the awards.
It’s the awards that failed to match up to the brilliance of Professor Satish Bahadur I think.
Prof Bahadur’s famous, “invisible” rolling of cigarettes (even during lectures) as he kept speaking to you…