A filmmaker rarely writes about films. He is either too busy making one, or too unhappy not to be able to make one, or too exhausted from the last one he made. – Satyajit Ray
Satyajit Ray’s ‘Our Films, Their Films’ (1976, Orient Longman) is perhaps one of the most insightful collections of Essays and Talks by one of the world’s most historic filmmakers. The book is simply divided into two parts- first, ‘Our Films’ where Ray talks about the situation of Indian Cinema at the time of writing the book along with his thoughts on filmmaking and excerpts from his production diaries. The second part of the book, ‘Their Films’ starts of with Ray’s interaction with Jean Renoir in Calcutta while scouting locations for him for The River (1951) and then moves on to Ray’s travels around Europe, Britain and his meeting with Akira Kurosawa in Japan.
Ray turns out to be a severe critic of cinema. His language is stern as it is ruthless and his thoughts precise and accurate. His observations, one finds, infiltrate to depths that was uncommon for the time of writing this book but in no way he gives an impression of a snobbish filmmaker. He talks of Bombay Industry films imitating Hollywood cinema and writes that “the average American film is a bad model…what the Indian cinema needs today is not more gloss, but more imagination, more integrity, and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium.”
The first chapter under ‘Our Films’ is an essay written in 1948 titlted ‘What is Wrong with Indian Films?’ Reading it almost 65 years after it was written, one finds that most of his complaints against the Industry films still stand strong. So is it a lack of evolution in the industry or Ray’s writing taking on a quality of timelessness? ‘Extracts from Banaras Diary’ provide some interesting anecdotes from Ray’s production notes while making Aparajito (1956). It also provides a brief entrance into the mind of a great filmmaker and how he saw his film being made.
But the most thoughtful writing of ‘Our Films’ is in the chapter ‘An Indian New Wave?’ This chapter essentially becomes a crash course in creating a movement in cinema. Ray, writing this piece in 1971 has some of the most prophetic insights:
'The early stages of evolution of any language must necessarily be a process of trial and error; in other words, of experiment.'
'There is no such thing as an effect for its own sake in the films of the old masters. The true artist is recognizable in his style and his attitude, not in his idiosyncrasies.'
'Sound, as we know, brought the cinema closer to nature. It also did something else. By introducing the spoken word, it took away some of its universality and introduced an element of regionalism.'
'Film grammar tells us that essentials should be stressed, and enumerates the various audio-visual ways of doing so; but what if a director has a totally new angle on what is essential and what is not?'
'In order to turn conventions upside down, one needs a particularly strong grip on convention itself.'
In ‘Their Films’, Ray suddenly takes a different tone. While he sounded like a schoolteacher annoyed with his students in the first half of the book, here he sounds like an enthusiastic student. Especially, in the chapter ‘Some Italian Films I’ve Seen.’ He opens with the line:
'I can do no more, within the scope of this bulletin, than touch on the most striking and significant aspects of the Italian films I had occasion to see abroad.'
This was Ray’s entry into filmmaking after all. Written in 1951, sometime after he had returned from his almost yearlong stay in London where he had claimed to have watched 100 films, mostly films of the Italian Neo-realist movement that finally convinced him that a film can be made on a shoe string budget and outside of a vast film studio.
The subsequent chapters show Ray’s insightful commentary on the Hollywood films of ‘Then and Now’ and his ‘Thoughts on British Cinema’ but he sounds the most excited in the chapter ‘Calm Without, Fire Within,’ a powerful title. Written in 1963, this chapter speaks about Ray’s fascination with adaptations and his most intense observations on Japanese cinema and especially that of his contemporary, Akira Kurosawa.
‘Moscow Musings’ is more of his travelogue on his trip to Mosfilm Studios in Moscow in the year 1964 and this is followed by a chapter dedicated solely to the critique of Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Gold Rush (1925) which is followed by a complimentary chapter of a book review on Chaplin’s My Autobiography (1964, The Bodley Head, London).
The most exciting couple of chapters of this section come next. ‘Akira Kurosawa’ talks about Ray’s observations on the Japanese master director’s films and most importantly his fascination with and his respect for Rashomon (1950). Written in 1966, the chapter shows a side of Ray that is not usually seen unless he is speaking of the films of Vittorio de Sica. The reader can find contentment in the fact that the next chapter, written a year later is titled ‘Tokyo, Kyoto and Kurosawa’. Out of some strange irony (or perhaps he was anticipating it), Ray ends up in Japan a year later on a train from Kyoto to Tokyo that takes him through the woods where Rashomon was filmed. His journey ends with him waiting for Kurosawa at a Chinese restaurant, a favourite of the Japanese master’s. Ray writes about his reluctance towards the Japanese cuisine and is more than relieved to be meeting Kurosawa at a Chinese one. He amusingly notes:
'At least one could face the gastronomic hazards with more confidence here.'
Then Kurosawa arrives and sparks fly out of the pages. A 220-page book is not equipped to handle the meeting of two towering legends of world cinema and one can feel the great electricity as Ray and Kurosawa talk. Both masters have mutual appreciation towards each other’s works and have a lot to talk about. Although, Ray provides a very accurate reconstruction of the legendary event, one can only wish they were present there. Ray rounds up the book with chapters on Alfred Hitchcock, Silent Films and ‘A Tribute to John Ford’.
‘Our Films, Their Films’ is a valuable book or better yet, a valuable collection of the finest writing on cinema collected over the course of a film career and very simply put in plain English language. Decades later, the insights and arguments presented in the book are still valid and perhaps the solutions he offers can still save cinema today. If only we’d care to listen.