Monday, April 18, 2005

Post on Film Journey

An interesting thread at Film Journey on: The River and Satyajit . I had to chime in.

Renoir has always been a very strong influence on Satyajit. In one interview Satyajit was pressed hard to pick just one director who had influenced him the most. He tried hard to avoid naming just one, but in the end said it had to to Renoir.

River's shooting in Bengal (1951) was a great learning opportunity for both Satyajit and his close friend Chidananda Dasgupta. Chidananda was the co-founder of Calcutta film club along with Satyajit. He is also the father of Aparna Sen who acted in Satyajit's Tin Kanya and Jana Aranya and who is also one of the leading contemporary Indian directors.

At the time of shooting of River, Satyajit was working for a British advertising company as a graphic artist and was devouring films of the world. The Calcutta film society he started with Chidananda in 1947 (the year of India's freedom from the British) was the first of its kind in India. Satyajit was greatly moved by both Rules Of The Game and De Sica's Bicycle thieves and started writing scripts based on some classic novels by Bibhuti Bhushan and Rabindranath.

At that time, Indian films in both Bollywood and Calcutta, with very few exceptions (Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin etc.) were strictly confined to genres - social dramas, mythological films, patriotic films, romantic films. All the genres were formulaic and had to have loud melodrama and lots of song and dance routines (not that it has changed a whole lot).There was almost no awareness of film as an art at that point in India and he found it extremely challenging to raise money for Pather Panchali. So it was a daunting task for him to break the mold. He eventually had to pawn his wife's jewelries to raise money for Pather Panchali. His chance encounter with Renoir gave him a much needed boost and inspiration to take on the challenge. "River" will always have a place in the history of Bengali and Indian films for this reason alone.

French influence on Bollywood has been minimal and it's kind of beside the point. There has been some impact of neo-realism and new wave on a few Bollywood directors like Raj Kapoor, Bimol Roy, Mujaffar Ahmed and Sathyu. However, The Indian new wave that started in 70s in Hindi and other regional films were more influenced by Satyajit and Ritwik Ghatak's Bengali films than by the French and Italian. Satyajit and Ritwik started their careers around the same time in 50s and had deep respect for each other. Satyajit was not part of Bollywood (based in Bombay, Maharashtra which is on the west coast of India and Bengal is on the east coast) and never worked there.

He was born in Calcutta and grew up there, the capital of Bengal and the center of Bengali cultural and literary life. There was a very strong French influence on post-Rabindranath Bengali literature which at that point was known as "Adhunik Sahityo" (modern literature). Writers like Hugo, Verleine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Apollinaire and the impressionist painters like the other Renoir, Manet, Monet and Pissaro had very strong following among Bengali writers and painters who shaped the sensibilities of the generation of Bengalis Satyajit belonged to. Kamal Kumar Majumdar, Satyajit's closest friend and a great Bengali writer, had a gigantic knowledge of French literature and culture. He, in fact, tried to write Bengali in French Syntax and used to think that the influence of the English language on the development of Bengali language has been disastrous. At the same time, Satyajit went to Tagore's school in Shantiniketan and was educated by eminent artists like Nandalal Bose. Tagore and Shantiniketan were more influenced by classical European humanism and English poets, not necessarily the late 19th century French masterpieces in arts and literature . But even Tagore had great respect for Romain Rolland who returned that admiration and introduced great Bengali and Indian thought leaders like Rabindranath, Vivekananda, Gandhi and Subhash Bose to Europe. French contribution to Bengali Renaissnace in the late 19th and early 20th century has been immense. There used to be a saying that every Bengali was first Bengali, then French and then Indian. Paris-style cafes were very popular and Satyajit found great lifelong friends like Kamal Majumdar, Banshi Chandra Gupta (his art-director) and Subrata Mitra (who filmed most of his early films) in those cafes. Among Bengalis, Satyajit is looked as an end-product (and one of the finest) of that Renaissance and sadly he is also the last figure.

A quick note about Satyajit's writings. I grew up on those. They are great :-). Equally influenced by Conan Doyle, Christie and Simonen, they jump started the mystery genre in Bengali literature which wasn't very popular before him. He wrote a lot of first-rate science fiction stories as well. He wanted to make a film based on one of those stories (Bankubabur Bandhu and the film was to be named The Alien). The rumor has always been that Spielberg got hold of the script when it was making rounds in Hollywood in search of a producer and ET was born. Although as far as I know, Spielberg has categorically denied it.

Satyajit's writings were targeted mostly for teenagers and young adults. He made a living out of those writings throughout his life as most of his films did not work in the box-office and he did not make films to make money. However, he always tried his hardest to reduce expenses and to at least break it even for independent producers who were taking as big an artistic risk as he was. By no means he was a great literary figure of Bengali literature, but he is definitely one of the most popular ones. His plots and characters are not naive mimics of Christie's, they fit right in with the Bengali middle-class milieu and are extremely popular among them. You can trust me on that one.

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