21 October 2012

Satyajit Ray on the 'Calcutta Trilogy'

Satyajit Ray began his career with the poetic 'Apu Trilogy,' made between 1955 and 1959 as the study of a young man's attempt to find himself and come to terms with the eternal conditions of life and its two opposite poles: love and death. Three of Ray's films made between 1970 and 1971 in effect form another trilogy, the main characters being seen this time in relation to their work. It is a political trilogy, about how we are being shaped, and perhaps misshapen, by our working conditions. 'Days and Nights in the Forest,' the least direct of the three, shows a group of city executives on a country weekend, away from the suffocating atmosphere of Calcutta. 'The Adversary' returns to Calcutta, where a young man revolts against the inhuman conditions attached to his search for a job. And the third film, 'Company Limited,' once more takes the audience round the other side of the desk to show the manipulations and status-seeking at the top of a big firm. In the following 1972 interview with Christian Braad Thomsen, Satyajit Ray discusses the 'Calcutta Trilogy' and other aspects of his work.

Christen Braad Thomsen: Did you consciously set out with the idea that 'Days and Nights in the Forest' (aka 'Aranyer Din Ratri'), 'The Adversary' (aka 'Pratidwandi'), and 'Company Limited' (aka 'Seemabaddha') would form a new trilogy?
Satyajit Ray: I didn't think of it during the first two films. I made 'Days and Nights' because I liked the story, and as for 'The Adversary,' well, I made it because the situation in Calcutta was politically so tense. The students were very active, there was a lot of violence in the city, and if I was going to make another film it seemed it had to be about Calcutta and the young people there. Then in 1971 I read the novel 'Company Limited' is based on, and I immediately thought that this was an important theme. After describing the young man looking for a job in 'The Adversary,' it was relevant for me to describe the people who have control over the jobs, the new upper class, the new breed that has grown up in India since Independence. You see, in a sense the British have not really left...

CBT: You seem in this new trilogy to have acquired a political awareness which was perhaps less openly stated in your previous films.
SR: Possibly, but politics has also come increasingly to the surface in the last three or four years. You feel it every moment of the day in Calcutta: not just the bombs and explosions, but meeting people and walking the streets with the posters on the walls. Of course I have never been unaware of politics, but I have deliberately not used the political issues as such in my films because I have always felt that in India politics is a very impermanent thing. Political parties break up very quickly, and I don't believe in the Left as such any more. There are now three communist parties in India, and I don't really see what that means.

CBT: How have the three films been received in India?
SR: Before I made 'The Adversary' I'd often been criticized for being non-political. After that film, they thought I had become politically committed, and it was very well received. There's a revolutionary character in 'The Adversary,' which is enough for the most simple-minded people. They don't see the depths of the film, they just see that there is some mention of politics. But my previous film, 'Days and Nights in the Forest,' wasn't understood in India. They thought it very frivolous because of its surface, but they completely missed the implications of the structure, which I think makes it one of my best pictures. It's a complex film with seven characters, and in its final form very satisfying to me.

CBT: I would agree that it's one of your best films. But doesn't the lack of a real storyline mean that it's bound to be rather difficult for an audience?
SR: It's rather a film about relationships, and very complex in structure, like a kind of fugue. People in India kept saying, What is it about, where is the story, the theme? And the film is about so many things, that's the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands. I made the film primarily because I was fascinated by this aspect of people being taken out of their normal surroundings, and the way their characters emerge in an unfamiliar setting, away from their daily routine. 'Kanchenjungha' was the same kind of film, and also misunderstood. It's also very complex and in my own eyes a very beautiful film, my only one in color.

It has something like eight or nine characters, a whole family on holiday, just promenading one afternoon, two hours of their lives. But so many things happen. There are two daughters, one is married, and she's having a great quarrel with her husband, talking about divorce but staying together because of their child. The younger daughter has found a suitor on their holiday, and he wants to propose to her this afternoon. He's an engineering executive with a bright future, but his values aren't those of the girl. The father hopes the girl will say yes to him, but for the first time in this family there is someone who doesn't do what the father wants, and she turns him down. Then there's another young man from Calcutta, an ordinary middle-class young man, but on the same mental wavelength as the girl, and there is a hint that there may be a future for those two. And there's the young son, a flirt and a totally frivolous character, who within the two hours of the film's time loses one girl and immediately finds another one.

But what interests me most in 'Kanchenjungha' is the younger daughter and her new friend, who at one point feels that if he manages to please the girl's big autocrat father, then maybe he'll get a job. The father, who has five big companies, talks with the young man about the past, about the British, and the stupid terrorists who rotted in jail while he himself is still alive; and he does offer the boy a job. But the boy turns it down. He tells the girl if it had happened over an office desk in Calcutta he might have accepted it, but here in this marvelous place amid the mountains and the snow he feels like a giant. He's please to be able to say no. For me, 'Kanchenjungha' is an exploration of people coming out of their shells, and a forerunner to the more political trilogy. And that's what interests me in both 'Kanchenjungha' and 'Days and Nights': taking people out of their ordinary surroundings and discovering the self behind the facade, what really goes on in their minds. There's a lot said in the films about money and values and security and how you accept immoral actions to reach your social goals.

CBT: The second film in the trilogy, 'The Adversary,' got a lukewarm reception from some European critics, who suggested that from a stylistic point of view it was more hesitant and less structurally complete than your other work. You use a lot of flashbacks, dream sequences, and scenes in negative. Why the change in style?
SR: Everything I did was of course quite deliberate. I think the main character always dictates the style of a film; and particularly in this case, where you identify totally with the young man. He's a hesitant character, full of doubts and inner conflicts and problems, and with him at the center of the film I couldn't think in terms of a smoothly told story in my usual 'classical' style. I felt all the time I was writing the scenario that if it took a straightforward line and was stylistically orthodox, then it would be wrong. That's why I introduced stylistic factors which are new in my work.

The film opens for instance with the death of the father, shown in negative, and there were many reason for doing it that way. The scene describes the death of a person whom you don't know, and who is not a character in the film. It is a totally impersonal death scene, and death is very difficult to portray on the screen. If it had been in positive, everybody might have looked for signs of life because they are not emotionally involved with this character. And that mustn't happen: the theme must immediately capture the audience. So I started with negative, and since I had done it once I thought, why not do it again later. In the dream sequence I also find it perfectly valid; and use the effect in another sequence, which might equally well have been in positive. That's the scene where a friend takes the young man to a prostitute, and he becomes disgusted and runs away. At one point the prostitute starts to undress, and she is just in her bra and lights a cigarette. Bengali girls don't usually smoke in public, and in India the audience is very conservative, so to soften the impact of that scene I used the negative.

The problem with the young man in 'The Adversary' is that there are a lot of things going on in his head, and he has no one to communicate his thoughts to. For instance, he goes to see his sister's boss, and suddenly - bang-bang-bang - he stands there with a revolver shooting the boss. And then you find out that this is only happening in his mind. In fact, he had been rather polite and nervous, so how could I suggest that he actually wanted to murder the boss? There was no way other than an imaginary flash-forward.

Since people have become used to a certain classical style in my films, I knew the criticisms would come. If it had been the work of an unknown director, the critics would probably have accepted it. But I really don't care about the criticism, and maybe in five or six years when they see it in retrospect, they will find it all right. And I wanted it to be apparent also in the style that this was my first political film: a different film from what I had done before, so let it be different.

CBT: But still, you chose to make the film about the young man who has doubts about his role in society, whereas his brother, who is a revolutionary, is a background character. If you wanted it to be a really political film, why didn't you make it about the revolutionary?
SR: Because a person with a definite political is often psychologically less interesting: revolutionaries don't think for themselves all the time. I was more interested in the young man who didn't have any firm political convictions and who wanted a job under no matter what regime. He thought for himself, and therefore he was suffering. Besides, he carries out an act of protest on a personal level, which to me is a marvelous thing because it comes from inside and not as an expression of a political ideology.

CBT: In 'Company Limited' there is also a revolutionary character in the background. In fact, we don't see him at all, but we learn that he is the boyfriend of the sister-in-law, the character who is obviously the moral center of the film.
SR: Yes, but in a way the sister-in-law is in a tragic situation, because she came to Calcutta in order to find out what social success was like, and what her elder sister's life with her executive husband was like. She's disheartened by what she finds, but on the other hand she is not so sure that she can go back to the revolutionary and marry him. She doesn't know how seriously involved with him she is. The brother-in-law asks her why she didn't tell him she had a boy friend. And she says, 'If there was anything, I would have told you.' She is in Calcutta because she had this great weakness for her brother-in-law, when she was a little girl in her teens. She hasn't seen him in six or seven years, and now that maybe he's such a success, let's see what he is like, whether he has completely changed or whether he is still a human being. Let's see if it's possible to remain a human being in his circumstances. So she arrives, and at first everything seems all right. But when the crisis comes at the factory, he collapses completely. It's evident then that he can only think about his own success, his own career going ahead no matter at what cost.

CBT: But isn't it your intention to suggest that this girl, in her relationship to the revolutionary, really poses a moral political solution to the problems the film raises?
SR: Well, in a way she is in the same situation as the boy in 'The Adversary.' She's uncertain, though at the end of the film she probably will go back to the revolutionary because she's so completely disillusioned with the other kind of life she has witnessed. But she first needed to be exposed to this kind of life in order to make her decision. I always feel that you must know two sides of a problem before you can make up your mind. Then you can make a really strong decision which, as in 'The Adversary,' is not based on the dictates of an ideology but mainly springs from your own, human experience.

CBT: this is another interesting aspect of your political films, that they don't resemble...
SR: ... the films of Godard and Glauber Rocha and the rest? No, certainly not, because I still believe in the individual and in personal concepts rather than in a broad ideology, which keeps changing all the time.

CBT: On the political level, your films are strongly critical of the executive class, but it's vital to the films that you still try to understand the members of that class on a human level.
SR: Absolutely. Even the British we had to understand, because the whole intellectual middle class of India is a product of British rule. Without the colonialism and the British education, there would have been no terrorism. The British gave the Bengalis a liberal education, which ultimately turned them into revolutionaries. And it's ironical that the British really created their own enemies. It too about a hundred years, and the beginning of this development is described in 'Charulata,' when they start through newspapers to question the British rule. And in the early twentieth century you have the first terrorist movement against the British. That had no support from the peasants or the working class. It was a small intellectual group, whose leaders had read all the revolutionary literature, Garibaldi and the rest. They want to get rid of the British, and they thought: why not throw bombs at them? It didn't achieve anything; it was just an emotional gesture. But emotional gestures fascinate me more than ideological gestures.

CBT: In 'Company Limited,' how far are you suggesting that the main character is essentially a product of bad social circumstances, rather than bad in himself?
SR: It is certainly the system that makes him was he is. He's part of a bureaucratic and commercial machine, which has no place for one single man. If you want to live in society, you immediately become part of the pattern, and that drives you into something you may not have been from the beginning. This man clearly has two sides: he has his private feelings and his conscience, but the system forces him to dissemble them and to think only of his security and advancement. But it's an open film and it doesn't make any final statement.

CBT: If you nevertheless had to make a final statement about how to break up a system which distorts people, what would your solution be? You don't seem to have much faith in the revolutionary movement.
SR: I can understand and admire Mao's revolution, which has completely changed China and achieved - at a cost - the eradication of poverty and illiteracy. But I don't think I could find a place in China, because I am still too much of an individual and I still believe too strongly in personal expression. Over the years, I have understood art as an expression of a creative personality, and I don't believe in the new theories which hod that art must be destroyed and doesn't need to be permanent. I believe in permanent values. That's my whole mental attitude, and I have to be true to myself. This doesn't mean that I don't sympathize with the young people, because I do... but at the same time I can see that when people grow beyond a certain age, they begin to have their own doubts. If something radical happens to you between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, then fine. If not, you are likely to become disillusioned as you grow older.

CBT: Is your personal background this rich, upper-class milieu you describe and criticize in the 'Calcutta Trilogy'?
SR: No, I've always stayed away from that sort of society. I have been very much of an observer and very solitary. The people who work with me on my films are close to me, but I have never been part of that group of people I describe. When I worked in advertising before making films, I had friends who were politically very active and supported the Soviet Union, but I have watched them grow over the years and they are now big executives in advertising firms. they don't talk much about their political position of the 1940s; but if they do, they try somehow to rationalize their development and their careers inside the system. I myself have been active as an artist, which is fine for me, although people say that I don't commit myself. Commitment to what? I commit myself to human beings, to making statements, and I think that is good enough commitment for me.

CBT: The bombings one hears in 'Company Limited,' from the big flat of the business man above Calcutta... are those explosions set of by left-wing groups?
SR: Yes, and they irony is that very often they are caused by Left fighting Left. The tragedy is that the Left is split into so many groups, who are their own bitterest enemies. They don't fight the liberals or the conservatives. They don't attack the real targets, like big industrialists, because they are afraid of losing. Instead, they attack each other.

CBT: You mentioned Glauber Rocha's cinema, which is usually considered as the political expression of the Third World on the screen. Coming from another part of the Third World, what do you think of his films?
SR: I have never seen any of his films, because they are not shown in India. But I would really like to see them, because I understand that he is very powerful and outspoken. The young blood of cinema. Good!

[This interview was originally published in Sight and Sound, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Winter 1972-73), pp. 31-37, and was reprinted in Satyajit Ray: Interviews, edited by Bert Cardullo (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), pp. 53-60. It has been slightly edited for its presentation on TV Multiversity.]

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