Our Films Their Films
Orient Longman, 1976
Surely, God is not a socialist. Why then would he bestow so much talent upon a single person and deprive the rest of the artists of country of any comparable finesse? Be it Japanese architecture, German music, English literature, Chinese paintings or world cinema, Satyajit Ray’s knowledge of the seven arts is everything a connoisseur could ever desire to have. And his book Our Films Their Films clearly shows why a true love for cinema is the only pre-requisite to be a filmmaker.
I have hardly seen Satyajit Ray’s films and was apprehensive about taking up this book. I was afraid that it would require a prior introduction to films he talks about and especially to his own films. But as it turned out, I was completely wrong. Shubhajit here recalls how this book single-handedly induced him into the film culture. Why not? Our Films, Their Films is a rare book that works two ways. I can’t imagine any other book that is as interesting for strangers to cinema as it is for the film buffs. Ray never does it like an academic scholar churning out one jargon after another nor does he go too low-brow elucidating every shred of observation. Ray’s tone is conversational and at the end of the book, one does feel like he has spent a good few hours with an interesting man.
The book could be plainly called a bunch of essays by Ray assembled in a chronological order. But surely, it can pass off as so many other things too. Each of these articles has the charm of a short story, the depth of a critique, the personal quality of a diary entry and observations of a great essay. With a language that is neither overpowers the content of the text nor undermines its quality (which I think is true of his films too), Ray sets a standard for not only analytical but also for the verbal component of film writing. No wonder he also stands out as one of India’s key literary figures.
Cinematographe has this to say about the book: “The originality of Ray appears in an indirect manner: whilst talking about others, he offers us a subtle self-portrait“. This is so true. The essays in the book gradually and subtly unravel Ray’s perception of cinema and what he believes makes for great filmmaking, all of which reveals itself through the very many critiques of world films he presents. But the fascinating part is that he never takes the role of a filmmaker when he writes these pieces. He could well have elaborated on what lens John Ford used or what editing instruments Kurosawa employed. But the sections where Ray presents his views of international films could only have come from a true-blue cinephile whose very love for cinema is infectious. Look how he presents his opinion on Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972), Kaul’s Duvidha (1973), Benegal’s Ankur (1974) and Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1973), which organically unfolds into a fantastic review of the films.
But what really swept me off my feet are the observations that Ray makes in these early essays, the last of which was written in 1974. These observations – their almost prescient and intensely accurate quality just goes to show how deep Ray’s understanding of cinema was – both as a person behind and in front of the screen. I’ll give you an example. Ray met Kubrick just after he had made Spartacus (1960). He recollects: “On the strength of his Paths of Glory (1957), Kubrick had seemed to me to be one of the white hopes of American Cinema. He had first rate technique, he had style and I had a feeling that he had also something to say.”. Not just that, his opinions of Billy Wilder, Antonioni, Kurosawa and many others prove to be bang on the money.
If one takes a survey of the favorite section in the book among those who have read, it would definitely produce variegated results, for each section has the power to top the previous, no matter what order you read them in. My favorite section in the book Problems of a Bengali Filmmaker (along with Calm Without, Fire Within and An Indian New Wave?) provides an answer to almost every question I have had about the state of filmmaking in India. But again, this is one opinion that may change even before I finish this review. An Indian New Wave? may be just the winner in the long run, I suspect.
Reading the very many experiences of Ray abroad, one is regularly surprised about the range of people he knows in cinema and the dream-like way they meet each other. Reading these is almost like hearing a splendid raconteur recollecting his road trips with wide eyes. But all that is only because he presents himself with such simplicity. And that is partly a reason that this book shines with honesty. I’m sure, there would be hundreds of pages written from the other side of these meetings that would really give an idea of this monumental figure called Satyajit Ray.
P.S: Some essays of the book can be found here. Do read it. I think this book is a must read for film-geeks and not-so-film-geeks alike.