[The following is a translation of Serge Daney’s interview with Satyajit Ray published in Libération on 9 February 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma). With kind help from Laurent Kretzschmar of the indispensable Serge Daney in English blog.]

Satyajit Ray by Nemai Ghosh

February 1982, Calcutta

In which we go meet Satyajit Ray at his home in the city that he never stopped loving.

At any rate, he’s stands tall. Heads and shoulders above the rest. He just celebrated sixty years of life and twenty years of cinema. To the rest of the world, he is “Satyajit Ray”, the symbol of Indian cinema. But in his country, where films are made on an assembly line (743 films in 14 languages in 1981) and dreams are ruthlessly manufactured, he’s the first one to have left the factory. It happened between 1952 and 1956, here in Calcutta, and the film was called Pather Panchali. Since then, with his baritone voice and his impeccable English, Ray has never yielded on the most important thing: to shoot at home in his language (Bengali). A little less than thirty films in twenty-five years. But Indian cinema, the “all India film”, hasn’t yielded to him either. The struggle has been long. When you leave Bengal and ask the man in the street, no one knows Ray anymore. When you remain in Bengal and talk to any kid coming your way: he knows the names of stars, of cricket players and of Ray.

He’s at home in Calcutta. This inconceivable city, where it seems so easy to live and so easy to die, oozes with culture. Ray writes, produces drawings, composes music, and one day, in 1947, the year of independence, he starts the first film club in Calcutta. Ever since, this old capital of colonial India (from 1773 to 1912), this “premature metropolis” that has become a giant village, remains the conscience of Indian cinema. The film festival (called “filmotsav” here) is a genuinely popular event. The theatres—New Empire, Metro, Jamuna, Society, Jyoti, Paradise, Elite and Glove—are full. A ticket is a precious commodity. Tickets for second-class seats are sold on the black market.

Reaching Satyajit Ray’s house isn’t hard. Bishop Lefroy Road isn’t far from Chowringhee, the aberrant centre of this decentred city. Overcrowded arcades face an empty stretch of land where, amusingly, the Russians and Hungarians have been pretending for years to construct a metro that, all of Calcutta likes to think, will collapse with the first train (they still have ten years to go, says Ray who finds the idea funny). The filmmaker’s house is located in a central district of Calcutta, in a rather calm and posh neighbourhood. The houses, their windows and balconies have been fittingly corroded by humidity. Their ochre is turning into black. Ray lives on the top floor of a mansion barely older than him. I notice the spacious office where he receives me. I make out the rest: slow domestic helps, plants, film reels piled up, a diorama of greeting cards on a small table (it’s January, and the winter weather is wonderful), books of course, an old radio, two windows overlooking two streets, folded newspapers and, in an armchair, Satyajit Ray, very relaxed and even cheerful. Ray expects admiration from a visiting Westerner. He knows he deserves it. This respect pleases him but doesn’t surprise him anymore.

That’s for the image. As for the sound, the pitch is set by crows that caw with as much repressed hate as on the soundtrack of India Song. Traffic jams, human cries, honking automobiles, street vendors and assorted birds make for the rest. It’s simple: the city enters by the window.


You were born in Calcutta…

I was born in Calcutta. I’d say that seventy percent of my films takes place in this city, in the Calcutta of yesterday or today. I’ve seen this city change. As a child, I remember a calm and quiet city, with few events and not much traffic (frenzied hoking outside). After partition, the city exploded, the population went up incredibly. High rises started to pop up. It was as though the city was suffocating (discussion with the domestic help: he hasn’t brought two teas and a glass of water; he hasn’t understood anything. Ray scolds him, but in Bengali).

Have you lived here in this house for long?

Since twelve or thirteen years. Before that, I lived in a much smaller apartment in South Calcutta. It wasn’t feasible anymore with the piano and the books I was buying.

Is it difficult to film Calcutta?

If you see Louis Malle’s film (I’ve not, but I’ve heard a lot about it), he hasn’t shown the intellectual side of Calcutta, the activity of poets, painters and filmmakers. He has only shown the photogenic aspects of Calcutta, including its misery, corpses and funeral pyres. It’s true that intellectual things are never easy to film. You have to take them through a story. You can show everything with a story, but not with a documentary.

Isn’t Malle’s perception that of a Westerner?

I knew Malle well. He liked this city and its people a lot. He was conscious of all that (outside, a bicycle chimes, a crow protests). Maybe he found it easier to sell the film this way, I don’t know. The finished film seems different from the one he had described to me.

Are there parts of the city that you don’t recognize anymore, which have changed a lot?

Yes, but there are also places that haven’t changed at all. Old Calcutta hasn’t changed. It’s towards the South that the city has developed, and a bit at the centre, where we are right now. You know, it’s Bombay where everything happens because that’s where the money is. Bombay is becoming a European city, with its seafront and everything. Calcutta is different: small sellers, shops, all that hasn’t changed. I filmed that in one of my films, The Middleman, and since it was the first time, I had a lot of problems. There are always problems while shooting in the streets of Calcutta.


People are curious. Someone or the other pops up who wants to not only watch the shooting, but also be in the shot no matter what.

Even when there are no stars?

Yes, even without stars. I’m a kind of star here myself, and when I shoot on the streets, I conceal myself in black clothes. But as soon as I get up, people recognize me since I’m very tall. I’m obliged to remain seated and shoot quickly. People’s curiosity for cinema is insane.

What’s impressive about the streets here is their vitality, this impression that everyone is going somewhere, doing something.

But if you go to the arcade at Chowringhee, you’ll see a crowd of those with nothing to do, those who knock about, waiting for the cricket team to come out of the Grand Hotel. And it’s not just sports. The response to cultural events in the city is fantastic. Calcutta is the only place in India where a book fair can be a huge success. Thousands visit them and purchase books. And yet, they’re said to not have money! If there’s a poem recital or a music concert, it will be full. Have you seen the film festival? Tickets for the Godard retrospective were sold out in minutes. And for very difficult films too! (A flock of cinephilic crows caws fervently on Godard’s behalf, while a traffic jam brews.)

Are there more filmmakers who shoot outdoors now, following your example?

Some of the younger filmmakers do, but it’s difficult for them. When you shoot at a house and the word gets around, the place is invaded, it’s a nightmare. Earlier, when I made The Big City, the crowd was smaller. After me, after the film society movement, people became conscious of cinema. They understood that it was something and it was happening at home, here in Calcutta (a street vendor cries out to sell his wares).

When one takes a walk here and notices movie posters, the lines in front of theatres, the black market for tickets, one would think that India is the fortress for cinema in the world.  

That’s because TV hasn’t threatened cinema here. In Calcutta, you get three or four hours of TV every day. And how many can afford a TV set? Ten, maybe fifteen percent. If you own a set here, everyone comes to your place to watch TV. When a special show is on, many come to my place to see it. They show old films on Saturdays and Sundays—a Bengali film on Saturdays and a Hindi film on Sundays. In fact, there’s not much content for the television. Even in Dhaka, in Bangladesh, where they have colour TVs, there’s no more than six or seven hours of programs every day. It starts at five in the evening and ends at midnight. And then, cinema remains accessible to everyone: the prices are very low. You can see a film for a rupee. The maximum ticket price is no more than six rupees.

Doesn’t that make the emergence of an arthouse cinema in India more difficult?   

The new wave should be able to make films on small budgets or to harness foreign markets, like is the case now with Mrinal Sen. Otherwise, they’d be hard put to go on. Filmmakers in Bombay have the advantage of making films in Hindi, which is understood everywhere in India, but there’s a language barrier in the South or here in Bengal. You should be able to stick to black-and-white at a time when budgets are becoming bigger and bigger. You should be able to shoot in 16mm, blow it up on 35mm, and reduce production costs all the time (faint music in the distance).

And you?

I have an audience. I was never sure in the beginning whether my films were ten years ahead of their time. Now I know they aren’t. There’s an audience that has developed along with me. Whatever film I make, it will play for at least six weeks in three theatres in Calcutta, and maybe longer if the audience likes it. It has become a necessity for educated people in Calcutta to go see my films.

Does that have something to do with the fact that you never stopped making films in your language, Bengali?   

I believe filmmakers should be happy with a local audience. There’s an audience here which desires a better cinema, and you must win this audience and keep it. My first audience is this one here. I cannot make a film that won’t be seen by my people here in Bengal. But there is a risk: many Bengali films are sent to festivals, they win prizes, and are even sold, but they aren’t shown here in Calcutta.

In a recent interview, you sounded somewhat disillusioned. You said: “Elsewhere in India, even in big cities, my films are never shown, or they are shown secretly on Sunday mornings and generally without subtitles: I’m only a name. I’ve been a name for twenty-five years. It makes me feel strange.

It’s true, my films are better known in London than in India. That’s because I stuck to Bengali and no one cares to subtitle my films, even when I given them the translated dialogue. They grow disinterested in the film as soon as they recover their money on the Bengali market. (Muted honking.)

What did you do before making films?

At twenty-two, I joined an advertisement agency, Keymer, to make a living. I was a graphic artist. I’d studied art and Indian calligraphy and wanted to give an Indian look to advertisements, even if the products were European (out of the blue, an altercation outside, an engine revs up and a thousand birds start chirping). The agencies all use photos nowadays. Look at this: an Indian magazine looks exactly like an American magazine. Is it a good thing? I don’t know.

Isn’t it true of cinema too?

(offended) I’d like to think that my films…

No, I mean cinema “in general”.

I see European films, for example. It’s very difficult to distinguish between one country’s films and another’s. Icelandic, Spanish or French films resemble each other a lot. There’s a conformism. And it’s the same thing here: Bombay’s upper class is like Europe’s, the same clothes, the same lifestyle. The teenagers of Park Street here look like those of the whole world, with the same blue jeans.

Cinema was born in the cities, but its audience came more from the countryside. Today, television reaches people at their homes. How is it going to turn out in India?

Indian cinema will continue as it is for ten, fifteen years, because it’s the only accessible form of entertainment.

Doesn’t that compel the (central or state) government to get involved in order to promote a more social, more “responsible” cinema?

Look at what’s happening in West Bengal. Many filmmakers are subsidized. They are given advance sums to begin their films. There are even entire films produced by the state. Of course, since we have a Marxist government, it helps if you’re pitching a leftist script.

What is a leftist script?

The story of a peasant and his suffering under the previous government, for example. In the end, you almost have a propaganda film for the current government.

Don’t you think there’s a danger there too?

Not so far. Filmmakers take the money and do what they want.

What about the big, prestige productions that are talked about a lot, the ones on Gandhi and Nehru?

These are very different projects. Richard Attenborough’s film on Gandhi is a reconstitution. The one on Nehru is a documentary co-produced with the Soviets. Shyam Benegal is in charge of the Indian section. I, for one, wouldn’t want to get into a co-production with the Soviets. They will try to impose their point of view on Nehru. Why would they be interested otherwise?

Do Soviet films release in India?

There was the Elite theatre in Calcutta which used to regularly show Soviet films. It was a big disaster.

But even the Soviets prefer Indian films?

That’s true, though! (giggles).

A final question: last year at Nantes, you’d said something that I found striking: that there is much to be learnt from commercial films, that there is a very precise, very sophisticated work behind song sequences. Do you still hold this point of view?

I do. (truly miserable, the crows intensify their cries.)