Our Films Their Films
Satyajit Ray
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.

our-films-their-filmsI 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.

Stanley Kubrick Directs:  Expanded Edition
Alexander Walker
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ), 1972

A brief internet research about the best books written about the life and works of Stanley Kubrick gave me quite a few results with Alexander Walker’s Stanley Kubrick Directs (Expanded Edition) topping the list. Since there wasn’t any book called Kubrick on Kubrick, I had to go for this one! Stanley Kubrick Directs is literally a page-turner, for it contains more images than text. The book is divided into six sections – The Man and Outlook, Style and Content and four chapters dedicated to four of Kubrick’s most famous films.

stanley_kubrick_directsA friend once remarked that there was spirituality in the way Max Ophüls’ camera moved. I was reminded instantly of Kubrick then. But surely, not for the same reason. Kubrick’s tracking shots are anything but spiritual. I should label them “satanic”. These bewitchingly ominous shots, in my opinion, are the essential sequences from each of the films – be it in the French war trenches, in Korova Milkbar or aboard the Discovery space shuttle. And reading that Kubrick was impressed by Ophüls’ films forced a smile on my face. This is not the only reason that I find the opening section of the book – Stanley Kubrick: The Man and Outlook – fascinating. Walker presents us all of Kubrick’s preoccupations as a child and as a teenager and later establishes how the reverberations of these influences find their way to most of Kubrick’s films. As a film buff, it is rewarding to dig deeper into Kubrick’s films after reading these facts.

But Walker follows it up with the most disappointing of all sections in the book. In this section, titled Kubrick: Style and Content, Walker aims to present us the working methods of Kubrick. Unfortunately, this part turns out to be nothing more than a briefing of Kubrick’s early films, till Lolita (1961), interspersed with elaborations of some obvious facets of Kubrick’s films. Walker’s digresses without hesitation and adulterates the section with facets not in line with the chapter’s objective and analyses that at times seem downright speculative.  As a result, this section seems like a poor excuse for a ramp up to Kubrick’s masterpieces that were to follow.

The book then presents us illustrated analysis of Kubrick’s Big 4 that followed – Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). The first two films here take up two thirds of the analysis section and ironically are the least satisfying. Both the analyses of Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove are fraught with screenshots (by Halcyon) that are subsequently verbalized. Having presented the early influences of Kubrick, Walker should have let the audience connect the dots and interpret the film their own way. But he starts deconstructing Kubrick’s mise-en-scene frame by frame and strips us completely of the joy of discovering a film. No, I’m not cribbing, but it is a bit discomforting to see such great films presented cut and dried, preventing further exploration the reader may otherwise be tempted to perform. I know this is an analysis, but why at such grassroots level?

Surprisingly, Kubrick’s most profound film is given the least space. A big positive for this section is that it does not go over the top like many an analysis written on the film. Walker sticks generally to the technical and narrative aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey and discusses “2001 that could have been” citing various choices made by Kubrick with respect to the script. However, it is dissatisfying to see the film grossly ignored in comparison to the earlier two films and sidelined to a smaller status. The film by itself warrants elaborate literature and any analysis should most definitely include the higher aspects it tries to encompass. Walker just grazes through those notions and it never looks like it is for the good of the audience.

But, comes the essay on A Clockwork Orange to salvage the book’s pride. This is the best of the four analyses and serves as a grand climax to an otherwise dissatisfactory book. This is one section that respects the complexity of the film but never once shirks discussion. Walker makes a great move by not just diluting the mise-en-scene by deconstructing it to particulars. He seamlessly integrates multiple ideas the film presents and provides us a solid critical analysis that clearly shines in comparison with the previous three. And it is this section that provides a sense of comfort when one closes the pretty ordinary book.

This book is widely considered the best book on Kubrick till date and that worries me. Kubrick’s canvas is visibly vast and if this is the best of literature available on him, there is a long way to go. Stanley Kubrick Directs does present considerable detail for people who are confused why he is the most critical Hollywood director on a technical level, but the treatment of the content of his film leaves a lot to be desired. May be I expected a bit too much.


Note: This is a section where I will be blogging on books on films and filmmakers. The entries will be far and few, but this will at least provide me an opportunity to read text – a thing that I used to hate till now.