This book is designed to work at two levels: the obvious as a technical commentary on Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and the subliminal that suggests that filmmaking is basically a self taught skill where attending a film school is not essential.
When I was teaching at the Film & Television Institute of India, each year we used to invite roughly four times the number of students that we needed in different courses. After we were done, bidding the rest good bye would always be a miserable experience. But not so after the advent of digital which came to our school around 2000. And certainly not for those sent back by my department. To the film direction rejects I found myself saying—to my utter surprise but total conviction—that their failing to join FTII could be a blessing in disguise! That film direction can be learnt as good outside of a film school as inside! Perhaps even better!
Then to the eager, fallen faces I would explain our teaching strategy. That there were exercises of graded complexity over the three year course and after brief periods of common and separate instructions, students of different specialisations were brought together to do each of these exercises from their respective ends. Cameramen shot, sound recordists recorded, editors edited while the directors brought them, and scores of others, together to do all that’s necessary to deliver the finished product. Given the nature of filmmaking and considering the costs involved, there could hardly be a more practical approach to training and this is a more or less an accepted pattern of teaching in film schools all over the world.
But from the directors’ point of view, this is a situation of in-built handicap. For the directors’ training it makes little difference whether the story is staged in an actual house or a lit up studio set; whether it is shot on high-end 35mm or 16mm film or even video or digital; whether it is shot with or without a crane (or helicopter for that matter); or whether 40 sound channels being available is necessarily better than just the basic 4. For them it’s the telling of the story each time and high-tech gadgetry and elaborate production set up—necessary for technicians’ training—can be distractions. Worse, they can be a definite drag on the raw shoulders of a learner director who wants to quickly go to the next shot while the emotion lasts, whereas the technicians, in awe of and grappling with their ‘dream’ equipment, would rather stick around until they got their readings right.
After digital, none of this need happen. Two friends helping each other and basic equipment is all that’s needed to get them started for training in film direction.
Action! Tell a story in 5 static compositions, using only one actor and no dialogue. No lights available, none needed; no microphones hanging at the end of boom rods, not necessary; no large units swarming around, too early. No make up, no costumes, and little or no rehearsals. Shoot, edit and experience the emotion being generated.
Action!! Tell a story in 10 static compositions, using two actors and only spoken word, no music. This time you have a chance of learning not to mess up the geography of the locale, so learn up that Imaginary Line. Get a little bolder in editing and you can move from the safety—and monotony—of the speaker on the screen all the time, to cutting to the listener in between.
Action!!! Tell the same or another story, this time using camera movements but no zoom, with dialogue and still no music. Next time round use the zoom as well and see the kind of havoc it can play with the flow of narration. Next bring background music…
Tell a story each time. Not do a scene or a segment of a longer story, mind you—that would be an escape—but do a complete story. Yes, in 5 or 10 shots. A story needn’t always be an elephant; an ant too can be a story. Simple stories, involving broad action rather than, “It was twilight and birds had just broken out chirping…” Or even less, “The armies had a restful night…” Ones or twos, or even up to 4-5 characters is all you need at this stage. A man waiting for someone on a park bench. Think up a story. Two people facing a break up. A story. A candidate interviewed by a panel. Not just the interview, form a story within that interview; it’s possible. Armies can come, along with matching number of technicians and production staff, later.
Such indeed are the basic first exercises—called continuities—done even in film schools and they are among the best and freshest to look at both on form and content. Thereafter the equipment begins to assert itself and progressively takes charge of the show. So that the higher you go as a direction student in a film school, the closer you get to becoming a glorified production manager! Providing your technician classmates authentic conditions to practice their craft, while yourself being driven to brushing up your theories and jargon in order to defend whatever gets produced as Art! Watch them carefully and you will find that all over the world, diploma films are essentially ‘fun’ films, where sub-consciously the audience wait for when, where and how the student director slips on the banana skin…
So self-help—that you can do it yourself—is the subtext of this book. For its more substantive part, the commentary on PP, I would again have to go back to my FTII days. Not as a teacher this time but even farther back when I spent 3 years there as a student of direction.
In our second year we were required to do a detailed study of a feature film of our choice. My impression is that Professor Satish Bahadur sweet-talked us into asking for Ray’s Aparajito (Pather Panchali we were already saturated with in first year) and the reason became apparent as our weekly sessions advanced—not only was he himself discovering the film along with us but also his method of analysis at the same time. Those were the best sessions we had at the Institute.
“Ramien!” Professor Bahadur would call out the projectionist from in front of the Classroom Theatre screen, and then with a flourish of hand entirely his own, “Start!”
“Yessir!” and the lights would go off. Just as Ramien could hear us through the projection portholes (the sound proof glass removed for the purpose), so also could we hear him activate the 35mm Westrex in a deft little sequence of operations, and afterwards the projector noise all through the reel as well! “That’s alright, it’ll help you keep a distance from the film,” Professor Bahadur would coolly say and proceed with whatever he had to tell us or ask, mostly ask.
“Ramien! Let’s see the same reel again, this time in half lights.” Again the reel would be shown with half the teasing lights of the CRT kept on. “Can you switch off the sound track this time, Ramien?” And next, “Let’s try keeping the picture out of focus so we’ll be able to see the graphics. And also the sound a little low because I want to keep talking, OK?”
“Yessir!” “Yessir!” and “Yessir!”
Needless to say that all the fun of those classes went to the genial, efficient and ever-smiling Mr Ramien projecting the reels (often just one in a 3-hour session), while we the 3-4 survivors from a class of fourteen were supposed to be studying.
“But that’s it!” Professor Bahadur would repeatedly conclude. “Design-making is what good cinema seems to be all about. And that’s what I want you to see. Look for motifs. Look for them in picture as well as in sound. And in editing as well—.” Often some of us wondered if we hadn’t ended up seeing much more than the filmmaker ever intended. “I can agree with you for any other filmmaker but not Satyajit Ray,” suddenly a charming Professor Bahadur would go very firm. “I tell you, just nothing escapes this man!”
Today after dealing with “this man” for over forty years, I have come across no evidence to the contrary.
Altogether the experience of going through this book should be akin to projecting the film in half-lights and low volume, and to keep listening to the teacher’s commentary over your shoulder. “Notice this,” “Observe that.” “Look at the circle of the earthen pots.” “Notice the arch of the door. Not all doors in this village would have arches but they all do in this film…”
Being a critic Professor Bahadur did not have a maker’s perspective. I have added that dimension through emphasis on elements of basic film technique. Mise-en-Scene, handling of actors, camera angles, image sizes, screen directions, entries, exits, symmetries, recurrences, motifs. Amidst hundreds of shrewd, extremely well judged directorial decisions, PP retains scars of some very interesting learner’s mistakes. Both are worthy of a student’s attention and have received equal importance in my treatment. The film’s greatness, however, can be problematic and needs to be handled with caution. The reader should make sure not to be overawed by it otherwise it could be a real obstruction to learning. Films are never designed to be great. All that a filmmaker can possibly do is make an ‘optimum’ film and float it in the market to find its own destiny. The system then takes charge and declares the film one way or the other. Innocent chance, as also highly refined publicity techniques, unfortunately, play an important role here. While PP was lucky to be noticed buried under an unearthly hour screening slot at Cannes in 1956 and suitably rescheduled, producers of Slumdog Millionaire—just to take a random example—owe us an explanation as to how they managed to have the Oscars dancing to their tunes whenever that happened.
In a way, Pather Panchali is Satyajit Ray’s continuity film except that it’s been made with an exceptionally steady hand. And that’s the way it’s treated in this book. In fact all Ray films today should be counted as made with very basic equipment! Working in a poor country, Ray developed economy of means as a guiding principle of his aesthetics. Why shoot a scene if it is not going to be used, he would hold. Why build a whole room if all your character needed was a window to stand against and speak his lines, went his credo. As learners all over the world, we are all citizens of one pauper country.
In PP there are no cranes, just trolley and tracks. No lighting equipment at the location, only reflectors. Which means all day sequences in the film, even interiors, are reflector lit—these 4’ by 5’ flat boards mounted on stands and having glossy and matt silver foils pasted on each side are good to manipulate sun light in all kinds of ingenious ways. (These indeed can be seen lugged around in the Indian film schools by first year students for their continuities.) That kind of elementary lighting in PP would cover all kitchen scenes and all the grocer-teacher shots which show up as reflector-lit the moment you are able to pluck yourself away from the spell of the narrative. There was (mercifully) no zoom in those days, only block lenses—28 mm, 32 mm, 35 mm, 40 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm and 90 mm, the last two treated as telephoto.
Besides, Ray is perhaps the most consistent filmmaker in the history of the cinema. Being a true auteur—something of being an organic in today’s sense, rather than delegating directorial responsibility under all kinds of fancy titles; “Sound Designer”, for instance—there is a rare degree of unity in his films which is difficult to come by to the same extent in other filmmakers. All his films are written by him; either adaptations or original screenplays or quite a few based on his own published stories. From working with Ravi Shankar and other classical musicians—none a professional composer, by the way—fairly early he took to composing music for his films. He had always conceived and designed the sets, and visualised and sketched the costumes. From Charulata he began to operate the camera himself. “It’s more immediate this way,” he explained when the step evoked criticism. “And I get a better performance from the actors! They’re not aware of me watching, like a hawk, you know.” His documentaries had always had his own words, spoken in his own famous baritone. To describe his involvement in editing, he had coined the phrase, “editing in the camera”. Just don’t shoot more than what you need; why burden the editor with excessive alternatives? His shooting ratio was 3:1 as against the western standard of 20 or even 40:1!
And yet, with all this tightness of hold exercised by one man, the films feel so open and liberating rather than closed and claustrophobic. And most accessible, unlike some stylists where the form sits so heavy on the content that you end up granting them their point without understanding what they might be all about. Film authors in this respect are closer to painters who have the moral authority to sign their works rather than CEO’s of multinational companies—“Director of Direction”(!)—in case of mega film productions.
It’s my belief and conviction that when Ray made those 30 odd features, he may well have been producing pure teaching material for students of cinema anywhere in the world.