Akira Kurosawa, Apu, Battleship Potemkin, Bibhutibhusan, Bicycle Thieves, Charulata, Durga, Harihar, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Kanchanjunga, Mozart, Pishi, Rashomon, Sergei Eisenstein, Shatruanj Ke Khiladi, Throne of Blood, Wild Strawberries
Grappling with the problems of structuring a film, we at the FTII were raised on the notion that Pather Panchali was a film cast in a three-act mould.
Professor Satish Bahadur laboured us through repeated screenings of single reels of the film in half lights, followed by chalking dense diagrams on the black board, and even handing us take-home cyclostyled sheets afterwards—this was much before photocopying came along—showing how not just the whole film but its successive break ups too followed a pattern of threes. That each of the three acts had three sub-acts and each of the three in turn had three sub-sub-acts and so on. Having arrived at the smallest unit, Professor Bahadur would then go on to demonstrate how very logically each unit relayed the story before passing the baton to the next. Given Bahadur sahib’s charming manner and sheer determination—in admiration of Ray, he had even named his son after the Apu trilogy’s hero—we were impressed, and stayed impressed in the underlying belief that a great film cannot but be structured in great complexity. That inverted tree structure came to represent to us the essence and abiding achievement of great cinema leaving everything else as second or third or fourth in importance.
Luckily—and our stars be thanked for that—Professor Bahadur also once got to put his model to Satyajit Ray himself. By Bahadur sahib’s own account, Ray patiently heard him out and fully agreed with him on the end objectives, but pointed out that his method of arriving there was different. After years of reflection on that pithy comment I like to think that Ray was underscoring the generic difference between a maker’s approach and a critic’s. That you cannot synthesise a film using the same tools and sensibilities as those for analysing one. And certainly those dogmatic limits of sub-divisions can only work from the Film Studies’ end—those people live in a different world, I’m convinced—never from the maker’s. But not being a filmmaker and banking heavily on Sergei Eisenstein’s famous 5-act structure essay for his Battleship Potemkin, professor Bahadur was happy to take Ray’s response as a compliment and kept going as before. In later years he even expanded his list and brought a variety of other films—Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Bicycle Thieves, Wild Strawberries, even Hiroshima Mon Amour—to fit his 3 or 5-act model regardless of the diverse personalities of the makers and their working conditions and methods.
In organised academics, it’s amazing how a well-meaning teacher can sometimes end up blocking clear view rather than facilitating it. I count myself as the first victim of that straightjacket approach to making a film.
That Pather Panchali can be studied as a structure in ten sections as I do here, is not my idea but Satyajit Ray’s. No, he didn’t say it anywhere, even less write on it in any detail. Rather it would seem that this was one subject he avoided writing on, considering that he gave free vent to his thoughts on every other aspect of filmmaking. Things seemed to ease up somewhat when screenplays of his films began to appear as supplements in Bengali magazines, but even there language remained a handicap for the non-Bengalis among us. Then came his 1977, Urdu-English bi-lingual Shatranj ke khiladi, where language for once was his handicap. Not knowing Urdu too well, he was forced to write the whole script of that film in English. That’s how we got to dig our teeth into an original Ray screenplay for the first time and that’s when I first noticed the sections. Later when access to his other scripts got available, the same 10-section break up popped up as a common feature of all. For Pather Panchali which was shot in broken spells and largely from notes and sketches, all I had to do was run a 35 mm print of the film on one of our 20 Steenbeck tables—this was one of the minor luxuries we had at the FTII—and count fades as start and end of chapters. No mistaking. 10.
While there can be as many ways of structuring films as there are makers, the need for structuring per se cannot be denied. All narrative arts—plays, novels, stories long and short, even non-fiction—must first have a skeletal plan before they can be proceeded with to flesh out. How else do you build and strategise scenes and sequences, decide and vary moods, pace, rhythm and the rest? Additionally in films you are required to judge their running time ahead of completion; how do you do that? The highly standardised Hollywood industry of the 50’s developed a rule of thumb—so many pages of the screenplay shoot to so many minutes of screen time—but more individualistic efforts have always had to find their own ways of judging this and other formal parameters for realisation of their stories.
So not only do you need a ground plan but also a personal approach to working it out, even a formula so that you don’t find yourself reinventing the wheel each time you start a film. That formula then becomes a part of your world-view and helps you choose further material for filming. You could draw inspiration from all kind of sources to enrich your method of course. Ray was passionate about western music and often talked about Mozart as an influence. That in his case would count towards both, composing music as well as for structuring those films. There is no reason why films should have to be less rigorously composed than symphonies. For further investigation into Ray’s methods, therefore, Mozart would perhaps be the direction to go, but at least as a baseline to starting he seems to have found his peace with the 10- section break up. Length of individual sections isn’t ever his issue—the shortest in PP is barely 3 minutes while the longer ones runs for 20 or more—but they must all have the same autonomy as chapters in a novel. Considering substantial evidence of his cinema’s affinity with literature, that’s what I have chosen to call them in this book. Chapters.
All in all, while the issue of structuring in the arts can never be conclusively closed, a learner filmmaker would do well not to be dogmatic about it one way or the other. I for one wouldn’t be shocked if one of Ray’s 30 features runs into 9 or 11 chapters. Or even lesser or more, for that matter. But I would certainly be interested.
Conjecturing further into Ray’s ‘formula’, this is how I think he would go about in practice. First lay the story tentatively over ten sections. Then judge strategic placement of its high points and schedule their positions. Then work back, writing individual, autonomous sections such that singly and collectively they lead to those high points. Doing all of which, of course, keep stepping back to take as objective a look at the whole as you can manage and keep fine-tuning the placements. Evidently, while the first two stages of work—as also the fine-tuning part—could profit from sparks of inspiration, the writing of sections would have to be the inevitable 99% perspiration bit.
As method this is fairly straightforward, even simplistic, but notice some of his decisions in PP. In an early article of his on the film, Ray exults on how Pishi and Durga’s deaths are culmination of two natural halves of the Bibhutibhusan story. Now look at where he plots them. Most instructively at the end of chapters 6 and 9, not geometrical halves at 5 and 10. (Even on a time scale, Pishi’s death occurs 15 minutes past halfway point of the film and Durga’s 15 minutes before it ends.) End of 5, which also happens to be the actual midpoint of the film, for Pishi’s death in his judgment (in mine too) would be premature and end of 10 for Durga’s of course too late. The reader may like to reflect on this and figure out why.
Likewise, try synopsising the story of PP. Chapter 1 introduces the family and ends with setting up the agenda for the rest of the film—“Being able to repair the house, send the boy to school, find a good husband for Durga and two square meals, what else do we need…”. By chapter 10, all these aspirations have largely failed and the family is forced to leave the village. Now that should be one handle to hold the story. Unable to cope with conditions of adverse livelihood and suffering the death of a daughter, village priest Harihar Rai decides to leave ancestral home for better prospects. But this dry-as-bone account hardly does justice to the otherwise rich and lively feel of the film. The children’s dimension is completely missing. That’s when you discover that PP is not a single story but a twine of two stories running parallel. Growing up amidst fun and adventure, little Apu is left rudderless when his elder sister Durga suddenly passes away, would go the children’s story. But he comes of age when after stumbling upon one of her little secrets he decides to bury the evidence in the depths of a pond for ever. Two different stories, two entirely different worlds, with two different sets of values. And both play hide and seek with each other as the film goes. Stealing, for example, is a serious moral issue among grown ups, but among children it’s never quite the same. So even when we are deeply touched at the end to find the little Apu suddenly grown up, let’s remember that that growth has come about through a stolen gesture. He has kept Durga’s secret hidden from everyone.
In fact there is much, much more of stealing going on in PP than normally gets to be noticed and a look at the film from just that one point of view should be a rewarding experience.
Two more aspects of Ray’s craft are worthy of special note. One, contrast in all forms and manners, and two, his fondness and mastery over parallel cutting. Again take the two deaths. Pishi died uncared, alone and homeless in the open while Durga departed turning and tossing in her mother’s very own lap. Once dead, Pishi was dispensed with in three shots suggesting family’s sorrow and sense of loss, whereas Durga’s death at the end of chapter 9 simmers on well into the 10th before being resolved. Keep reflecting and you would reach philosophical levels on the issue of death and life. Similarly, while chapters 5 and 6 of PP are elegant examples of parallel action, every bit worth a close look by themselves, Ray later composed whole films to a structure of simultaneously developing action at many locations and reporting each through ‘spiral’ cutting. Kanchanjunga and Shatranj ke khiladi are two films that readily come to mind.
Visiting the Institute to address the 1974 convocation Ray told us that he liked to mull over the story, his own or more often a published ‘property’, for a long, long time before putting pen on paper. Once satisfied that it had cinematic potential, he would directly go to writing the screenplay in great detail, without working through rough stages as usually prescribed in more academic approaches. And he would ‘write’ in informal, hand drawn sketches, with brief notes on the sides; not write in words. Why waste literary effort on something, which is expressly meant to be seen, he famously said.
Furthermore we were surprised to learn that he completed a full feature script in 15-20 days, never more. This, coupled with an advice that we later received from Akira Kurosawa who visited us in mid-80’s—asking us never, under no circumstances, to leave a script unfinished—to me sums up a winning formula for a learner filmmaker. Writing a 2-hour film within 15 days is not overwork, only focused thinking; equivalent of writing on a single sexual-creative erection, so to speak. (“If an argument goes on for longer than 5 minutes, chances are both parties are wrong!”) Any longer in writing and you risk turning the exercise into drudgery.
As for Kurosawa’s advice of never leaving a script unfinished, while it certainly denies you the luxury of having a sympathetic ear (usually that of the opposite sex) for failed effort, what you gain is the invaluable experience of resolving even a weak script.
Having done both, you’d no longer be the same person.
Let me however warn the reader that what I offer here is not a thorough analysis of PP. Far from it. A really thorough one, even if possible, would be a pain to read, so slow in progression it would be. On the contrary, I have conceived this analysis as closer to a live commentary on the running film. Just as in cricket there is a compulsion to move with the game, here too I felt that the book has to have an overall engaging pace, as close as possible to the screen experience of the film. So even though every other shot of the film gets to be scanned, much has had to be left out without comment. The worst affected in the process, sadly, has been the background music, although that would also be in part because of the format of the book. Ray’s music application was much more nuanced and witty than, say, Vittorio De Sica’s. Consider Bicycle Thieves. It’s a broad-spectrum application of music rather than selective and more varied. Fortunately Ray has written a number of pieces on his general approach to music and at least one in considerable detail on Charulata. Those written by others, however, have value only as ‘academic’ studies and in my judgment hardly help the hands-on people like us.
Sometimes what I suggest may appear too far-fetched. How can you ‘accuse’ Ray of such ‘scheming’? What he is showing is simply there! Naturally there! To which I would say, first of all, that there is nothing natural about filmmaking (or any art for that matter)—at all times it’s a construct. Secondly, Ray’s art is a construct of very high order; his is particularly a case of art lying in artlessness. Also, nowhere in my approach do I seek to match the film’s finished, ‘written in stone’ quality. Rather I may essentially be building just a climate of ideas about Ray’s cinema—his methods, his impeccable craftsmanship, elements of style, symmetries that he was so fond of introducing and playing with—and there are only about half a dozen such strands which are being developed in this entire exposition. For most part I have refrained from stating them out because I believe their repeated mention in a different context of the film each time should help underline and digest them better. At best I am trying to show how a neighbour may have done his garden. How you do yours is your business.
But at its core this book is about language of cinema. Which essentially remains realistic moving pictures, directly recorded sounds and both cut and joined skilfully—edited—so that a coherent narration emerges. Period. The head-spinning technology bit so heavily advertised these days—computerisation at the highest levels; dizzying special effects; 3-D for now but threatening soon to turn 4 or 5-D, who knows?—are mere add-ons, just keeping the novelty factor agitated in the mind of the audience. Let’s be sure that once you have grasped the core, these are always learnt while on the job, not before hand. What Spielberg brought to his famous dinosaur film about a quarter century ago were his film language, story-telling skills; the new computing techniques were eagerly explained to him by the computer nerds on the payroll of Microsoft or IBM or whichever company it was.
Happily therefore for the learner filmmaker, the essential dog still wags and commands the tail. And should reasonably continue to do so for all times.