Satyajit Ray (1921-92) was one of the greatest film-makers of his time. In 1992, he was awarded the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the same year he was also honoured with the Bharat Ratna.
Ray was also a writer of repute, and his short stories, novellas, poems and articles, written in Bengali, have been immensely popular. He has published several books in Bengali, most of which became bestsellers.
He is also the author of the famous Feluda stories, the translations of which have been made available by Penguin.
Interview: Satyajit Ray
By James Blue in the Summer 1968 Issue
This interview with Satyajit Ray was tape-recorded by Blue as preparation for his book on the directing of the non-actor in film. This special research has been sponsored by the Ford Foundation. Blue, at the time of the interview, was visiting India while directing A Few Notes on Our Food Problem, a color, 35mm, 40-minute U.S. Information Agency film on the world food and population problem, shot by Stevan Larner. Sailen Dutt, assistant to Ray on most of his films, assisted with the recording. Ray was at work then on a film that he described as a commercial “adventure story with big name stars.” Blue describes Ray as “a tall man, over six-feet-one, enormous for an Indian, whose deep and resonant voice surprises more than his height, because of his ability to manage—as a patrician might—the niceties of English speech.”
Earlier Blue interview-articles on the directing of the non-actor, exclusive to FILM COMMENT, have dealt with Jean Rouch, Peter Watkins, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Richard Leacock, and the Maysles brothers.
SATYAJIT RAY: I have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film. I know what it’s going to look like when cut. I’m absolutely sure of that, and so I don’t cover the scene from every possible angle—close, medium, long. There’s hardly anything left on the cutting-room floor after the cutting. It’s all cut in the camera.
For example, the mother-daughter fight scene in Pather Panchali—that was all in my head and I merely told my editor to join this strip, now that, now this…. And the strong scene where Durga dies—lots of shots there and the editor just didn’t know what he was doing. I had all the strips in my hand and then I popped them one after the other, now a bit of this, a bit of that. The editor just came in to help, you see, because we had to catch a deadline.
But I have an editor who’s very good indeed; he has often very creative suggestions. In small things, you see—particularly in long dialogue scenes involving three or four characters, where you can make small changes all the time, make improvements, he has very good suggestions.
I understand that in many of your films you have been at the camera yourself.
Ever since The Big City, which I shot in 1962, 1963, I have been operating the camera. All the shots, everything. It’s wonderful to direct through the Arriflex because that’s the only position to tell you where the actors are, in exact relations to each other. Sitting by or standing by is no good for a director.
I find that I am not able to both direct and shoot.
I find it easier, because the actors are not conscious of me watching, because I’m behind the lens. I’m behind the viewer and with a black cloth over my head, so I’m almost not there, you see. I find it easier because they’re freer, and particularly if you’re using a zoom. I am doing things with the zoom constantly, improvising constantly.
When you work with a cameraman, however, he is always saying—“Let’s have one more take.” I generally say—“Why? Tell me why?” He’s never able to specify exactly “why”—he is not sure, you see. Whereas, I am sure. Only the director can know when the technical operation needs to be all-important, you see. Whereas in certain shots maybe it’s not the operation that is all-important but it is something else that is really vital. So even if the panning is a little this way [making a jerky movement], it doesn’t matter. And the question of re-takes comes up also when you are working with very limited raw stock, you see. It’s mainly because of that that I have started operating the camera myself.
Then you operate the camera during the rehearsals also?
Yes, otherwise it’s pointless. Except there is a first rehearsal where I’m not behind the camera, where I’m just watching the whole thing for all the details of acting, you see. And just before the take, if it’s complicated, I have at least two rehearsals when I’m on the camera, to see whether I can actually do it, whether my limbs will permit it, you see. Because sometimes you’re in the most terrible position, lying down or half-reclining, and I take off the panning handle, I grab hold of the other sort of thing that sticks out and I grab hold of the whole camera and turn it like that, on its pivot.
Personally, I think that Subrata Mitra’s camera work is better than Raoul Coutard’s, but Gianni Di Venanzo I admire tremendously. 8½ is something extraordinary, I mean the daring things that Di Venanzo does there and pulls off. Largely, of course, it’s the director, too; it can’t be just the cameraman who is devising all that, all those over-exposed shots and everything that comes off.
Sometimes cameramen do this kind of thing for no reason at all, and that I don’t like. I mean, just tricks for tricks sake, which quite a number of these New Wave directors do. I mean Godard does it all the time, hand-held for no reason and you can see it going all the time. A long scene with Belmondo in Une Femme Est Une Femme, sitting in a bar or somewhere, talking, talking, and you have the camera hand-held, and you watch the edge of the screen and can see it wobbling all the time [Laughs]. And you tend to watch that not the action within the frame. You become interested in how well the chap was able to steady his camera.
Well, Godard’s is another style altogether, you see, where you use all kinds of things completely amateurish, completely improvised, and it all sort of hangs together as a kind of collage. Good, bad, indifferent. But that’s another category of films, I think.
I haven’t seen any cinéma vérité except for Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous, which he shot in Africa, a rather horrifying film but very impressive, very strong, I must say. And all a single man’s effort. It’s just one man, Rouch, doing everything. I met Richard Leacock at the Flaherty Seminar in 1958, but I don’t know his cinéma vérité work, nor do I know Chris Marker in France.
Although I don’t know cinéma vérité, I can see that it can be very interesting, and valid, in a way. But again, a different category, you see. I think that Frances Flaherty was slightly disappointed in my method of work, because she had thought that in Pather Panchali they were all actual villagers. But it doesn’t really matter whom you use, because it’s the ultimate effect that counts, you see. In all art it is like that.
I use the Arriflex. Because you can do very small zooms that are not noticeable, you can get your emphasis all the time with a zoom, and it’s lovely with that. And sometimes you don’t even notice that. You are not supposed to, most of the time. It’s not zoom-zoom, like that, it’s just a little bit. Sometimes combining with a tracking shot you can zoom in. I love the zoom. I think it’s wonderful, particularly now. For example, for a certain insert . . . what you can do is a little zoom.
How do you direct dialogue?
All actors are afraid of pauses because they can’t judge their weight. So with Sharmila Tagore in The World of Apu, I would say—“Well, you stop at this point and then resume when I tell you to resume.” So she would just stop and look at a certain point that had been previously indicated, and then I’d say—“Yes, now go on,” and she would resume. So the pauses would be there as I would need them. Otherwise, actors are terribly afraid of pauses, and it’s only the greatest professionals who know the real strength, the power, of pauses. For all non-actors and for inferior professionals, they just can’t judge pauses at all. For me, pauses are very important: something happening, waiting for the words, and when the words come you have that weight. So the pauses have to be worked out constantly.
Once he has memorized the line, it’s the hardest thing for an actor to make it sound as if he is thinking and talking rather than just mouthing lines. Sometimes there are certain words that don’t come easily. You must have the pause before a certain word. Not everybody is a linguist with a great command of vocabulary, so you have to vary it with actors, and those pauses are very significant. Sometimes you just can’t think of a word so you just hesitate, you see, and somebody else supplies it for you. So my dialogue is written like that, with a very plastic quality, which has its own filmic character, which is not stage dialogue, not literary dialogue. But it’s as lifelike as possible, with all the hems and haws and stuttering and stammering.
But you would not call it natural speech?
No, it’s not naturalistic but let’s call it “realistic.” It’s not as if it’s off a tape recorder, because then you would be wasting precious footage. You have to strike a mean between naturalism and a certain thing which is artistic, which is selective, you see. If you get the right balance, then you have this strange feeling of being lifelike, everything looking very lifelike and natural. But if you were to photograph candidly a domestic scene it wouldn’t be art at all. I mean, it could be interesting for certain revelations, but it wouldn’t itself be a work of art—a scene, whatever scene, unless you cut it. That’s being creative, you see. By being selective in your framing, in your cutting, in your choice of words, you are creating something artistic.
I think the cinema is the only medium that challenges you to be naturalistic, be realistic and yet be artistic at the same time. Because in the cutting is the creation, you see.
You shot Pather Panchali in sync sound?
Yes, absolutely, because it would be impossible to dub with a non-actor. Absolute disaster. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work.
How do you dub? Do you use the French system?
No system. We devise our own system. I don’t even know what the French system is. Look, I don’t like dubbing because it’s too mechanical. I have devised a system of notation—I mean, you have to have a kind of guide-track . . . Sailen Dutt, my assistant, and several others, take notes or a code on the exact scanning of each word. Even if we do have a tape recorder, even if there is a guide-track, you need to do that. I play back and then make my own special notations for it, and then I work it from my notes, you see. Because you have got to have control yourself of how the lines are spoken. So that it sounds right, it conforms to the original speech. You have got to memorize it; you must know your lines.
When you go into the sound studio to dub the final cut, do you try to reproduce exactly what the actor has said in the picture?
Absolutely. But sometimes I try to improve. Most of my dubbing so far has involved, fortunately, professionals who have been able to do it with me. But somehow with Pather Panchali we had usable sound all the way through, more or less. Not much dialogue, and no crowds watching, because even whispering would create an enormous noise that ruins your track.
Yesterday we shot a scene in the village where you made Pather Panchali.
Did you? It’s unrecognizable now. It’s no longer pure. It’s spoiled. It was once very nice, indeed, with long areas of no huts, no refugee huts . . . [Note: the Pather Panchali village, like many others in Bengal, now contains refugees from East Pakistan as a result of Partition.]
Were people of that village cooperative when you began that first film of the Apu Trilogy?
Not in the early stage. No, they were fairly hostile people there. But we got to be friendly, and finally—because we were there for two years off and on—we got to be very friendly with them. They really missed us when we left. You can manage only by being polite with them, you see, sitting down and talking. They’re essentially nice people, but suspicious. To them all business has certain rather unpleasant associations. We were completely newcomers, nobody knew us, and today we wouldn’t have any trouble, except from people coming to watch.
For example, we have begun shooting our new film in Baraset, and the crowd has been increasing, and for the last two or three days we have had something like two thousand women and children watching. A wall was constructed around the compound, and outside the wall they would stand, looking over. And all the trees were full of people. And some of the branches gave way and a dozen people fell and collapsed, and one was seriously injured. Fortunately, we had a doctor in the cast, among the actors, and he gave first aid and sent them all to the hospital.
We found yesterday on location in your Pather Panchali village that we had almost 150 people around us—everybody excited and . . .
Yes, but at the time we made Pather Panchali, there was almost nobody watching. There were some during the first few days, of course, but then they lost interest in the actual work, so we could continue uninterrupted, absolutely. And nobody knew us, everyone was new, we had no stars. But this new film we are making has a big star, and he is the main draw of crowds, I think. But apart from that, nowadays shooting in a city street is almost impossible unless you do it with concealed cameras or dummy cameras or things like that. If you don’t use these means, then the shooting becomes too expensive. I shoot on a four-to-one ratio, you see.
Did you make Pather Panchali on a four-to-one ratio?
No, that’s the only film where I had scenes that eventually didn’t go into the film. Some scenes were not finished. And then I wasn’t sure of my cutting, so some of the stuff had just to be thrown away. The first two or three days work wouldn’t cut at all. Then later I sort of disciplined myself. You learn while you work. You learn quite quickly, in fact. We were forced to be economical, as you must when you have a ceiling to everything.
Of course, you have said that during Pather Panchali you did not have crowds disturbing the shooting and causing your actors to freeze up—but still, with so few takes, how did you manage to get relaxed behavior from non-professionals?
Sometimes it’s easier with non-professionals. I have no definite system. I use different methods with different actors. You have to modify your technique all the time. But you have to get to know the person you are working with, know his moods and his abilities and his intelligence. Sometimes I use them as puppets complete, and I do not tell them anything about motivation at all. I just try to get particular effects.
For example, the boy who played Apu in Pather Panchali—he was treated all along as a puppet. Completely. He didn’t know the story, only the vaguest outline. And it is really not a children’s story. It’s an adult thing with all the subtleties, really emotional.
Does this mean that you dictated his gestures?
Absolutely, down to the head movement—“Do this and that.” The first day I had some trouble.
It was a very simple shot of him walking, looking for Durga, his sister, in that field of flowers. Remember that? And that walk was so difficult to get right. So I put little obstacles in his way, which he had to cross, and it became natural immediately. Otherwise, he just walks like that [stiffening his body]. I had to put objects in his path and say—“you cross this piece of straw and then the next one”—not really large obstacles but things he had to be conscious of, to give him a purpose. That’s the most difficult thing to do—just walking, looking for somebody. Every turn of his head was dictated—“Now look this way!” I put three assistants at certain points, and A would call the boy and then B would call and then C. So the boy would walk, look, then hear a call, then walk again. It was like that. It’s the only thing to do. At first I didn’t work this way, but I immediately felt that something was wrong. So I sat down and thought it out and did it.
I hardly ever do more than three takes. It’s generally two. If the second one is not better than the first, then there’s a third take. I’ve never taken more than five or six, except for one shot in Pather Panchali involving synchronization with a dog. You see, when the confectioner comes the children run and follow him, and in the same shot you have a dog who is also supposed to run at a certain point. But this is not a trained dog, you see! The dog would be called, but it would just sit there and look up and not do anything. So that took eleven takes. I remember that very well because I had never had eleven takes to a shot.
One professional actor who let us down several times was the man who played the father in Pather Panchali. He was a professional of long standing, and he was muffing lines constantly because he was asked to do certain things along with speaking—combining action with speech—which I use very frequently, which I think is very important, which gives it that relaxed thing, you see. It’s both in work and talking.
You find actions to accompany speech constantly?
Yes, unless it is a scene that demands absolutely no action at all. In the second film of the Apu Trilogy, Aparajito, there is a scene towards the end where the mother is dead and the boy sits and cries on the little verandah, and there’s the old uncle smoking the hookah, and he sort of consoles Apu by saying—“You know, man is not immortal. Everybody has to die sooner or later, so don’t cry.” Now, that old man was a complete amateur. (He died the other day.) We found him in Benares on the grass. He had never seen a film, because he was living a retired life in Benares for thirty years with his wife, you know. I mean you find people like that. He seemed to be the right type, so we went up to him—we hadn’t cast that particular part yet—and I asked him whether he would be willing to act in the film. Immediately he said yes, why not? And then in this scene, the only scene where he needed to speak for a certain length of time, I couldn’t possibly cut because it needed to be a single set-up all the way through, to suggest that kind of gloom and, you know, hopelessness. I split up the dialogue into parts; between sentences he was asked to smoke, just take a pull at the hookah. Then stop for a certain length of time, then I would say go on. Well, he knew where to smoke, where to take a pull at the hookah, but he didn’t know where to resume speaking, and that I would dictate.
I understand De Sica uses quite a bit this method of handling actors as puppets, you see, telling them exactly what to do at every point. I felt that in Bicycle Thief; not with the boy so much as with the father. The boy was amazing, absolutely incredibly good. Particularly the last scene where he walks down and holds the father’s hand, where he’s crying.
I asked De Sica how he got that scene. He replied that he poked fun at the poverty of the boy’s family and made him cry. De Sica said—“I was so ashamed of myself when I got that scene . . . it was so shameful of me.” He said—“My little boy was so very proud and he lived in such poor conditions in the same room with his mother and father and his other brothers and sisters, and they all slept in the same bed, and yet he was terribly proud. And he didn’t want anyone to make fun of that, and so I made fun of it. And it made him mad and he cried and he cried and he cried,” said De Sica, “and then I got my picture.” And De Sica ended by saying—“Afterward I grabbed him and kissed him.”
It’s typical, yes. You use such methods, you always have to. Otherwise you can’t expect a child of five or six to be so brilliant in faking emotions, you see.
De Sica and his writer, Zavattini, both told me that their problems were to develop concrete actions within a scene so that, in the final analysis, the people were doing relatively simple things—picking up a coffee pot, closing a door, and so forth. The attempt to juxtapose all of these elements in the film made the person seem to be performing. Is there something of this approach in the way you construct scenes?
Very similar, yes indeed. In the domestic scenes of The Big City it’s all like that. Everyone is doing something and speaking at the same time, and the story is advancing and the drama developing and the relationships. It’s like that all the way through. Every scene has some sort of domestic action being performed all the time, and the time of day is being very strongly established in the lighting.
How did you handle the gradual changes of daylight in that film?
With Subrata Mitra and his assistant—who is now doing my camera work—we have devised a system of lighting whereby in a studio we can simulate daylight to a fantastic degree. It fools everybody, the best professionals. It’s a boost sort of light we use. If it’s a day-scene, we try to imitate available light by not using any direct lights; instead, we use bounce lights all the way through. Particularly if you saw Charulata—it’s my best film from many points of view. And in The World of Apu, his little room, that had a very convincing actual location atmosphere due to our lighting. Yet it’s a studio set. The lighting we use through the windows and also from the side of the camera is all bounce light, you see, and it’s very carefully graded for various times of the days. We may use a white card at various positions—here, there, like blackboards. Different greys, so that it’s one kind of lighting for a cloudy day, one for sun, one for mid-day, one for early morning—it’s all varied. In The World of Apu the matching of light is exceptional, and of course matching is not just a matter of lighting but it’s also the soundtrack, which is being matched all the time, because you’re carrying over sound from shot to shot, you see.
I read in American Cinematographer an article by Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s cameraman—they had just finished shooting Through a Glass Darkly—and Nykvist goes to great lengths describing the wonderful system that they have devised with bounce lights. Which we had been using for the last twelve years.
As I said, the Benares house where Apu lives is a studio set. We had a cloth stretched overhead, you see, for the light from above. Our lighting gives you a kind of dark eye-socket effect, but it doesn’t matter really, because it’s not a question of beautifying everybody. Ultimately it pays off, because you are sticking to a realistic mood.
But even on location, what we’ve been doing, instead of using those tinfoils and silver-paper reflectors—of course, you have to use those—but for all our close shots we have this enormous white cloth stretched so that you get that soft bounce. In Kanchenjungha, a color film, we had interior shots in the hotel, but we had no lights for color, so what we did was to use two or three large mirrors, about four feet square. We reflected the sunlight into the room onto stretched cloth, and that was just wonderful. You have to have sunlight, of course, to be able to do that; if it’s a cloudy day you’re finished. But if you have sun and you have mirrors, you reflect the sunlight into the room through the window. It’s worth it for the quality you get. You don’t feel the presence of lights around at all. They are not reflected in all sorts of little glistening props and things.
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