6 Filmmaking Tips from Satyajit Ray

"Young Satyajit Ray" by Unknown, From the book of Sandip Ray Ray's Ravi Shankar.

“Young Satyajit Ray” by Unknown, From the book of Sandip Ray Ray’s Ravi Shankar.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of introducing a 16mm screening of Pather Panchali. Though I had seen the film before on DVD, nothing compared to the experience of watching Satyajit Ray’s debut feature on the big screen. Where the poor DVD transfer that introduced me to the film flattened the depth of field and heightened its black-and-white contrasts, this version of Pather Panchali exhibited the incredible depth of Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra’s images, suddenly altering the film from a gritty portrait of rural poverty to a work that contextualizes its characters’ struggle within a rich, elegantly composed Bengali landscape.

The environment in which his characters reside ‐ from the tall grass and stray animals that occupy Apu’s childhood to the decaying estate in which a landlord descends into irrelevance in The Music Room ‐ is intrinsic to Ray’s work, constituting its characters and realizing its themes through a subtle but often profound observance through the camera.

So it is of no small import that the films which first shaped Ray’s international reputation as a filmmaker ‐ the Apu trilogy ‐ has finally returned to cinemas, showcasing the graceful beauty and deeply felt humanism of Ray’s work with restored prints. Thus, now is a good a time as any for some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the director who opened up new possibilities for Indian cinema.

Shoot It Yourself

Ray: 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.

Film Comment: I find that I am not able to both direct and shoot.

Ray: 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.

Ray shot Pather Panchali in rural Bengal, which created a serious set of restraints and conflicts for a filmmaker using the type of equipment available in the early 1950s. Although production halted numerous times and necessitating emergency funds out through various forms of additional financing, Ray emerged with a film that functioned almost as a documentary of the social milieu in which it took place (despite being a period piece), conveying a quality that seemed to suggest an organic flow from its location to the screen, portraying humans and nature with a kind of effortless harmony rarely seen in filmmaking then or since.

Such efforts require both a capacity for improvisation in the face of actors’ performances and alongside the natural elements in which the film is set, as well as a cohesive, consistent, and confident notion of what the film will be down to the most minute detail. The key is realizing that pursuing these two things are not contradictory. As Ray attested about his filmmaking style in an earlier portion of this 1968 interview, “…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.”

Achieving this goal is also possible when one strives to…

Work With a Small Team

“You Can’t Make Happy Films All the Time”

Cineaste: Most Western critics feel that your vision of India is a bleak and despairing one.

Ray: The Middleman is really the only film of which that sort of remark can be made.

Cineaste: But others have found Days and Nights in the Forest despairing.

Ray: I wouldn’t call it such a despairing vision. Certain unpleasant truths are expressed in it, but that is part of drama, it applies to all kinds of films. You can analyze a Western film and find a very despairing statement about Western values. You can’t make happy films all the time.

If you’re making a film about problems, but you don’t have a solution, there’s bound to be a despairing quality. In The Big City, both husband and wife lose their jobs. There are no jobs around. They drift apart, there is misunderstanding, and they come together again. But they still don’t have any jobs, and they may not have any for quite some time, but that doesn’t make it despairing.

François Truffaut said of Pather Panchali, “I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands.” Parliamentarian and Bollywood actress Nargis Dutt accused the film of “exporting poverty.” But such caricatures of Ray’s work miss the optimism and humanism emanating beneath it ‐ the notes of resounding (and never false) hope for its central characters, of which Ray regularly imbued a deep bond regardless of their vices or virtues. Yes, the future of Apu and his family looks dire after the tragedies that meet them throughout Pather Panchali, but Apu more than earns a happy ending by the third film in the trilogy. The bitter does not exist in Ray’s work without the sweet.

Towards this point, Ray is credited to having said of happy endings, “Last, but not least ‐ in fact, this is most important ‐ you need a happy ending. However, if you can create tragic situations and jerk a few tears before the happy ending, it will work much better.”

Music Stays With You

“At the Everyman Cinema there is a season of Satyajit Ray. He watches the Apu trilogy on successive nights in a state of rapt absorption. In Apu’s bitter, trapped mother, his engaging, feckless father he recognizes, with a pang of guilt, his own parents. But it is the music above all that grips him, dizzyingly complex interplays between drums and stringed instruments, long arias on the flute whose scale or mode ‐ he does not know enough about music theory to be sure which ‐ catches at his heart, sending him into a mood of sensual melancholy that last long after the film has ended.”

This quote is taken from a fictional memoir by J.M. Coetzee, but it speaks serious truth to Ray’s use of music nonetheless.

Music is as important to Ray’s work as his characters and the environment in which they exist. Ravi Shankar’s sitar score for the Apu trilogy gives the films a meditative flow that emphasizes the cyclical aspects of life, refusing to employ thematic cues practiced by Hollywood or distracting spectacle popularized by Bollywood. The Music Room uses full performances of traditional music as a means to ruminate on the future of a new, post-colonial India. And Ray himself even composed the score for Charulata. Music can provide aural icons for a film as well as intricate subjects of study, but music can also resonate beyond the film’s running time with a power unique to the capacities of sound, without equivalent in the moving image.

Cultural Fusion is a Path to Invention

Between establishing a cinema society, hosting filmmakers like John Huston and Jean Renoir on their foreign on-location shoots, and using Bicycle Thieves as a key inspiration for approaching his first feature film, Ray’s cinephilia and filmic practice held deep ties with art and commercial filmmaking in the West, a cultural immersion rooted in his family’s ties to Western art while growing up.

Ray changed Indian cinema not by conforming to practices and conventions of the West, but by utilizing cultural hybridity in order to produce something new, to be a witness for Indian experiences that could not be represented in such a way through the dominant commercial practices of Bollywood. Along the way, he showed that “Indian cinema,” like any national cinema or, for that matter, cultural experience, is rarely isolated to national boundaries.

What We’ve Learned: Make Films that Flow

“The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race, which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly…I feel that he is a “giant” of the movie industry. Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon. I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing [Pather Panchali]. It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river. People are born, live out their lives, and then accept their deaths. Without the least effort and without any sudden jerks, Ray paints his picture, but its effect on the audience is to stir up deep passions. How does he achieve this? There is nothing irrelevant or haphazard in his cinematographic technique. In that lies the secret of its excellence.”

Akira Kurosawa, 1987