Film Education

INTERVIEW WITH DILIP BASU, Founding Director Satyajit Ray Film & Study Center, University of California

The questions for the Interview have been compiled with valuable contribution from my Film Appreciation Family (My Film Appreciation course participants). I wanted students of cinema to actively participate in the process of knowledge and wanted to address their concerns and I am very grateful to Prof Dilip Basu to so kindly agree to answer our long list of questions. If I have not been able to accommodate all the questions my apologies to them and promise to address them in the near future.

Q1. With an initial grant from the Academy, Basu organized the Ray FASC at UCSC, and the Ray Society in Calcutta. With the cooperation of the two organizations, Basu coordinates the restoration and preservation of Ray’s films. The work is done at the Academy of Motion Pictures Archives in Los Angeles. To date, out of Ray’s 37-film oeuvre, 22 have been fully restored. Most of the original negatives, including the ones of the Apu Trilogy, were in tatters; six of them had burned in a film fire in London in 1994. If these were not properly restored, future generations would not have the privilege of seeing the classic Ray films.

Could you share with us your first encounter with the cinema of Satyajit Ray and the birth of The Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center (Ray FASC), University of California, Santa Cruz.

I was around 15 when I first saw Pather Panchali in a Calcutta theatre after reading about it in a Bengali literary weekly ” Desh” as arguably one of the  greatest films ever made ! I was immediately captivated watching it. I had read the novel by Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee on which it was based.

I got to know Ray personally very closely in 1980’s. I used to visit him a couple of times a year in his family home with videos of his favorite old Hollywood classics. We would watch them together. His favorites were Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire films. He was ailing after his heart attacks in 1983-4.He was confined to his apartment in an old colonial building in central Calcutta. He was not allowed by his doctors to make any films. Talking to friends and watching his old favorites were his favorite pastimes.Of course, he was also busy writing:his memoirs and screenplays for his son Sandip.

Q2. Do you feel today, Satyajit Ray is more famous abroad than in India and was it always so?

I do feel there is a certain lack of interest in him in India , even in Bengal. The younger generation does not relate to his movies; add to this the fact there are no good quality videos or dvds of his films available in India. We now have 22 of his 36 films beautifully restored . No one in India has bothered to access them from the Academy. I can’t really blame the audiences in India for not bothering to purchase the dvds that sell in Indian stores in Calcutta for instance.

In 2002,I had taken 4 restored Ray films including Pather Panchali to New Delhi. These were screened at Siri Fort Theatres. I was surprised by the response; each show was sold out. The majority of the audiences were young people who had never seen a Ray film on a large screen !

There is no doubt Ray is a revered all time great among American art house film goers. A year ago , we had a retrospective at the Lincoln center in New York. It was at an  800-seat theatre.Each show was sold out.. In contrast, three years ago, Joseph Lindner from the Academy Archives had taken 4 restored films to the Calcutta International Film Festival.He was surprised that the films were allocated to the 100-seat small theatre at Nandan, Calcutta’s film center, even more surprised to see that this hall was not filled to capacity any time he screened a restored film.

Q3. What is it specifically about Satyajit Ray that made him a very successful international figure, which other Indian directors of his time like Guru Dutt could not attain in terms of international acclaim?

Ray made films which were unique to Bengal and which were equally universal- a great artistic achievement hard to match. Sappy old film makers like Guru Dutt are no comparison. Ray lives in India today in such film makers like Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalkrishnan, Aparna Sen, and his son Sandip.

Q4. What do you feel is the greatest contribution of Satyajit Ray to Indian cinema.

Indian cinema before Ray and even today remains popular cinematic versions of theater or plays I compare them to what are known in Bengal as Jatras or folk theater.  This is a genre in its own right. Ray pulled out Indian cinema out of this, he showed us that cinema has its own language and grammar, Indian cinema lacked it.

Q5. As an artist what are the autobiographical elements that feature in Satyajit Ray’s films. Would you say that understanding any aspect of Satyajit Ray as a person would help attain a deeper analysis of his films.

As an artist Ray belonged to the Tagore tradition through and through, he said that to me himself. There has been a Bengali renaissance tradition going back to Ram Mohan Roy in early nineteenth century with an emphasis on humanism and universalism not shared elsewhere in India, I think after Tagore, it was continued through Ray and now by Professor Amartya Sen.
Ray was also, by inheritance, a Ray- grandson of legendary Upendrakishore and son of Sukumar Ray. His grandfather and father are legends in Bengal for their stories for children, wonderful graphic art and nonsense rhymes which are on the lips of most Bengalis in India and Bangladesh.

Knowing Ray from close quarters, I felt at heart he was just like a kid- always curious about little gadgets and the latest in computers.

Q6. Would you agree almost all of Ray’s films are adaptations of literary works including his own, with a few exceptions like Kanchenjunga which was an original screenplay, any particular reason ?

I have recently argued in a proposal to mark the 150th of Tagore and Ray’s 90th ” Tagore stories , Ray films ” that Ray illumined Tagore novels, great as they are, in luminous form. Most audiences do not realize that the greatness of films like Charulata or Ghare Baire largely derive from the novels on which they are based. Ray himself admitted much of visual beauty of Pather Panchali derived from his literal translation of the author Banerjee’s pictorial prose.

K’jungha is unique in Ray’s ouevre – the reel time and real time of the narrative are the same. Ray was experimenting on a common social practice of Calcuttans  who journeyed to Darjeeling in summer heat as they still do where things happen but mostly materialize back in Calcutta. Ray was a literary figure with many books and films based on them .You are right – K-jungha is not a literary work , a largely extempore screenplay , much of that created as the film was being shot on a record 18-day shoot on location.

Q7. Was Ray a classical or modern filmmaker?

Ray was Ray – a class by himself – beyond categories or labels. He said that himself.

Q8. Did Ray have a signature style for his films?

Each film was different. As an American music composer Eyvind Kang said “when you hear Ray film music, you immediately recognize it is his- it is so original” -the same applies to his films.

Q9. Would you like to mention any specific style in editing, cinematography, sound that was unique to Satyajit Ray?

I am not competent to comment on this. But I do know that even though he had a cinematographer, editor and all that, he did everything himself – no shot was done without him checking it out. So all was unique to his style.

Q10. How much credit would you give the team of Satyajit Ray for the success of his films

His team was his own. It followed him religiously. Those who did not like Subrata Mitra were dismissed. I would give Banshi Chandragupta, his set designer, Subrata Mitra, his cinematographer great credit for their work in early Ray films.

Q11. If you were to do an analysis of Ray’s films how would you explain the influences of  Hollywood, Italian Neo Realism, French New wave, Indian art and aestheics, western art and aesthetics.

This is a big question. Ray himself said he learned the craft of film making watching old Hollywood films. I personally think this was his greatest cinematic influence, it is true that he was inspired to make Pather Panchali after watching Bicycle Thief in London in 1950.. but Pather Panchali is unique in itself – it owes little to neo-realism or any other western art and aesthetics – it is at once uniquely Bengali and universal.

Ray was a cosmopolitan man who was well read in theory. Whatever influences he had, he completely internalized them. I would say the greatest artistic influence he had was that of Benode Behari Mukherjee, his art teacher  in Santinketan. Ray paid tribute to him in is documentary – Inner Eye.

Q12. Ray is known to have a wonderful equation with his child actors, right from his debut film Pather Panchali to films like The World of Apu,Sonar Kella, Joy Baba Felunath, Pikoo, Hirak Rajar Deshe etc. How did he get them to emote so wonderfully? Any specific techniques he used?

Ray related to children at their own level, not speaking to them as an adult with authority..

Q13. Ray started with shooting on real locations, but by the end of his career, his films were mostly claustrophobic and largely shot in interiors – for example Ganashatru, Shakha Proshakha and Agantuk were all shot indoors – was it a conscious choice or a compulsion of his ill-health? A film like Ganashatru was not really an inspired film, would you agree

Because of health reasons, he could not do much of location shooting . Gana Shatru was done completely indoors with Ray in a wheel chair with nurses in a van waiting. The same is true of his last two films.

Q14. Do you believe that B&W offered a perfect canvas for Ray to make his films and his colour films were not as effective ?

His b& w films are his greatest. But his color films are noted for their unique choice of colors deliberately decided by the director.

Q15. Which is your favourite Ray film and why?

Pather Panchali– it is unique and unsurpassed in cinema history.
Q16. Ray had a rather unpleasant brush with Hollywood when he sought financing for The Alien – it is also said he was of the belief that Spielberg plagiarized the concept of ET from his script, which at that time was available all over the United States in mimeographed copies does this have any basis for being true?

I refer the reader to Andrew Robinson in his Ray book. Ray had said : “without alien , ET could not be made ”

Q17. What do you feel is the greatest value that the study of the cinema of Satyajit Ray can offer a film student?

Watch Them.


15 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Excellent interview! It’s so informative and well written. As promised Oorvazi you are giving us stuff that one’s has never come across and still educating us about cinema through such interesting efforts  Seriously this piece is a treasure for ever film student and film buff!

Comment by Shweta

My Dear Shweta! Thanks so much for your feedback. Its such lovely students like your self that want me to strive harder to nurture the passion in the FA family that is growing each day.

Comment by oorvazi

Thank you so much…it was a delight to read it!

Comment by Shweta

Thank you very much for this impressive interview of Prof. D.K. Basu.

Comment by Debabrata Jana

Its my pleasure and thanks so much for the feedback, appreciate it.

Comment by oorvazi

Thanks a ton… great read! So many more questions to be asked but then Ray is an ocean… The fact that the restored films haven’t been picked up is painful but not shocking.. that’s us – what do we care for restoration or archiving?

Comment by amborish

Yes Ray is an ocean…and you cannot have enough. Thanks so much for your feedback, appreciate it and so happy it was useful.

Comment by oorvazi

“Sappy old film makers like Guru Dutt ” – hmmm..
Kinda don’t agree that Ray lives through his son (Sandip)… Sandip’s films do have his signature (arguably) but they don’t offer anything by way of “legacy” of Ray; barring handful extraordinary work, Sandip is just above average.

Comment by amborish

I personally do like the poetic quality of Guru Dutt and especially his songs.

Comment by oorvazi

Ray’s style is inimitable.There is a delicate sensitivity in his films that cannot be found in the names of contemeporary directors mentioned.He lives on …in his own films.

Comment by Indu Raman

I agree a ‘delicate sensitivity’ which is rare to find.

Comment by oorvazi

This is the best I’ve read about Ray coz I’ve only read through website but not actually from someone who was close to him. Ray’s cinema has taken Indian cinema to another level & famous across the globe. But one thing is for sure, if his films are shown here in Mumbai, the shows will be more than house full!

Comment by Agastya Kapoor

Agastya! Thanks for your feedback and glad the personal touch helped.

Comment by oorvaziirani

That was a very good effort Oorvazi! Kudos to you. However, I would disagree about the Sandip Ray part, he is not even 1/10 of his father, so far. A very well structured interview overall. I would like to know which films he had remastered. Does it include ‘Pikoo’ and ‘Two’, which are 2 of his short films? I have very poor quality copies of these, but they can sure be remastered

Comment by Riddhiman Basu

Riddhiman, thanks for the kind words and feedback. Will try and ask Dilip about your query and get back to you shortly.

Comment by oorvazi

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