Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Our Films, Their Films — By Satyajit Ray — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 15, 2007

It is said that all through our lives we are continuously preparing to live and not actually live. In matters of collecting books this is true as far as I am concerned. I collect books in the hope that I will read them on some leisurely day in future when the sun shines bright and the air is pleasant and all the bothers of life have receded to a distance. Unthumbed they remain on my bookshelf waiting for their day of redemption. One such book is Satyajit Ray’s masterly collection of essays on various aspects of the craft of movie making titled “Our Films, Their Films“. The book was collected long ago but redeemed only recently.

For many, Ray is one of India’s greatest film makers. He painstakingly built a great standing for himself at the national level and also has his place among the pantheon of the best and brightest of movie makers internationally. That his was a life completely dedicated to the profession of movie making is evident from the breadth and depth of issues he touches in this book. The breezy style of analysis, insights, admonishment, references, and views garnished with a dash of humour while making the book an enjoyable read also point to 4 critical aspects of Ray’s relation to his profession viz. 

  1. A deep love for the craft
  2. Independent and original views that have been based on careful observation of trends and nuances of his trade
  3. Fine awareness about the strengths and limitations of the medium
  4. His belief that filmmaking is an artform with a purpose and power second to none other traditional artforms — and the need for it to be treated that way

Structurally the book is a collection of 25  essays divided among various topics covering Indian and Western movies and a few notable personalities related to movies. There is an extremely insightful introduction that sets stage for the rest of the book. Running in parallel to the treatment of the topics, Ray also unobstrusively manages to sketch a history of his own development as a film maker and hints at the various influences and episodes that enriched his perspectives as he grew along. Throughout the book the reader cannot but notice a serene, gentlemanly, unagitated and refined voice of an accomplished scholar of cinema holding forte

I think that for any one interested in understanding the craft of movie making, the history of its development both in India and abroad, some of the notable movies and people behind them this is a must read. While discussing any of these, Ray maintains a continous focus on his beliefs about film making and educates the reader about the theoritical aspects of the world of films. The first 13 essays deal with various aspects related to Indian films including a few of Ray’s experiences in making movies like Pather Panchali and Jalsaghar. In the essay “Four and a Quarter” — Ray brilliantly analyses the work of four of his contemporaries viz. M.S.Sathyu, Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. What really appeals to one in this analysis is that Ray leaves not the slightest of a trace of professional jealousy despite some severe criticism of the artistic merits of their output. In multiple essays Ray also deals in great detail the ills, short comings and constraints faced by Indian film makers. Despite the constraints Ray firmly believes that a film maker should stick to the depiction of centrality of human impulses in his/her films. In a fine essay titled “What is wrong with Indian films?” Ray identifies the ills as follows:  “What Indian cinema needs today is not more gloss, but more imagination, more integrity and more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium”… and “our cinema needs above everything else a style, an idiom, a sort of iconography of cinema, which would be uniquely and reconizably Indian”.  In conclusion Ray neatly summarises that “the raw material of the cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He has only to keep his eyes open and his ears. Let him do so”

Similarly in the balance 12 essays on film world outside of India, Ray introduces the readers to some great personalities like Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. Within these there are seven essays in which Ray covers the movie oeuvres of five countries that seem to have made their mark in the world of films (and also on Ray the film maker)  viz. US, UK, Japan, Italy and Russia. For any one interested in exploring the movies further, these essays undoubtedly would be a fine starting point. In a truly brillaint essay called “Hollywood Then and Now  ” — Ray displays an astonishing grasp of the history of emergence of Hollywood over five decades. Similarly in the essay – “Thoughts on British Cinema” – the reader once again gets to understand the rise and fall of British cinema and social setting that enabled it

I hold a belief that books should lead one to more books but in this case this book will lead any curious reader to more movies

A word of caution: the last of the essays in this book is dated 1972 and much has happened in the world of cinema since then. The scale and innovation have changed quite dramatically. For example one does not see much of a commentary from Ray on animation and science fiction movies. Ray with his strong views around the need for centrality of human impulses in movies would not have probably preferred to consider them seriously — but that is anybody’s guess. Notwithstanding this “Our Films, Their Films” makes an extremely interesting read and gives a very fine introduction to Ray the film maker, film scholar and a great artist of our times.


3 Responses to “Our Films, Their Films — By Satyajit Ray — A book review”

  1. Thank you for the review. I remember reading this, but that was so very long ago that I don’t recollect much, except that it was insightful and enjoyable. Ray was really a complete film maker, of a kind that its rare in the world, at any point of time.
    BTW, Ray was very interested in Sci Fi. Many of his stories (he wrote quite a few, mostly for children) have supernatural and sci fi elements. He even had a Hollywood contract to make a Sci Fi film based on his own story and screenplay. But the project never materialized and Ray returned in frustration. After Spielberg made “E.T”, Ray and others observed that the film would not be possible without access to his script. Of course, Spielberg denied it.

  2. Mobeen Saeed Khan said

    A Review of the book Title: “Our Films Their Films”
    Author of the book: Satyajit Ray

    Only a man of his caliber could produce such a piece of writing that would serve a resource, a benchmark for students of film making for ages to come.

    Satyajit Ray is one of those talented persons of this century who dominated the Cinema from 1955 till he won Oscar in 1992. He at the same time created ideas and put them into actions, reflected upon his work, critically analyzed his scenarios as well as that of foreign film makers and their work.

    When you read the book “Our Films Their Films you come to realize that
    Satyajit is very versatile person involved in many tasks. He not only wrote stories for children but produced films and documentaries, he wrote about his experiences and reflected upon his work. He won every major award in the film world. He is such a renowned personality that if you talk about film making and you do not mention his work you are not doing justice to your work.
    That his was a life completely dedicated to the profession of movie making is evident from the breadth and depth of issues he touches in this book. The breezy style of analysis, insights, admonishment, references, and views garnished with a dash of humour (Posted by mangalapalliv on December 15, 2007)

    After reading the book I discovered that the book is not only meant for the students of film making but it carries information worth reading by any subject students or a person trying to perceive success. The things that appealed to me in the book lets discuss them one by one.

    As you proceed through the book you realize that the author is in the habit of writing a daily diary. Many extracts have been recorded from his day to day working, learning, experiences, feelings, interactions, impact from the environment, movements, moods etc.

    The selection of words to describe events, moods, weather, climate, effect on environment are so well chosen and effective that for a moment I realized as if I am visualizing the scenes as he writes. I got so involved that many a time while reading I just want to go on and on and not to stop. But I had to stop in between to jot down important notes for my book review assignment. I have suggested some dozen people to read the book as I found it so interesting. Ones also realize how important it is to document your day to day proceedings. I myself realize it is important to note your journey because history helps you to improve your present and plan your future carefully. This is what I find Satyajit is doing.

    Just close your eyes and imagine how important is the three letter word “EGO” in our lives. This little word is so powerful in its meaning that if you have no ego, the word success is not for you. It is your ego that takes you from one step to another, it is your ego that makes you stand out from the rest, it is your ego that takes you on the road of success, it is your ego that keeps you there………what is this ego? Satyajit describes film makers as egoistic, in the introduction of the book he states his ego is indispensable part of his equipment”, his ego provides the “wherewithal” .

    Satyajit admits that film making is the toughest activity when you talk about creativity. A film making comprises three components as writing, filming and editing and all three are creative. The whole process is pain staking, physically demanding, mentally torturing, and yet who passes all three stages relish the rewards which cannot be compared to any other offerings.

    Satyajit writing depicts how influenced he was with the Hollywood cinema in the early year of his life and career. He not only watched foreign movies but made a list of movies he had seen in his diary with stars to indicate how much he has like a movie. Later on the stars were replaced by directors. He realized that the most important thing that makes a movie a success is its “Director”. His early life clearly displays where he is heading. He is collecting film magazines, scripts of movies, film books, anything relating to film making he could lay his hands on. His first exposure to screenplay was “The Ghost Goes West”, it was after reading this that he decided to write screen plays in his free time.

    As I read through the book I realize that Satyajit is among those people who believe in writing as the most powerful instrument. He is learning at every step and he is busy documenting every lesson he receives. He is recording every incident of his daily life, learning to use words carefully and effectively, making sure that his writings also leave impact on readers. From screen play he is moving to write articles, from there he decides to write films stories and so on and so forth.

    The book beautifully reveals how cinema developed over the year and became the “the century’s most potent and versatile art form”. The write very confidently admits that America which lacks any culture gets famous in cinema with its films seen all over the world, Hollywood rules. What about Indian cinema, why they are rated after Hollywood. He confidently writes and makes it clear to the readers that Indian movies are much better than any foreign movie but the problem is that we are not confident of our selves. When it comes to quality, our movies are much better as compared to any other foreign film.
    It is in our psyche that we never tried to compete in true sense with Hollywood as we assumed them to be best as our producer blame the conditions, our technical staff think that they could not use latest tools, the director also blames situations, truth is for one to think and believe that they did best, produces best work in challenging circumstances. The writer points it out as “In any case, better things have been achieved under much worse conditions”. Indian Cinema suffered when it started getting influenced by Hollywood movies and in doing so they forgot about creativity and copied Hollywood.
    A very important point has been emphasized by the writer her and that is “creativity” when you let go creativity, you loose charm. Your success lies in innovation, in creativity. Broaden your horizon, see what others are doing, take your inspiration, but think new and act creatively…………that is the key to success.

    Another statement used by Satyajit in this book that really inspired me a lot is “the more you probed, the more was revealed” (page 34). You need to search and search continuously for your soul satisfaction, you should not rest unless you are satisfied that you have found the truth.

    According to Satyajit it is a warning to those who want to enter this field of film making, if you come to be in this field come prepared to face challenges. Film Making is like solving problems at every step, making decision now and then, satisfying yourself and others here and there, and counting on your blessings and lucks “at times when the strain is too much you want to give up”

    One whole chapter in the book deals with the problem of making Bengali film. This chapter gives readers an insight into issues one need to consider when one is involved in making a regional film limited to small portion of audience. There are so many constraints as limited investment, limited audience as the movie is made in a language understood and spoken in that region. The scope is limited; hence it is convenient and advisable to the film maker to follow the genuine formula of film making.

  3. Rama said

    Loved this.Must get the book. Thank you!

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