In conversation: Samik Bandopadhyay

Centenary and selective memory

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Samik Bandopadhyay. Photo: K. Gajendran

100 years of Indian Cinema

WHAT I find Indian is in the “regional” cinemas of India. For instance, they go into the history of that region, language or culture closely and try to capture it with all its contradictions, things about which you will be ashamed, human relationships, class relations—all these are strongly present in it. That is something that I don’t find in films from other countries of the world. Even when you talk of strong national cinemas like French, German or Italian, I don’t find it to that extent or so closely—the close addressing of the reality of the region. And it is not just the external reality, but also the minds of people…. They are strongly rooted in the history of our thinking, our feeling, which is lacking in other national cinemas. In that sense, I would call our regional cinemas “Indian”. They have a certain way of looking at themselves, of looking at reality, and through that discovering the world, rather than trying to be “universalist”.

Links with Storytelling Tradition

Yes, I think our urbanisation process has not been a total urbanisation. We still bear old memories, living practices, rituals, etc., which are still there. You scratch our urban surface, and they come out immediately.… That somehow is drawn to our storytelling tradition in a very strong way. Historically, these traditions continue in our performance forms; especially, storytelling traditions like Yakshagana, for instance, have a strong discursive element inbuilt into that tradition. So, it is not just storytelling for the sake of storytelling. We have such storytelling and performance traditions all over the country. For instance, in Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, at Benares, you have two Bengali readers of the old Puranas and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata who belong to two different storytelling traditions. Harihar has a more classical, historical kind of thing, while the other makes jokes and all that.

So, within the same storytelling tradition, we have different attitudes and variations at work, and Ray plays with that, very consciously: in his films, you have reference to the use of several storytelling traditions. For instance, you have this grocery-cum-pathshala (school) in the film, and there is a story being told in a different manner there. So, what we have is a conjunction of different storytelling traditions, where we find the survival and continuation of a rich tradition that contains different modes. Maybe that gives us a different kind of strength. So I am not particularly disturbed when Chidananda Dasgupta says that Bengalis do not go to watch films, they go to see the book. He was very much disturbed about that, but that is exactly how Bengalis used to describe the act of going to the movies, too. I am not disturbed by it because you can read a film as a book. Even, ordinary people, too, read different things in cinema, in terms of its imageries and all, which is part of our storytelling tradition.

There is this wonderful letter that Ray wrote to Chidananda Dasgupta—which, for strange reasons, is suppressed. It was written during his last days, before he fell ill. Chidananda had asked him to answer a questionnaire on “art” and “commercial” cinema, and where he located himself, etc.

Ray wrote a personal letter to Chidananda, saying, “I am not going to answer the questionnaire, but let me privately tell you two things.” The first thing, he said was, whatever experiments we do, we have to tell a story and “I am convinced about that at the end of my life”. And about the very sensitive work done by other younger Bengali contemporaries—he did name them, in fact, like Goutam Ghose, Buddhadeb etc.—and he said they could not tell a story, and that was where they failed with all their talents. He lists there even Mrinal Sen: he also can’t tell a story. But you have to tell a story in India. He made another brilliant point: “I have always had my one foot in commercial cinema and the other in art cinema, and that is how I survived all my life. So, it is up to you Chidu to fix where you want to place me.” So, again, that relates to our storytelling tradition.

On Centenary Celebrations

Yes, to put Raja Harischandra as the beginning is due to selective memory and an attempt to make Bombay the centre of everything. Bombay is also politically dictating terms; for instance, the Bombay stars are the figures who are accepted by the state, even Ministers happen to be their fans. It is the Bombay stars who are nominated to the Rajya Sabha; they get into politics. So, there is a state and Bombay cinema nexus, which gives the latter an institutional place and location in history. And so, history will be written in terms of Bombay cinema.

In conversation with C.S. Venkiteswaran.