Satyajit Ray’s French connection

Meeting Jean Renoir undoubtedly changed Ray’s life, not in an abrupt manner, which would have been uncharacteristic of his response to people, but because Renoir’s attitudes to both life and film-making appealed to him in their wholeness.

Published : Oct 20, 2021 06:00 IST

Although Satyajit Ray and his filmsare not widely associated with France, they nevertheless have several significant French connections—ranging from the film director Jean Renoir and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to the actor Gerard Depardieu and the cartoon character Tintin, amongst others, including two significant Ray films produced by French companies, Branches of the Tree (1990) and Pikoo (1980). Let us begin with Renoir.

Jean Renoir

In 1949, Renoir came to Calcutta from Hollywood, in search of locations and actors for his feature film The River . Renoir and Ray first met at a hotel where Renoir and his wife were ensconced. The young Ray nervously sought him out. As he put it in an excellent article soon afterwards: “Renoir was not only approachable, but so embarrassingly polite and modest that I felt if I were not too careful I would find myself discoursing upon the Future of the Cinema for his benefit.” Ray subsequently joined Renoir and his wife on several trips to locations outside Calcutta by car and on foot, during which he was able to answer the majority of Renoir’s barrage of questions; both his curiosity and his energy, given his bulk, were amazing. Renoir, for his part, apparently found Satyajit’s knowledge of the West “fantastic”, according to one of Ray’s Bengali companions, but Ray’s approach to the great man was always “very Anglo-Saxon, very correct”, according to another amused companion.

When they met again, after a long gap, in Hollywood in 1967, at a screening of The River , Ray and Renoir were brought on stage together after the screening and introduced with the comment: “Ray owes a lot to Renoir.” However, Renoir told the audience, “I don’t think Ray owes anything to me. I think he had it in his blood. Though he’s very young still, he’s the Father of Indian Cinema.”

Also read: A Century of Ray

Meeting Renoir undoubtedly changed Ray’s life; not in an abrupt manner, which would have been uncharacteristic of his response to people, but because Renoir’s attitudes to both life and film-making—and to Ray’s own idea of filming Pather Panchali which he discussed with Renoir in outline—appealed to him in their wholeness. Indeed, no photograph exists of Ray with Renoir, nor are there any published letters exchanged between them, nor even any reference to Ray by Renoir in his absorbing but slightly sad autobiography, My Life and My Films . It is not that Renoir and Ray were all that similar as personalities, simply that the young Ray recognised in Renoir a self-taught film artist—the first he had come to know personally—and drew strength for his own struggling film project from the knowledge that such a person existed.

As Ray wrote of Renoir’s work in 1982: “There is a subtle, almost imperceptible kind of innovation that can be felt in the very texture and sinews of a film. A film that doesn’t wear its innovations on its sleeve. A film like La Regle du Jeu [ The Rules of the Game ]. Humanist? Classical? Avant-Garde? Contemporary? I defy anyone to give it a label. This is the kind of innovation that appeals to me.” The following year, he stated frankly to an Indian interviewer: “I think that subconsciously I have been paying tribute to Renoir throughout my film-making career.” And in 1987, while being awarded the French Legion of Honour in Calcutta by President Francois Mitterrand, Ray told him that he had always considered Renoir to be his “principal mentor”.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Regarding Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ray, there is again no photograph of the two men together—ironically (though Cartier-Bresson famously disliked being photographed). Indeed, Cartier-Bresson never took a photograph of Ray. “Please forgive me for being such a bad journalist!” he told me. “I enjoyed so much speaking to him each time I met him that I completely forgot to take a snap.” Evidence of their mutual respect is plentiful. After Cartier-Bresson’s death, his photographer wife told me that Henri particularly loved Ray’s The Music Room , his 1958 film revived in Paris in 1981, which created sensational French interest in Ray’s work from the 1980s. She said that Henri used to watch the film over and over again, each time with fresh enthusiasm.

Ray first saw Cartier-Bresson’s photographs in the French magazine Verve in the 1930s and immediately became an aficionado. He came across more of them in a slim volume published by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s, and then saw Cartier-Bresson’s classic volume, The Decisive Moment , published in 1952—the year he began shooting Pather Panchali —which featured many photographs of India, some reminiscent of Ray’s films, including some of the intriguing village characters in Pather Panchali .

Also read: How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

In the 1980s, Ray wrote a foreword to an exhibition catalogue, Henri Cartier-Bresson in India , which greatly pleased Cartier-Bresson. In it Ray commented that Cartier-Bresson’s style is “unique in its fusion of head and heart, in its wit and poetry…. The deep regard for people that is revealed in his Indian photographs, as well as in his photographs of any people anywhere in the world, invests them with a palpable humanism. Add to this the unique skill and vision that raise the ordinary and the ephemeral to a monumental level, and you have the hallmark of the greatest photographer of our time.”

I once asked Ray whether Cartier-Bresson’s early photographs had helped him with Pather Panchali . He replied: “His available light attitude to photography, yes. I don’t think a still photographer really influences a film to that extent, but Cartier-Bresson’s feeling for light, the fact that he never used flashes.... We decided that we would not be using the Hollywood style of photography, which goes for the use of lots of big lights and a kind of artificial kind of look. It was the spontaneous quality of Cartier-Bresson’s photography, and the fact that he was using available light as far as possible, occasionally using reflectors to boost the shadows. That is unavoidable—otherwise you have extreme contrasts, which is not very pleasing. But using reflectors in a way that people would not be conscious of. Pather Panchali was largely confined to day scenes shot on location. The night scenes had nothing to do with Cartier-Bresson.”

Ray and Tintin

Ray’s fascination with child characters is obvious in Pather Panchali . It increased in many of his later films, perhaps especially his detective film, The Golden Fortress , made in 1974, where the assistant to his adult detective Felu is a bright teenager, Topshe. By then Ray had written many stories for his Bengali children’s magazine Sandesh and was also a keen fan of Herge’s Tintin adventures. Ray first met Tintin while serving on the jury of a film festival in Brussels in 1958. On the day of his departure, the festival organiser came to see him off, asked him if he had a child in Calcutta, and gave him a copy of a French edition of Tintin . Ray’s small son was absolutely fascinated by it, in spite of the fact that it was in French. Two or three years after that, Tintin became available in Calcutta. “ Tintin is definitely a very very filmic approach, very original,” Ray told me. “I like it very much. It is possible that it was at the back of my mind when making The Golden Fortress .” Even the two blundering villains in the film, Ray thought, might have been subconsciously influenced by Tintin’s two detectives Thomson and Thompson.

French offers

Certainly a creative boy, Pikoo—similar in age to Apu—is at the centre of Ray’s 1980 short film Pikoo , made for French television at the behest of a freelance producer, Henri Fraise. His brief, according to an ironic Ray, was simple: “He said, you make a film for us. Doesn’t matter what kind of film: you can place your camera at your window and shoot the house next-door—we will accept that. That sort of instruction.”

Also read: Critical insider: Satyajit Ray's cinematic trilogies

Although Pikoo was unfortunately not much available for viewing outside France, it is undoubtedly an exquisite gem: “a poetic statement which cannot be reduced to concrete terms”, in Ray’s own words.

In 1989, Ray received another totally free-ranging French offer, a “ carte blanche ”—as he described it—to make any feature film of his choice. It came from two key figures in the French show-business world: Daniel Toscan du Plantier of Erato Films, an opera-lover who had produced Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni , and actor Gerard Depardieu, who owned his own production company and was a passionate admirer of Ray’s films, even comparing them to Mozart’s music. Together, in mid-1989, Du Plantier and Depardieu produced a lively one-hour French television documentary on Ray—with an animated, if slightly bemused Satyajit being interrogated in Franglais and replying in his usual impeccable English. Later, Ray wrote privately to a British friend: “I don’t much care for [Depardieu’s] acting, although I must say he was quite impressive in Danton . [But] as a human being he is warm and likeable, with none of the braggadocio one associates with a ‘macho’ matinee idol.”

The resulting feature, completed in 1990, was Branches of the Tree —perhaps Ray’s most pessimistic film: a bleak but powerful family drama in some ways reminiscent of La Regle du Jeu in its criticism of the wealthy. It was fittingly described to me by Cartier-Bresson (in his personally signed copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson in India ) as being “ d’une beaute bouleversante ”, that is, “of distressing beauty”.

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