Unlikely colleagues: Satyajit Ray and Gaston Roberge

The friendship between a French-Canadian Jesuit and a Bengali film-maker led to path-breaking work in film studies.

Published : Oct 20, 2021 06:00 IST

IT was a unique friendship that developed between a French-Canadian priest and one of the world’s greatest film directors, and had a singular impact on Bengali films both academically and practically. It was en route to India in 1961, at a stopover in New York, that 26-year-old Fr. Gaston Roberge was acquainted with the works of Satyajit Ray through the Apu Trilogy. He found the world of Apu so fascinating that he saw all three films in one sitting; and there began his long-standing love affair with the people of India and Bengali cinema and culture, which led to path-breaking work in those fields. In his latest book, Satyajit Ray, Essays: 1970-2005 , a compilation of his essays as the name suggests, published by Manohar Publishers, New Delhi, Roberge provides a scholarly, original analysis of Ray’s works, giving an insight into the greatness of Ray both as a person and as an artist.

“The Apu Trilogy was, in fact, my first portal to West Bengal and its people,” he told Frontline . In his youth, all he knew of Bengal was through Mircea Eliade’s La Nuit Bengalie , some of Tagore’s poems, and a Reader’s Digest article on Mother Teresa. If the harsh image of poverty brought out by the article on the “Saint of the Slums” haunted him, Apu’s world came as a reassurance. “No. Apu, Sarbajaya, even Harihar did not need my help—but how not to love them? I thought it was fortunate that I would soon be among them,” he wrote.

Roberge does not endorse the accusation of Ray’s detractors that the master director made his reputation selling India’s poverty to the West. “What struck me most was not the material poverty depicted in the films, but the enormous spiritual richness of the characters, whose poverty didn’t prevent them from being so deeply human and so full of joy. Besides, the spiritual poverty of some rich people is much more deplorable than material poverty,” he said. Roberge does not speak with the arrogance of the West. “I was here on a quest to know the world and in the process know myself. I did not come here to convert. In fact, I am the one who got converted,” he said.

Also read: A Century of Ray

But it took him nine years after reaching Calcutta and joining St. Xavier’s College, to muster up the confidence to meet Ray in person. “Although I wanted to meet him right away, I didn’t want to just go and see him like he was a living museum piece. I wanted to prepare myself, get to know his works more, so that when we met, there could be a worthwhile dialogue,” he said. When they finally met, it was the beginning of a close friendship that lasted 22 years—until Ray’s death in 1992.

“It was a very quiet friendship that developed over the years. Manikda [as Ray was affectionately called by friends] was a shy person and always very discreet about displaying his emotions,” said Roberge. Though to outsiders, Ray’s massive stature—physical and intellectual—might have made him come across as cold, aloof and even intimidating, he was in reality a very simple and unassuming man with a subtle sense of humour. It was an unspoken arrangement between the two of them to meet on Sundays at 9 a.m. at Ray’s residence on Bishop Lefroy Road. Ray would invite Roberge over for private screenings of his latest films and welcomed comments on them. But this happened only after the friendship had cemented, for in the early days of their dialogue Ray’s shyness prevented him from talking about his own films.

“He was even shy of receiving compliments,” said Roberge. To Roberge, the greatest mark of Ray’s appreciation for him was that he often addressed the French-speaking priest in Bengali, “in spite of my lack of elegance in that language, and the fact that Ray knew both English and Bengali so well”.

Ray’s screenplay manuscripts were an art by themselves, Roberge says, “hand-written in Bengali, with notes in English for his set-designer, with sketches here and there, and occasional staff notation of fragments of music”. One Sunday morning, Roberge found Ray in a disturbed mood. A few well-known personalities of the city had visited him earlier to go through some of his manuscripts. After they left Ray found the Charulata screenplay missing. Ray was almost sure who the culprit was. “I asked him whether he was planning to take any action, and he said no, and explained to me that he did not want to hurt the reputation of the person. I was absolutely stunned by his humane concern,” said Roberge.

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

Like Rabindranath Tagore, Ray strode his time like a colossus. Roberge writes, “It is as if all Bengal was in Manikda: the rich and the poor, the powerful and the humble, the peasants and the city persons, children, teenagers, adults and old people, men and women.”

Philosophically, too, Roberge feels, Ray took off where Tagore signed out. If one compares the last major prose piece by Tagore, “Shabhyatar Sankat” (Crisis of Civilisation), which he wrote at the beginning of the Second World War, which contains his immortal dictum that in spite of what was happening it would be a sin to lose faith in Man, and the last three films of Ray— Ganashatru (1989), Sakha Prasakha (1990), and Agantuk (1991)—the analogy becomes clear.

“In these three films Ray was at his most personal and when some critics saw the films as didactic and verbose, he felt deeply hurt. For, in these last films, Satyajit was directly talking to us, conveying his personal message on society and civilisation. If the impulse that motivated his earlier films was aesthetics, in the last three it was self-expression. And there we were denying him his right to speak. As the saying goes, no one is a prophet in his own country,” said Roberge. An agnostic throughout his life, it is possible, Roberge feels, that in the face of death Ray was searching for an answer. This was suggested by some of the music that he used in Sakha Prasakha .

The last time the two friends met, Ray was in hospital, on his deathbed. It was a Sunday and Roberge, true to habit, arrived on the dot at 9 a.m. “He had grown so weak that he looked frail as a child. I did not stay long, and as I was leaving, Manikda said, ‘Bhalo laglo’ [it was nice]. Those were his last words to me,” said Roberge.

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

One important fallout of this friendship was the establishment of Chitrabani, a communication and film studies institute, the first of its kind in West Bengal, which Roberge founded in 1970 and to which Ray, as a token of friendship, lent his name as co-founder. Ray was in the first governing body and after a few terms readily agreed to be the institute’s adviser. Roberge arranged most of the initial funding from Canadian agencies. “I had no reservations applying for them, for I feel richer countries in the West are indebted to countries like India,” he said.

For 26 years Roberge was the director of Chitrabani and under him the institute not only produced important documentary features, but also became a breeding ground for local talent for film-making.

Though Roberge is by no means new or unknown in the realm of film literature, the book was his first one on Ray. “It was in 1993, soon after Manikda’s death, that I arranged all my earlier writings on him—more for my own reference to synthesise my thoughts on him than for any publication,” he said. It was then that a publisher friend of his prevailed upon him to bring it all out in a book form. Manohar Publishers of New Delhi was very happy to take up the project. Manohar had already published two of Roberge’s books, Mediation and Communication Cinema Development ; the latter won a national award in 1997.

Apart from the creative aspect, writing, to Roberge, is also an exercise in learning. “I feel I know a particular subject only if I can express it in words. I write to learn, and publish to teach what I have understood,” he said. Roberge wrote his first book, Chitrabani , in 1973 while teaching film appreciation. Chitrabani was a remarkable contribution in the field of Indian film studies; more so because academic books on film available at that time were mostly foreign publications, with reference to Western films. The big lacuna was that they were all based on the tradition of Western aesthetics, originating from Aristotle’s Poetics .

Also read: Vision of a land: Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay's Bengal in Satyajit Ray's cinema

In Chitrabani , Roberge argued that Indian films are essentially different in that they stand in the Indian tradition as formulated by Bharat Muni in his Natya Shastra . Whereas in the West the narrative is all-important, dictating the pace and influencing the emotions, in the Indian tradition it is the creation of a mood or ‘rasa’ that matters, the narrative being only the support of the mood. In the Indian tradition, there comes a point when the narrative is unable to intensify the emotions further, and so another form of expression is used to reach a higher emotional level. Ray employed both traditions in his films.

In the book Roberge illustrates this: “The question of pace relates to the modes of perception. The pace of a masterpiece can train the spectator to perceive things as the film's maker does.” He completely endorses Bharat Muni’s theory in Natya Shastra , where he says that the audience is so familiar with the suspension of the narrative in the course of an unfolding drama that it knows when to expect it. “When foreign spectators begin to enjoy the slow pace of Pather Panchali , they begin to look at life the way Satyajit Ray does,” wrote Roberge.

To illustrate this, Roberge refers to the scene where Durga and Apu prepare a mixture of pickles on the sly. “There are about 10 alternating close-ups of Apu and Durga simply eating and smiling with joy.” Simple narrative can never hope to express the sheer joy of two little children enjoying a pleasure behind the backs of authority, as the “repetitiveness” of the scene does.

Also read: ‘A man who knew too much’: Goutam Ghose on Satyajit Ray

In the foreword to Chitrabani , Ray himself acknowledged this path-breaking academic angle to film analysis: “Even basic concepts like art and language and communication are freshly defined and related to the cinema in the particular context of India. Talking of drama, Roberge not only brings in Aristotle, but also the Natya Shastra , making an illuminating distinction between the Greek and the Indian points of view.”

Though Roberge has more than 15 books on cinema and communication to his credit, he does not see each of his various writings as separate from the others, but rather as a part of one single large unfinished book. “I believe each human being’s life is a quest or a search for something. In my case it is to understand the world, and contribute to making it a better place; so even though I may be prompted to write an article by circumstances, like when Satyajit’s Ganashatru came under severe criticism, I believe all my efforts—articles, books, essays, to be a part of one unfinished book. As I keep writing, I keep learning,” he said.

(Gaston Roberge passed away in Kolkata on August 26, 2020. He was 85.)

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