Gaston Roberge, pioneer in the study of cinema and close friend of Satyajit Ray, passes away

Published : August 26, 2020 21:49 IST

Gaston Roberge with the books he authored. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

With Satyajit Ray. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Author, critic, teacher and a pioneering figure in film studies, Gaston Roberge, passed away in Kolkata on August 26. The French-Canadian Jesuit priest was as well-known for his friendship with the legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray as he was for his scholarship and contribution to the study of cinema. He was 85.

Roberge was a legend in his own right. A teacher of film and media communication, he established Chitrabani in 1970, which is the oldest media training institute in Eastern India, with Satyajit Ray as its adviser right from the inception. It was with Chitrabani that serious study of cinema was introduced in Kolkata, 23 years before the Department of Film Studies at Jadavpur University was established and 25 years before the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) came into being. For more than two decades, under Roberge’s leadership, Chitrabani was the only centre for reference and study for not only filmmakers, but also serious students of cinema and enthusiasts. Roberge’s contribution to Indian cinema, film theory and criticism through the books he had written was enormous. His books on Satyajit Ray also gave deep insight into the master’s craft and approach. He believed that Ray was the true inheritor of the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore. "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," he had once written.

Roberge’s love affair with Indian cinema began when he chanced upon Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’ in 1961 at a stopover in New York while coming to India. So mesmerised was he with the first of the three films – Pather Panchali – that he watched the entire trilogy in one sitting. “The Apu Trilogy was, in fact, my first portal to West Bengal and its people,” he had told Frontline in 2006, when his seminal book on Ray,  Satyajit Ray, Essays: 1970-2005, was published.

Interestingly, it took him nine years after arriving in Kolkata (then Calcutta) and joining St. Xavier’s College, to finally 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 had told Frontline. Their meeting in 1970 was the beginning of a close friendship that would last till Ray’s death in April 1992. This friendship and their collaborations would have a tremendous impact on the academic aspect of cinema in India.

Throughout his life one of Roberge’s main interests lay in exploring the cultural roots of Indian cinema, which he presented through his writings. For this reason he never confined himself to studying only serious or alternative cinema, but gave equal importance to understanding mainstream movies as well. He was a prolific writer and authored around 25 books including The Subject of Cinema, To View Movies the Indian Way, Another Cinema for Another Society, Chitra Bani: A Book on Film Appreciation, and Communication, Cinema, Development: From Morosity to Hope. According to filmmaker and Professor of Film Studies at Jadavpur University, Madhuja Mukherjee, “any film enthusiast will have read Gaston Roberge’s books.”

Madhuja points out that by setting up Chitrabani, Roberge created the space for media and film studies that did not exist before. “At one time, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, Chitrabani was the main centre which filmmakers and scholars would use for research and screening. Gaston Roberge literally introduced film and media studies to this part of the world,” Madhuja told Frontline. Through Chitrabani, Roberge began another important project, ‘Chetana’, an adult education radio programme with community participation. “In recent times there has been a shift in the approach to the study of film and media practice to also observe it from an anthropological angle, and Roberge’s work had all along been on film and media communication, which included the voice of the community. This novel approach is now being appreciated many years after he first began to practice it,” said Madhuja.

Born in Montreal in 1935, Roberge joined the order of the Jesuit Fathers in 1956, and came to Kolkata in 1961, where he joined St. Xavier’s College. He had a Master’s degree in Theatre Arts (Film) from the University of California in Los Angeles. Roberge spent the greater part of his life living in Kolkata, teaching communication media. In fact, his longest period outside the country after coming to India was between 1996 and 1998, when he was posted in the Vatican.

According to internationally acclaimed filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Roberge was an integral part of Bengali culture. “He introduced film education to the people of Kolkata. He was a wonderful human being and an extremely knowledgeable person. He never turned down anyone seeking his help…. I was very close to him once. He did the French subtitles for two of my films,  Uttara (2000) and Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (2002). He loved to discuss my films. In fact, he had coined a term, ‘extending reality’, to describe quite accurately what I was trying to achieve in cinema at that time,” Buddhadeb told Frontline.

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