A conversation with Sandip Ray By João Antunes

in 22nd Troia FesTroia - International Film Festival

by Joao Antunes

This year, Festroia decided to pay homage to one of the great masters of cinema, Satyajit Ray, showing some of his classic movies. The Golden Dolphin was given to his son, Sandip Ray, also a filmmaker, who in his work has been following also the heritage of his father, notably adapting some of his writings. Sandip Ray, who was present also as member of the International Jury, spent some time speaking with us about his father, the man and the artist, his own work, and the reality of Indian cinema, today.

“I hate the word Bollywood”

You must have lived lots of time on film sets since your youth. The decision to be a filmmaker was taken since those times?

It was very early, yes. I became interested in the technicalities, especially in the post-production part of it. I was very interested in the editing part, the mixing, everything, from a very early age. I attended a lot of shootings and I think my father was very glad to hear that I was getting a little bit interested in filmmaking.

When one’s a child, sometimes they ask what we want to be when we got older. You always said you wanted to be a filmmaker ?

I was very interested also in illustration; not painting, illustration, and graphic work. But, definitely, my first love was filmmaking, no doubt about that.

You must have learned a lot with your father.

I learned a lot from my father. Definitely, what I learned, I learned from him and from his unit members, from his crew. I didn’t disturb him very much while he was working. I was slightly afraid, I was very young. I had a lot of questions in my mind and I asked the unit members, and they took their time out to help me. I’m also very indebted to my crew members. Some of them are still working with me. It’s more or less like a family affair. It’s very intimate. The atmosphere is very healthy, and nice.

Besides your father’s movies, did you see a lot of other movies when you were young?

I saw a lot of movies. My father told me to read books but especially to see a lot of films, in order to know what to do and what not to do. To see bad films, also, was part of my studies. From an early age, my father was a Hollywood film buff. He saw a lot of Hollywood movies, particularly the movies of the thirties and the forties; and also silent films: Chaplin, Keaton and Griffith. He told me what to see. I grew up watching Hollywood films and then I became interested in world cinema. I saw movies from Renoir, Eisenstein and all the great masters.

Did you often disagree with your father?

Not very much. When I asked him why he was doing something, he explained to me and everything became very clear.

How was he, as a father?

He was a very kind, a very good father. I did not have problems with that. I still have a very happy family. It was a happy childhood. I did not have problems, in that respect. And as a filmmaker, I respect him very much .

What did you learned most from him?

I learned to do films. Because filmmaking is an expensive process. I learned to do things quickly. I do my home work very well. I don’t waste time on the sets that cost a lot of money. But I keep it a little flexible, not very tight. But still, I keep the entire movie in my head. I storyboard all my films. They are very thumbnail sketches, but I do my homework pretty well. If it’s a very big kind of film, I usually shoot it in 40 to 42 days. Let’s say, 26 to 42 days. I work pretty fast. And I have my unit; they’ve been working for me for the last 20 to 25 years. They are all accustomed to my pace, to my style of working. It’s a smooth set, most of the time. Not always. Filmmaking is never smooth. But I try to keep it in control.

“Times are improving for good cinema”

In occident, we heard a lot about Bollywood and the India film industry…

I hate the word Bollywood, because there’s no mountain and no sign written on it. Those are the singing and dancing films. But Bollywood is also doing a lot of serious films, not only the usual singing and dancing stuff. And we have other states also who are doing pretty serious films, realistic films. After seeing those films you think a lot. There is a hangover. We make 600 to 800 films a year, which is astounding. There are very bad films, but there are also good films.

But it’s still difficult to raise money for different kind of movies, like author movies?

Yes, there is because most of the people go for this usual dancing and singing films. They want films to entertain them, without a solid context. We do have good producers, who are interested in making a serious cinema, but unfortunately not many. So, we have to depend a lot on our luck. We have to have our fingers crossed, and it’s better not to compromise. You wait. I don’t think it’s good to compromise. You always compromise to some extent, but not compromise entirely, it’s what I think.

Would you say there’s a new generation of filmmakers in India?

There’s a new generation everywhere, in all the states, which are making good films. Especially in the south. Technically, we are moving ahead. We do have very good equipments; we do have CGI and other stuff. Now everything goes digital and Dolby, and we have that. We have good houses in Calcutta. It used to be very bad at one point. We couldn’t see films, because we couldn’t hear the dialogue and the soundtrack, no air conditioning. Earlier we used to have good houses, but after that people became interested in television. The television industry is a moving industry right now. We have some 90 or 95 channels, more than 12 only in Calcutta. There is a television industry. That robbed the cinema audiences. People were not going out of their houses to watch movies. But now times are changing, for the better. People are going out. We have good cinemas; we have multiplexes, all over India, where we can see movies comfortably, with good sound and picture quality. So, times, I think, are improving, for good cinema.

“My father was not allowed on my film sets”

Your father still saw your first movies. What kind of comment did he make at the time?

When I started my career, I didn’t want him to go to the sets. He was not allowed in the sets. If he came, people would think he was doing the film, not me. So, I didn’t allow him. I made the first cut and then showed it to him in a little production theatre. We were there, very nervous, very tense. After he saw the first cut he said the film looked good but it was long. And he said: “I don’t tell you where to cut. Cut it yourself, with your editor, and then I’ll see the second cut. You have to find out the differences, the defects. You were working on it for so long, why would I tell you? I think it could have been half an hour shorter. Cut half an hour, but I don’t tell you where.” So I sit with my editor and cut off half an hour. Then he said: “Now it’s OK. You passed the test.” So, I miss him, especially when we are doing the first cut. That’s when I miss him the most. He was my censor. He once said to me: “Let’s say there is a scene, a very difficult scene, you shot for five days. You absolutely died doing it. But if it doesn’t help your story, you have to be ruthless; you have to cut it out. If it does not advance your story. Let the five days go to hell.”

What a great lesson…

It’s a fantastic lesson in cinema. In his own words, even if you spent five days and five sleepless nights shooting that scene, if it doesn’t help your story, you have to cut it out. Today, when I see my first cut, even if it has only 85 minutes, I go back to my editing table and see if I can cut 5 minutes. You have to be ruthless with your own work, that’s the first lesson he taught me.

Anyway, most of your movies are based in writings of him.

He wrote a lot, for young people, not for adults. Yes, I’ve done a lot of films from his work, his writings, but by others, also. Because there are very, very talented writers in our language. I did a lot of television work, at one point. We do have a lot of very eminent short story writers, in Bengal. Because short stories don’t have outlets. You can’t release them in a theatre, that’s the main problem, so I did a lot of work for television, also.

What’s the reaction of the new generation of film viewers to your father’s movies?

The main problem is that it’s very difficult to show all the films in Calcutta. Because now, with the widescreen, and the multiplexes, the old ratio is gone. But I think 90% of his films are available on discs. I think they are very popular. People are buying his movies quite a lot, especially the non resident Indians, the Indians who live abroad. They come in the winter and go to some of the very good retail shops in Calcutta where they sell VCDs and DVDs. There is a great demand of his films, outside of India, especially in France, where they are shown all over the year. Especially The Music Room (Jalsaghar), which is a cult movie in France. And there are a lot of retrospectives, like (that) here. People are still watching his films. Classic films don’t date, they are timeless. In ten years they will still be seeing his films, hopefully.

Are you directly involved in that task?

What we are doing is restoring his films. We have a Ray society, for the preservation of his films. And also his paper work, his scripts, his storyboards. He was a wonderful illustrator, he was a draftsman. All his sets were sketched by him, even the costumes, the make-up, everything. His films are being restored at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in Los Angeles. A lot of them have already been restored. His films won’t get lost, that’s our main concern.

“My father was my film school”

We know Satyajit Ray by his movies. But we don’t know him, as a man. In two words, how do you define your father?

In two words, it will be very difficult. Because he was a multifaceted man. He knew a lot of things. He was a very learned and not a very closed man. He was open to ideas; he was open to various things. He read a lot. He loved children. He edited a children’s magazine, for which he wrote quite a lot. His books are best-sellers, in West Bengal. He had two characters. One was a detective the other was scientist. For young people. He made two films with the detective; one is being shown here, The Elephant God (Joy Baba Felunath). The other was The Golden Fortress (Sonar Kella). They are more or less adventure films. So, he did a lot of things. He chose the story, wrote the script, he sketched the sets, the costumes, the make up. And he wrote the music and arranged the music, and he conducted the music. And he designed the posters. All his posters were designed by him. The newspaper ads, everything. From the inception to the finished product, he was there. He edited the film, he was present during the mixing of the film, he was there always. He was an extraordinary man.

Would you say there are advantages but also disadvantages of being named Ray?

Yes, there are both sides to it. One is the bad side. The good side is that my father was my film school. The bad side is people expect a lot from me, being his son. That’s difficult. He was a hard act to follow. But I think I have proved myself to some extent. I’m very happy with what I’m doing right now. People like my films. Now they cannot compare my films with my father because he is no longer there. But when my first film was released people said it was made by my father. I was a little satisfied, because then the film was good. There’s also a good side to it. If they said it was made by my father, then it was a good film. Now, I don’t think much about that. If I think, I won’t be able to do anything. So, I just keep that out of my mind, when I shoot.

In your opinion, what are the main differences between you and your father’s styles of filmmaking?

That is very difficult to say, because it depends on the story. If I do a classicist kind of a film, then it’s influenced more or less by him, because I definitely follow his path. But when I do an adventure thriller for young children, then I went a little over board, you know. I don’t think of him. It depends on the story, on what you’re filming. If it needs thrills and adventure, you do it differently. If it’s a very serious kind of film, then I look up to him.