Thursday, April 25, 2019

Satyajit Ray and Improvisation as Method

I recently viewed rare and insightful conversations with, and about Satyajit Ray, in a film directed by James Beveridge in 1967, titled 'The Creative Person: Satyajit Ray'. The sound and visual track accompanies Ray as he moves on location, sits in his study, composes music, and deliberates about his films, about living in Kolkata, and about the catalysts that feed his creative process.

Among many things, there were two particular aspects about Ray's method of working that struck me.

First, that all the actors and crew interviewed, say that Ray describes in detail how the character they are enacting is supposed to feel in a particular scene and situation, but leaves the enactment of the emotion and the scene to them. Ray has a reputation for being meticulously well-planned - visualising each scene in detail and sketching these out in sequence, so that he knows exactly how he is eventually going to proceed. Given this aspect of his working process, it is intriguing to hear the actors stress the freedom of interpretation and improvisation they are granted in Ray's films. And how they, therefore, feel an intrinsic part of the creative process; that they are contributing in their own right to the making of the film.

Ray himself talks about how much he enjoys the scope of outdoor locations for improvisation and inventiveness. But even in his overall approach, he mentions that he does not have one set method for directing his actors. His approach is to get to know each actor, and then decide what would be most suitable for bringing out the best in them. In that sense too, then he is constantly improvising 'his method'.

The second aspect is the undoubted 'Indianess' of his films in subject and setting, while being universal in the relevance and power of their themes. What is interesting is that Ray does not necessarily set out to be overtly Indian. His introduction to the craft of making films was through the via-media of European and American films; his interests were wide ranging and eclectic; and the subjects and setting for many of his films, though unmistakably Indian, were a mix of the many literary, musical, architectural and artistic influences that pervade India - including those from the West. The stories of many of his films are not wholly Indian, which led Ray to devise sophisticated combinations of Western and Indian contexts. Yet, despite this, as Chidananda DasGupta says, his films 'in fact are more profoundly true of Indian life than any other films we've made in India'. This is as true in the details as in the overall conception. For instance, the music for his period film Charulata, set in Victorian Calcutta, uses Western instruments mainly (a vibraphone, a xylophone, violins, cellos in combination with Indian drums). Yet, despite this, the music is somehow very Indian.

It strikes me that these two qualities of Ray's method of working, are intertwined. Perhaps the 'Indianness' lies in the characteristic of 'improvisation' - which has been an attribute of even traditional Indian design and art, in both its classical and folk forms. In fact, Ray's rigorously planned way of working is reminiscent of the overall structure laid out for the creation of indigenous Indian design and art. These are invariably remarkably well-defined and detailed; nonetheless there is ample space for responding to particular and individual situations.

Perhaps the quality of improvisation then, stems from the traditional way Indians see and inhabit the world. Ray himself says in the film, that he is used to 'a tremendous amount of freedom' in his film-making - and that arises from where he is, from the richness and density of his city where people are to a certain extent, their own masters despite the outward squalor and impoverishment. In contrast with Western cities, which he calls 'terribly mechanised' and operating according to fixed schedules, there is constant scope for discovery and self-discovery in the Indian context.

That is perhaps the main catalyst for a truly creative person.

Here's the link to the film: