Satyajit Ray on American and Indian Film

Satyajit Ray on CinemaWe continue our week-long feature on Satyajit Ray on Cinema with another excerpt from one of the essays in the book.

In “National Styles in Cinema,” Ray explores the characteristics of various national cinemas and how it reflects the particular ethos of a nation. Here he writes on American cinema:

For is there a truer reflection of a nation’s inner life than the American cinema? The average American film is a slick, shallow, diverting and completely inconsequential thing. Its rhythm is that of jazz, its tempo that of the automobile and the rollercoaster, and its streaks of nostalgia and sentimentality have their ancestry in the Blues and ‘Way down upon the Swanee river’. Yet it must be reckoned with, as jazz is real and the machine is real. And because cinema has the unique property of absorbing and alchemizing the influence of inferior arts, some American films are good, and some more than good. The reason why some notable European directors have failed in Hollywood is their inability to effect a synthesis between jazz and their native European idioms.

The essay, which was written in 1949 also looks at the potential future of Indian cinema, at that point in time still searching for its defining characteristics and its place amid other national cinemas:

But what of our own Indian cinema? Where is our national style? Where is the inspiration to transform the material of our life to the material of cinema? Apparently, even the external truth which Renoir was striving after has not bothered our film-makers. Of our film-producing provinces, Bombay has devised a perfect formula to entice and
amuse the illiterate multitude that forms the bulk of our film audiences. Bengal has no such formula, nor the technical finesse which marks the products of Bombay. But Bengal has pretensions. And the average Bengali film is not a fumbling effort. It is something worse. It is a nameless concoction devised in the firm conviction that Great Art is being fashioned. In it the arts have not fused and given birth to a new art. Rather they have remained as incongruous and clashing elements, refusing to coalesce into the stuff that is cinema. And so painting finds its expression in backdrops, music in the spasmodic injection in ‘song numbers’, literature in the unending rhetoric of the idealist hero, theatre in the total artificiality of acting and décor. The few freakish exceptions do not make amends and do not matter.

The pity is that there are few countries more filled with opportunities for film-making. Evidently it is the imagination to exploit these opportunities that is lacking. But there is some cause for optimism. Except in some superficial technical aspects, our films have made no progress since the first silent picture was produced thirty-five years ago, which means that there is time to learn anew and begin from the beginning. So let us start by looking for that clump of bananas, that boat in the river and that temple on the bank. The results may be, in the words of Renoir, fantastic.

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