Although the precise involvements of a film maker are not widely publicised, there is a general, if vague, awareness that film-making is a tough business. There are some films the big Hollywood 'blockbusters', for instance which wear this toughness on their sleeves, as it were. Battles, orgies, earthquakes, conflagrations, triumphal processions who needs to be told that you can't get these by a snap of your fingers? With the backing of money, men and materials, it is easy for Hollywood to make a Spartacus, or for Soviet Russia to make a War and Peace. In Madrid, they will show you the cities of Rome and Moscow and Peking which were built for costly co-productions and left standing as tourist attractions.
Here in India, and more particularly in Bengal, we dare not plunge into epics as vast as these. For one thing, we don't have the money. Even if we did have the money, we wouldn't have the market, and certainly not the know-how to compete with Hollywood. That is why and not because we don't have the predilection we have chosen for ourselves the field of the intimate cinema: the cinema of mood and atmosphere rather than of grandeur and spectacle. It is amusing to reflect that the favourite publicity catch-line of the block busters-'two years in the making' might equally well have been applied to the first such 'intimate' film that I made: Pather Panchali. But here the phrase would have had the cadence of a dirge, and not a fanfare; because for long stretches we just sat idle for lack of funds, and what money we received came in small trickles.
Speaking of myself, as far as financial backing is concerned, things are not as bad as they used to be when I started out. Does this suggest that now I have a cushy job making films rather than a tough one? Not by a long shot. We here are beset with a very special set of problems, indigenous to the place and arising out of the special codes that guide our lives and shape our destiny.
Let us begin at the beginning. How do we set about making a film? What is the first step? To find a story, of course: a 'property', as they say. Now, assuming that the choice is made by the director- which is as it should be-and also assuming that he hasn't taken up the profession merely to fool about with a chancy medium in the hope of making some quick money-we can be certain that his choice is based on two major considerations: a) his affinity with the theme of the story, and b) his belief that the story would make a good film. If the director is not a greenhorn, he will also have taken into account his public. Experience has taught him that this would be for his own good. If his film didn't bring back its cost, his backers would lose faith in him. And when one backer loses faith in a director, other backers tend to follow suit in relation to the same director, as a result of which in no time the director finds himself branded as a bad risk. So the wise director learns to lower his brow a little. It means that he cannot operate on the level of a fashionable obscurantist like, say, Alain Resnais. Avant-gardism is a luxury which we cannot yet afford in our country. What we can do-and do profitably-is explore new themes, new aspects of society, new facets of human relationships. But if you want to do that, and be serious and artistic about it, you can't afford to sugar your pill for the masses used to tasty morsels of make-believe. You have to be content with a minority public; which means that you have to have a tight rein on your budget.
Balancing the budget, tricky as it is, is unfortunately not the only problem that the serious film maker faces. In the choice of story itself, he is faced with limiting factors non-existent in other countries. For instance, a full-bodied treatment of a story of physical passion (and such stories, great ones even, are not lacking in our literature) is unthinkable on the Indian screen. I used a shot of a couple kissing in Devi, but didn't venture beyond a long shot with the lovers silhouetted behind a mosquito netting. I am sure if I had gone in for a close-up and lit the action more clearly, cat calls from the lower stalls would have drowned my delicate mood-setting sound track of shrilling crickets and distant, howling jackals. The scenes of love making in Indian films have therefore been reduced to a formula of clasping hands, longing looks, and vapid, supposedly amorous, verbal exchanges-not to speak of love duets sung against artificial romantic backdrops. It is the dead-weight of ultra-Victorian moral conventions which reduces the best of directors to taking refuge in these devices. Speaking of myself, I would, in the circumstances prevailing, sooner discard a story-however good-that called for an open treatment of the love aspect, than ruin it by dilution.
Let us now see how far we can go with a political theme here. Can we make an Advice and Consent? A Dr. Strangelove? A Judgment at Nuremberg? I think not. Can we show a corrupt Congressman? I should like to try and find out, but my guess is that we can't. Can we show a poor bank clerk getting rich by dubious means and wearing a Gandhi cap to hide his baldness? We can, but we may be asked-as I was-by the Board of Censors, to paint the cap black in the film. If you want to show an office boss to be small-minded by having him make snide remarks about an Anglo-Indian employee whom you have portrayed in a sympathetic way, you may be thought of as sharing the boss's prejudices. And this will be held against you in Delhi when your film comes for an official prize. And heaven help you if you take up a classic and deviate even the tiniest bit from it, because then you will have a host of 'intellectuals' turning at a moment's notice into a horde of belligerent Tynanhs, who will swoop down on you and tear you limb from limb.
The upshot of all this is that, story-wise, you have to operate within a somewhat narrow field, and some of your cherished ambitions have to wait until good sense prevails amongst the powers that be.
Let us now assume that you have a good script that you feel would make a good film, and that your backer also feels is a worthwhile proposition. What next? Casting, of course-the first step in the process of 'interpretation'.
Some of the roles are, of course, pre-cast. Even when you had read the story, you could picture X as playing the husband, Y the wife and baby Z the cute little daughter. But what about the doddering, toothless 80-year old grandpa? And what about all those bit parts that dot the story-men, women, children, peasants, shopkeepers, professors, prostitutes, and so on and so on?
Almost anywhere else in the world you will find agents who keep fat dossiers on available 'extras'. You only have to turn the pages to pick your players. If you want 'unknowns', you put ads in the papers or set talent-scouts scouting. We have no agents here, and no talent scouts. You can put ads in the dailies, of course, but my own experience shows that people with talent suffer from an inhibiting fear of rejection, and never answer ads. What you get usually goes straight into the waste paper basket.
So you are left to scour the streets and scan the faces of pedestrians. Or go to race-meets and cocktails and wedding receptions, all of which you hate from the bottom of your heart.
If you want Chinese extras (as I did, in Aparajito) for a shot that lasts a minute and a half, it may land you in a Chinese brothel, where you sit in the anteroom-dank and dark as a primordial cave-the smell of opium stifling your nostrils, while Madam saunters in and out, showing her yellowing teeth in a smile of hopeful invitation. The promised extras take hours to show up, but you are stuck not just because there's blinding rain outside, but you hope to get the shot as you planned it.
I have generally been lucky in finding the right players for my parts, but the possibility of failure is always around the corner. There is just now an alarming shortage of good professional actors and actresses of middle age and above. There are roles that can only be brought to life by professionals. Pather Panchali could never be made now because Chunibala is no longer there. Jalsaghar, Devi, Kanchenjungha, were all written with Chhabi Biswas in mind. Ever since he died, I have not written a single middle-aged part that calls for a high degree of professional talent.
Once the casting is done, I am ready to plunge headlong into the business of shooting. The studios in Calcutta show their hallowed past in every crevice on the wall, in every tatter on the canvas that covers the ceiling. Some of the families of rodents that inhabit the rafters have lived there ever since the foundation of the industry. The floor is pitted, the camera groans as it turns, the voltage begins to drop after sundown. The general air of shabbiness is unnerving. And yet I do not mind these at all. I do not think of these as hindrances. After all, we have the essentials to make a film, and it is within us to make it badly or well. It is the bareness of means that forces us to be economical and inventive, and prevents us from turning craftsmanship into an end in itself. And there's something about creating beauty in the circumstances of shoddiness and privation that is truly exciting ...
Yes, I am happy to be working where I am.