Satyajit Ray’s foreword in Gaston Roberge’s “Chitrabani: A Book on Film Appreciation”

Srinivas Krishnaswamy (a.k.a Srini), a cinephile and a friend of TCRC, brings us this rare foreword penned by auteur Satyajit Ray for a book titled “Chitrabani: A Book on Film Appreciation.” The book was authored by Fr. Gaston Roberge and was published for the first time in 1974. It has now gone out of print and on Srini’s request, Fr.Gaston Roberge has typed out Ray’s essay from his old copy of the book. We thank both of them for making this lovely essay available to us.

Chitra Bani, 1974

Foreword by Satyajit Ray, 26 January 1974

Gaston Roberge has written a film book which is aimed primarily at the Indian student of the cinema. Even ten years ago, a project like this would have made no sense. That it does so now is due to the enormous increase in interest in the cinema among the young people of the country, thanks largely to the spread of the film society movement. But this is not a phenomenon restricted to India alone. One has only to turn to the bibliography at the end of the book to realise what a vast amount of literature on the cinema is available to the enthusiast now. In my youth, when I set out in the pursuit of film, there were hardly a dozen worthwhile books on the subject in English.

For aesthetics, one turned to Arnheim, Spottiswoode, to Balasz and to Pudovkin. Eisensstein’s erudite essays didn’t see the light of the day until the late 40’s. For history, there was Rotha, there was Bardèche and Brasillach and, if one’s special interest lay in Hollywood, there was Lewis Jacobs. There were also a few odd collections of film criticisms – Agate’s, C. A. Lejeune’s, and a compilation by Alistair Cook called Garbo and the Nightwatchman. As for screenplays, one looked around in vain for them. The only film script in book form that I was able to track down was on René Clair’s first English language film, The Ghost Goes West.

The situation has, of course, changed drastically. Today is not unusual for even a modest pavement book stall in Calcutta or Bombay to display titles in the Cinema One series, or some of the admirable Lorrimer screenplays, or even a dog-eared old copy of Cahiers du cinema. And the amazing thing is that these books and magazines don’t stay in the stalls for long, but are picked up by young film buffs who are slowly building up their own private libraries.

One of the first things one notes about Roberge’s book is its comprehensiveness. This is no easy matter when one thinks of the way the cinema has proliferated into a myriad branches and sub-branches. In our time we knew only of two categories : the professional commercial movie and the amateur home movies. The first (which included documentaries and newsreels) we paid money to see; the second didn’t come our way at all unless we made them ourselves. The few avant-garde experiments abroad—Bunuel’s, Cocteau’s, Dulac’s and the 16mm essays of Maya Deren –were almost like freaks which one took cognizance of, but rarely thought of as trend-setters. Both Bunuel and Cocteau finally made the transition to a bigger market. But while they retained some of their idiosyncrasies even in the commercial films, experiment as such, on any considerable scale, disappeared from the cinema by the forties. It is only in the last two decades that it has returned and on a scale large enough to deserve the appellation of a major trend. Indeed, what with all the frantic subterranean substandard activity in the U.S.A. and France, in Germany and Japan and Scandinavia, it is a moot question whether the new cinema –call it avant-garde or experimental or iconoclastic—does not outstrip in quantity the cinema of the conventional commercial type.

It is also highly significant that the present book can talk of a traditional cinema as well as a modern one. This is a distinction which didn’t exist 15 years ago, in the pre-Godard era. We believed a film was either good or bad. We didn’t think of it in terms of being old-fashioned or modern. Chaplin was praised for his courage in using the silent technique in Modern Times. Modern critical opinion would surely have dubbed him retrograde.

All of which goes to make a global film scene of bewildering complexity.

Conflicts and crosscurrents abound; fashions are rampant; taboos and tenets by the dozen are being daily questioned and demolished; norms and styles and tastes are changing and evolving. Film makers, entrepreneurs, critics and educators are floundering in an effort to keep on their feet on a shifting ground.

Making his way through the cinematic maze, Gaston Roberge displays admirable patience, eclecticism and clear-headedness. Wisely, for a book of this nature, he takes nothing for granted. Even basic concepts like art and language and communication are freshly defined, and related to the cinema in the particular context of India. Talking of drama, Roberge not only brings in Aristotle, but also the Natya Shastra, making an illuminating distinction between the Greek and the Indian points of view. Wherever possible, illustrative examples are provided to drive home an aesthetic or technical point. An especially useful section of the book towards the end gives a chronological listing of important foreign and Indian films since the inception of the cinema, and these are in turn related to concurrent artistic and social landmarks.

The whole book, indeed, is a labour of love, and I sincerely hope it will serve the purpose it is aimed at –to disseminate film culture and to promote a lively interest in the cinema not only among young Indian cinéastes, but also among the not-so-young ones.”

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