"I think what Hollywood really needs is a good bombing", the ebullient French film director Jean Renoir told the would-be director Satyajit Ray in Calcutta in 1949, when Renoir came to Bengal from Hollywood in search of locations for his Indian film, 'The River'. "Renoir believes that the best films of a country are produced in times of stress; that an atmosphere of smug self-complacence is bad for the cinema," commented Ray, for whom Renoir became an inspiration and a mentor.
This comes from a wonderfully vivid, intelligent and witty article by Ray, "Renoir in Calcutta", published in 1950 in a London-based film magazine by his friend Lindsay Anderson, and later collected in Ray's 'Our Films Their Films'. A copy of this book, first published in India in 1976, fell into my hands soon after, and was the deciding influence - along with seeing Ray's films - in pushing me to attempt a biography of Ray. It was published in 1989 as 'Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye'.
Ray's articles originally appeared in publications such as 'Sight and Sound', the 'New York Times' and the Calcutta 'Statesman'. The first half, 'Our Films', deals with the Indian cinema, ranging from the epic struggle to make Ray's first film 'Pather Panchali' ('A Long Time on the Little Road'), to the absurdities of Bollywood films , some of whose music and actors Ray confessed to admiring.
'Their Films' covers Hollywood, European, Russian and Japanese cinema, including tributes to Charles Chaplin, John Ford and Akira Kurosawa. What unites the two halves is Ray's astonishing - I am always tempted to say "unique" - fusion of Eastern and Western artistic sensibility. Who else but Ray was equally at home, both as a film composer and as a critic, with Indian and Western classical music? Even Ravi Shankar (who worked with Ray, not always happily) agrees.
Here is vintage Ray on Chaplin's silent classic 'The Gold Rush': "If one thinks of Mozart and 'The Magic Flute' and the knockabout foolery of Papageno merging into the sublimity of Sarastro, it is because the comparison is a valid one. Here is the same distilled simplicity, the same purity of style, the same impeccable craftsmanship. And the slight tinge of disappointment at the happy ending - the sudden veering towards a bright key after the subtle chromaticism of all that has gone before - isn't that rather like the cheery epilogue of 'Don Giovanni'?"
Chaplin and Ray are probably the two most versatile artists the cinema has produced. Ray wrote his screenplays solo, cast every actor personally, acted brilliantly behind the camera, designed his own sets and costumes, operated the camera, edited each frame, composed his own music, and even drew his own posters. In addition, he was a successful book and magazine illustrator, and a bestselling novelist in Bengali. Reading 'Our Films Their Films', and getting to know its author in the 1980s, persuaded me that genius, though everywhere rare, is a reality not an illusion.
Andrew Robinson's 'Sudden Genius?' is published by OUP; his 'The Apu Trilogy' will appear from IB Tauris in NovemberReuse content