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Interview Review

Satyajit Ray – Was he really ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’?

In conversation with Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International, Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much

“[O]ne would like to remember Ray as one of the last truly great renaissance men of Bengal, moulded much in the tradition of Tagore, in the sense that his genius manifested itself in manifold directions: film-making, photography, writing, composing poetry, limericks, music, designing, drawing, developing new typefaces, you name it.

“For a long time, he was also our most distinguished cultural ambassador to the world.”

This perhaps is the one of the most apt descriptions of a man whose films were legendary in our lifetime and a part of the concluding chapter in The Man Who Knew Too Much by Barun Chanda. The book is an exhaustive account of Ray and his major films, how he made the films, what were the influences he had, how he directed the films and how versatile he was. Chanda is clearly impacted by this giant of Bengal renaissance, which started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the eighteenth century and encompassed Tagore.

The book is as much a memoir by Chanda about Satyajit Ray as it is a narrative about his films. Structured unusually, this non-fiction has an introduction sandwiched between two sections, the first being Chanda’s own interaction with Ray as a hero of his award-winning film, Seemabadha[1](1971), and the making of the movie; the second being the narrative that covers the titular content (borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1956 thriller), The Man Who Knew Too Much, about the genius of Ray as a filmmaker. Chanda shows us how Ray was truly unique and very gifted. He would remember all the dialogues and be intent on being involved with every part of film making, from costumes to camera, lighting and makeup — which is probably why his films had a unique touch so much so that he has to date been the only Indian filmmaker to win an honorary Oscar which Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn, collected for him as he lay sick in bed (1992) breathing his last, saying: “Dear Satyajit Ray, I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”

And this note has been quoted by Chanda to bring out the uniqueness of a man who counted luminaries like Arthur C Clarke, Jean Renoir, de Sica, Kurusawa, Cartier-Bresson among his friends. He has unveiled the unique persona further. “As Ray was wont to say, everything that he had done earlier in his career, helped prepare him to be a complete filmmaker. His sense of framing stemmed from his knowledge of still photography. His deep love of Western and Indian classical music helped shape him as a music director. His sense of art direction came from his earlier stint at D.J. Keymer. His power of illustration helped him design the sets of Hirak Rajar Deshe[2]and Shatranj ke Khilari[3], both marvellous instances of art direction. And a combination of these two factors facilitated his making of some of the most original and impressive cinema posters ever.”

Chanda goes on to describe the full genius of Ray’s film making which even stretched to scripts, songs — both the lyrics and music often, and of course his ability to visualise the whole movie beforehand. Ray is quoted as having said: “I have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film.”

Interspersed with anecdotes about the films, the text highlights the eternal relevance of some of the dialogues and lyrics that Ray wrote himself. For example, listening carefully to the lyrics of ‘Ore Baba Dekho Cheye[4]’ (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 1969), one could see it as a comment from a current pacifist in today’s war-torn world. This book actually seems like an eye opener not only to understand Ray’s films, but also to find out what the world needs from the media, an important comment in times of false news and sensationalism.

However, the book is not all adulation. It is also a critique of the persona of a visionary who could risk all for realising his vision. Chanda tells us how to attain perfection, Ray could risk necks: “There was an element in Ray bordering on ruthlessness. To get a certain effect on the screen he wasn’t averse to taking risks, at times to dangerous levels.”

New perspectives are brought in from unpublished interviews: “In an unpublished Bengali interview of Ray which is in the possession of Abhijit Dasgupta, one-time chief of Doordarshan, Kolkata, when asked about his film Sadgati[5], the maestro is quoted to have said: ‘One needed to make a film on this story immediately. As a Marxist, Mrinal Sen would have probably made it differently, more angry … Had this film been angrier I’m not sure it would have served the purpose any better. I don’t think display of anger alone can lead to much of an achievement. To my mind a truly politically angry film hasn’t been made so far. Until now what has been done is to shoot at safe targets. It hasn’t made any difference to establishments in any way. If one were to achieve this kind of a thing, I would sooner be a political worker than a filmmaker.’”

While looking at the maestro through an objective lens, Chanda finds it hard not to express his affection for the giant who impacted not just him but a whole generation of movie goers, film personnel and the world. His last sentence says it all:

“As far as I’m concerned, he [Ray] is always present. Not past. Not even past perfect.”

Chanda, a man who started his life working in the same advertising agency as Ray and dreaming of being an actor, with four books and multiple films under his belt, himself mesmerised audiences as a protagonist in Ray’s award-winning film and then suddenly withdrew from the industry for two decades. Why would he do that? Let us find out more about him and Ray in this interview.

Barun Chanda

First of all, let me tell you I am very honoured to be interviewing a Ray hero from a film I have watched multiple times. So, tell me, why did you act only in one Ray film, have a hiatus of twenty years and then go back to acting with Hirer Angti [6]  in 1992, the year Ray died. Did it have anything to do with Satyajit Ray’s presence or influence?

No. I’ll tell you what – after Seemabadha, I got a cluster of film offers, nine-ten offers and I did not accept anyone of them because they did not seem to be significant enough. I wasn’t interested in making money out of films or becoming a film star. I was interested in acting in good films. If they came my way, I would do. If they didn’t come my way, I wouldn’t. I would go back to my profession which is advertising. I was very happy there.

So, these offers that came didn’t quite satisfy me. And Manikda[7] did not call me back again for whatever reasons. The other significant filmmakers like Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak – they did not call me. I suppose I was branded as a capitalist actor. Or Imperialistic actor! I suppose it became ingrained in their mind I was an executive and nothing else. They felt they could not bend me into the roles in their film. A pity!

Is this your first non- fiction? What led you to think of writing a book on Satyajit Ray?

Yes, it is my first non-fiction. I had harboured this thought for a long-long time but there is a natural reluctance about writing anything. I am, by and large, a lazy person and there were a whole lot of things that were pretty personal, and I thought, you know, let it be stored in my mind. Maybe, I could narrate to my close friends’ circle certain stories and certain things that happened between me and him. But not for everyone. Even in this book, I have not mentioned a whole lot of things that are too personal, which he confided to me in good understanding that I will not tell another. I won’t speak about it.

Then the centenary year came, and many asked me why I did not write my out my memories. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri was one of them. He said the time is right and you have such wonderful anecdotes and experience, put it down for posterity. When I did the first part, I realised it could not just be my experiences but also something larger – in the sense what kind of a man was he in real life.

I was also dissatisfied with the books I have been reading about Ray and his works — starting with Marie Seton[8], who was supposed to be a gospel on Ray. I found it was a narration of his films in chronological order and what she thought of them. It was film-based assessment, not of the man himself or his qualities separated from the films. So, I decided to explore his persona. This book is quite different from any written on him. I have sections on music, editing with a whole lot of films but not in a chronological order. That is passé. The second part started with what has not been done. As I progressed, newer sections dawned on me – a whole lot of sections I have not used. I wanted a chapter on “The Rise and Fall of the Ray Empire” – but then thought I’d rather not finally. It would have been terrific, but I did not, perhaps want to spoil the public feeling about Ray. I did not want to criticise. I did do a chapter though — “Director or dictator”.

Absolutely. Your book is dispassionate but has no scandals or any unfair criticism. In fact, it seems to be based on not just your memories but also many interviews and lot of research. Can you tell us what went into the making of this book in this context? What kind of research and who all did you interview? How much time went into the making of the book?

I used Ray’s experiences with actors who are no longer alive – like Chabbi Biswas or Tulsi Chakraborty. I have used Aloknanda Roy who happened to work with Chabbi Babu in Kanchenjunga[9]. I used the living actors. I did not interview Soumitra Chatterjee – I know his feelings on Ray. So, I did not interview him separately. But there is a lot in the book about how Soumitra da perceived Ray or his equation with Ray.

The book worked well for me – I would have gone to a madhouse but for this book. You have to believe me. For it helped my sanity, writing this book during the Covid period[10]. The eighteen months—closer to two years. I could really concentrate on something as I am an outgoing person – not that I am a club person – but I would like to meet my friends, lead an active life. Suddenly, I felt imprisoned – it was like house imprisonment. So, I turned my attention to writing this book and whatever I could get out of YouTube, whole lot of other’s books, Ray’s interviews. One gentleman, Abhijit Dasgupta, who was the head of Kolkata Doordarshan, had conducted an interview. He gave me part of it which I found very intimate. You could do a book on Ray and Mrinal Sen dispassionately –Mrinal’s films would be of historical importance but not of relevance otherwise whereas Manikda’s films can be watched again and again because it touches your heart.

That is so true. Your book is structurally unusual with an introduction in the middle of two parts. Why did you follow such an unconventional format? Do you feel it helped your presentation in any way?

Yes. Because I was writing a different book. No one has written a biography in two parts. In a way it is not a biography, but it is trying to understand and appreciate Ray as a filmmaker. That’s what the book is.

I was in an advantageous position to write on Ray. Actually, Dhritiman Chatterjee could have done the same. I admire Dhriti for his thinking, but I guess there is an innate laziness. He did interview Manikda but I do not know where the tapes are.

I felt the way I did it was the right way. The book came naturally to me. For somethings, I went out of my way — like the titling.

To this date, no Indian director has made a film where the title is relevant to the film. The film follows from the title. The thought is not there. But it is there in the West. That is why you have people like Saul Bass. Ray wanted to do things himself – that might have been why he did the titling too. He would draw and present to the art director who would work further on it. I should have had a whole lot of drawings in this book, but it was not readily available.

I continue to feel I could embellish certain chapters, especially on music. Debojyoti Mishra, a film music director, has written a book in Bengali which actually traces from where Ray has borrowed what piece of Western Classical music. It is not unlike Tagore – there are analogies in the use of music between the two.

Ray spent a few years in Santiniketan when he was young, I think around 1940. Was he impacted by Tagore? Can you tell us about it? Did he meet Tagore or have any conversation with him as it was a year before Rabindranath passed on?

He did not actively seek out Rabi Thakur. He was a very shy person. There is no mention anywhere in his writings about seeking out Tagore, knowing very well Tagore held his father and grandfather in great esteem. His mom knew Tagore well. But he never sought him out. It is rather difficult to understand why he did not utilise the time speaking with Tagore. Maybe, Tagore was inaccessible. I could have asked him, but I never did. I do not know why I never asked.

Why would you borrow from Alfred Hitchcock to name probably one of the last of the Bengal renaissance men? Can you please elaborate?

I thought that the title was absolutely apt. As a director he knew more than any director did. It described him to perfection. He would draw, give music and work with his basic idea with the rest of the team.

What would you say is Ray’s most major contribution to the world?

The brilliance of Ray’s portrayal of the village was outstanding. You watch the film and think you cannot improve on it. And Ray knew it and has said it.

Does Ray continue to impact current trends in cinema?

Ray was a classicist. The film making style has moved away from that. He would not move the camera unless it became imperative to his film. But now, cameras are handheld, and they have fast shooting. Film making has transformed with the emergence of the web series. Shooting has become so much easier and quick, though they work very hard. There is something more raw about web series. The feature film is more stately, more crafted. Films have enough time. You cannot get a good film if the actors are not brilliant. You cannot shoot a good film in ten or twelve days as they do for web series. That is not physically possible. In the West, they take eighty to ninety days to shoot a film.

Ray wrote many novels on Feluda and Professor Sonkhu. Yet made few films on them. He made films of others’ books rather than his own. Can you tell us why?

Maybe, the writing part started late in his life. It was propelled by his need to feed Sandesh[11] and he had to supply stories to Desh[12] — one per year, for the puja [13]special. His writing came as an offshoot – it was an accident. But the preparation was there – if you read his scripts or lyrics, they are fantastic. The scripts he wrote were brilliant. There is much to admire and respect about him. He was a writer too.

You are known to be a writer too. Are your books impacted by your association with Ray?

What I learnt from him was how to write dialogues. The publisher of my Bengali books, Tridib Chatterjee, said he found my dialogues “smart”. Ray’s writing was very tight. I tighten my descriptions. I do not expect the readers to read a book like Tom Jones[14].

Can you tell us about your other books? Coke (2011) interestingly, is available in both Bengali and English. So, which came first — the Bengali book or the English? Are they both your handiwork? Tell us a bit about your novels?

I wrote it in Bengali first and then wrote it in English later. Actually, it was not a direct translation. I write in both the languages. Another one which is in English is Murder in the Monastery. The second edition is being brought out by Rupa, should be available on Amazon soon hopefully. Post-Covid, people have gone into hibernation. So, many have complained they cannot get it.

I have two books in English, Coke and Murder in the Monastery. The others are in Bengali.

Which genre is preferable to you — murder, mystery thrillers or non-fiction like this one?

I get my high writing fiction, especially crime.

Are you giving us any new books in the near future?

Yes, a collection of short stories in Bengali, probably after the pujas. I have created a character called Avinash Roy. He is learned and intelligent but not overtly brilliant like Sherlock Holmes. My favourite character [fictional] among detectives is that of Inspector Morse – I have seen the TV series but not read the books. He was very human. Absolutely brilliant. But coming back to my current book, it is also facing delays, but I am hoping it will be out this October.

Thank you for giving us your time and answering our questions


[1] Translates to ‘bound by limits’

[2] 1980 film by Ray, translates from Bengali as ‘In Hirak Raja’s Kingdom’

[3]1977 film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘The Chess Players’

[4] Translates from Bengali to ‘Oh dear look around’

[5] 1981 television film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘Deliverance’

[6] A film by Rituporno Ghosh, translates as ‘Diamond Ring’

[7] Satyajit Ray – he was often referred to as such by his friends

[8] Marie Seton: Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, 2003

[9] Ray film released in 1962

[10] Lockdown due to the Pandemic

[11] A magazine started by Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray in 1913

[12] A Bengali magazine that was started in 1933

[13] Durga Puja, the main festival of Bengalis, where the Goddess is said to return to her parent’s home for five days

[14] The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) by Henry Fielding

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(This review and telephonic interview has been conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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A Special Tribute

Jean Claude Carriere: A writer for all directors

Ratnottama Sengupta pays a homage during the 27th Kolkata Film Festival to Jean Claude Carriere, the legendary screenwriter of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, first performed on stage in 1985 and then released as a film

Jean Claude Carriere (1931-2021). Courtesy: Creative Commons

A Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for someone decorated with a Padmashri? One easily understands the Oscar when you spell out that the awardee had written the screenplay of a hundred and more films for the Who’s Who of World Cinema – starting with Luis Bunuel, and going on to Volker Schloendorff, Milos Forman, Pierre Etaix, Jacques Tati, Andrzej Wajda, Nagisa Oshima, Louis Malle, Abbas Kiarostami, Philip Kaufman, Jean Paul Rappaneu, Jacques Deray… not necessarily in that order. The Padmashri also falls in place the minute you hear it was for the writer of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Indeed, how many names have bridged the inner core of two extreme cultures of the East and the West, so smoothly as Jean Claude Carriere?

This French writer-actor’s equation with the land of Kauravas and Pandavas was way beyond that of any tourist who may’ve visited India twenty-five times.  For, this was the man theatre legend Peter Brook had zeroed in on to play his Ganesha. Meaning, act in the play? No, he was to write the nine-hour magnum opus that would ensue after sunset and end at sunrise at the theatre annual that identifies Avignon in France. Who could’ve imagined his interpretation that the five sons sired by different deities — Yama, Vayu, Indra, the Ashvins — could be cast as men from different races, leading to Yudhistira being blonde and Bhima an African? This, remember, was three years before Doordarshan started airing the B R Chopra epic that continues to enthral.

A scene from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Courtesy: Creative Commons

But why am I comparing Carriere – whom I had the good fortune to meet on one of his visits to Delhi – to Ganesha? Simple: Siddhi Vinayak, the God of Fulfilment, was the ‘scribe’ Vyasa approached to pen down his magnum opus – and he laid the condition that Vyasa should not pause in his narration of the events even once. Vyasa agreed on the condition that Ganesha would not pen down the words without comprehending their depth, their emotion, their implication… Carriere had done just that for Peter Brook.  And the mythology had stayed within the writer. Hence, three decades later, he wrote a lyrical text for Sujata Bajaj when the Paris-based Indian artist from Kolkata exhibited her iridescent body of work titled Ganapati.

At least eight years of reading and researching had gone into Mahabharata, 1974 onwards, before Carriere’s forays to India started in 1982. And four years later, it mesmerised viewers in the desolate quarry outside Avignon. For the two following years, the play was performed in French and English, it toured the world for four years, it was adapted for television as a six-hour series, it was shortened to a three-half hour film screened in India, Carriere wrote Battlefield based on it, and published a book sketching his India tours… The 25 actors seen in Avignon 1987 came from 16 countries – and the only Indian was Mallika Sarabhai who played Draupadi!

“I compare India to Draupadi in the dice game – she keeps unfolding,” Carriere famously said later. Elsewhere he said he felt that India was a mansion where one room leads to another, that to yet another, and that to some more rooms… In India, Carriere observed a unique continuity since the antiquity now lost in time — one he did not find in either Greece or Egypt. That is distilled in the book, In Search of the Mahabharata that chronicles the three initial years of his journeys in diary-like jottings and numerous sketches. “They have more immediacy, more intimacy, greater feeling than camera,” he told the book’s Delhi-based translator, Aruna Vasudev.

Carriere of course was a seasoned hand at adaptation. Long before the curtain fell on his 91 years, he had adapted the German novelist Gunter Grass (The Tin Drum, 1979) and French Marcel Proust (Swann in Love, 1984) for Volker Shloendorf; the Russian Dostoevsky for the Polish Andrzej Wajda (The Possessed, 1988), the French journalist Joseph Kessel (Belle de Jour, 1967) and French poet Pierre Louys (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977) for the Spanish Bunuel, French dramatist Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac, 1990) for Jean-Paul Rappaneu, Czech Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1988) for the American Philip Kaufman… And what was the key to this success? It lay in Carriere’s belief that “a scenario is created when you and the director establish a near telepathic communication. This requires on both sides a receptiveness and a trust which can never be taken for granted. The writer must submerge his ego since, ultimately, it is the director’s film and you are there only to facilitate him.”

My first experience of this ‘facilitating’ was Happy Anniversary (1962) that won director Pierre Etaix – who co-produced it with writer Carriere – the Oscar for Best Short. Half-a-century after its viewing the 15-minute short remains vividly etched in memory. A woman is preparing a romantic dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary while the husband is running around and making stops to pick up gifts for his wife. But the Paris traffic is against him, and by the time he reaches home the flowers for his wife have wilted, and his drunken wife has finished dinner and fallen asleep. What a captivating comment on urban realities!

Carriere’s most abiding partnership — his 20-year-tie with Buñuel – had started in 1963 when the Spanish director was looking for a French co-writer to adapt The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau. The maid who exposes the sexual, religious and social repressions of the middle class provincial French families set the keynote – social satire – that Buñuel would repeat in Belle de Jour. Its erotic narrative with subversive wit exposed bourgeoise hypocrisy through a respectable doctor’s wife who enjoys her afternoons as an inmate of a high-class brothel. Buñuel’s absurdist humour not only alerts viewers to the failings of the French bourgeoisie, but it also sets the tone for his constant anti-establishment ire. In The Milky Way (1968), two tramps set off from Paris to make a pilgrimage to a Spanish shrine and on the way meet characters who expound on the six central ‘mysteries’ of Catholic dogma. Another amusing anti-clergy film, it reveals Buñuel’s target shifts from the church to the military, to the state — that is, only within the different faces of establishment. This influenced Carriere to later state, “In art a certain anti-conformism is necessary.”

Jean Claude Carriere was a remarkable storyteller, it is clear, just as it is that he had no dogma. Effortlessly he could move from one world to another. One of ideals and spirituality, to that of warfare and political spoils. As one reviewer noted, “he had the knack of entering the dream world not on the wings of some abstract imagination but on the legs of reality – with absolute groundedness.”

Carrier knew what he wrote was not for publishing, it was written not to be read but to be transformed into a film. He is known to have said: “If you want fame, and a beautiful statue made of yourself, don’t be a screenwriter. The writer disappears. He works in the shade.” It was absolutely essential to be forgotten. His art exemplified this, though not the writer who also acted in some films. He knew, if not forgotten, very often screenwriters are ignored. That is why, in his Honorary Oscar acceptance speech in 2014, he expressed his happiness that such an award was given to a screenwriter. For, “they are like shadows passing through the history of cinema. Their names do not appear in reviews, but still they are filmmakers,” he asserted sharing his Oscar with screen writers around the world.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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Excerpt

Akbar: A Novel by Shazi Zaman

Title: Akbar: A Novel of History

Author: Shazi Zaman

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021

Now people began to hear of Badshah Salamat’s close links with the region of Braj. His visit was described in a dhrupad —

Shah Chhatrapati Akbar visits the Braj region,
Kings of the seven islands, nine regions and ten directions tremble.
Cavalry, infantry, elephants, and brave warriors,
With bows, arrows, swords and spears.
Not one blot on the clothes of Humayun’s son,
How formidable was the army of Jalaluddin Muhammad.

The region of Braj was not far from Fatehpur Sikri. It is said that Badshah Salamat, having listened to the poetry of Surdas, asked when he met him, ‘Surdas ji, God has made me powerful and all the talented people sing my praise. Why don’t you sing my praise too?’

Surdas sang the following words in reply: ‘No space in my heart.’

Badshah Salamat thought, ‘Why would he sing my praise? He would sing if he had the greed to seek something from me. He is a man of God.’

Finally, Surdas sang: ‘Seeing God is like nectar for the thirst that the eyes have.’

Badshah Salamat asked him, ‘Surdas ji, you can’t see. How do you know what this thirst is that the eyes have? How come this metaphor?’

When Surdas kept quiet, Badshah Salamat said, ‘His eyes are with God. He sees there and describes what they see.’

Badshah Salamat then thought, ‘He should be given something but he has been initiated into Vaishnavism. He has no desire.’

People say that when Badshah Salamat heard that the Vaishnav poet Govindswami sang very well, he went out to listen to him in disguise.

Badshah Salamat was fond of travelling incognito among people. In the sixth regnal year, corresponding to about 1560–61 ce, a large group from Agra had camped outside the city on the way to the shrine of Salar Masud Ghazi in Bahraich. Badshah Salamat went to their gathering incognito but some petty criminal recognized him and the word began to spread. To convince people otherwise,

Badshah Salamat rolled his eyes upwards. When people saw this they said, ‘Such eyes and expressions can’t be that of an emperor.’

As Govindswami sang the Raga Bhairav, Badshah Salamat was sure he would not be recognized. But suddenly, as he sat listening, these words escaped his lips, ‘Wah, wah!

Recognizing him, Govindswami said, ‘This raga has lost its value.’

At this Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar said, ‘I am the Emperor.’

Govindswami replied, ‘If you are the Emperor, keep to it. But this raga has lost its value because you listened to it.’

Badshah Salamat then thought, ‘I am the ruler of one country. For him, the grandeur of three worlds is meaningless. Why would he obey my command?’

It is said that Badshah Salamat heard an artiste sing the poetry of the Vaishnav poet Kumbhandas and said, ‘Would there be anyone like him who sees God in this manner?’

The artiste replied, ‘Saheb, he lives even now!’

An excited Badshah Salamat asked for Kumbhandas’s whereabouts. The artiste replied, ‘There is a village near Shrigovardhan called Jamunawat. He lives there.’

When Badshah Salamat’s men reached the residence of Kumbhandas he was in Parasoli. Reaching Parasoli, these men said, ‘Badshah Salamat has asked for you.’

Kumbhandas said to them, ‘I am no servant to the Emperor. What do I have to do with him?’

Badshah Salamat’s men said, ‘How do we know what you have been called for? We are under orders from the Emperor to get Kumbhandas ji. Here is a palanquin and a horse. Please mount and come with us. We have to take you.’

Kumbhandas had no option. Wearing his shoes, he said, ‘Brother! I have never mounted a conveyance. I will go on my own.’ When Kumbhandas reached Sikri on foot, Badshah Salamat

said, ‘Kumbhandas ji, come. Please be seated.’

Badshah Salamat’s elegant tent had precious stones and frills. Even so Kumbhandas felt his home Braj was far better because Shrigovardhannath ji played there.

Badshah Salamat said, ‘Kumbhandas ji, you have written much poetry in praise of Vishnu. That is why we have called you here. Sing for me some poetry in praise of Vishnu.’

Kumbhandas thought, ‘The real patron of my voice is Shrigovardhandhar. But now that I cannot avoid it, I better sing something to ensure he does not ever ask for me. Let me say harsh words. If he minds, so be it.’

Kumbhandas remembered, ‘One who has been adopted by Lord Krishna is always safe. He would come to no harm even if the whole world turns against him.’

Then he recited —

Devotees have no need of Sikri.
One walks one’s shoes threadbare, God’s name forgotten,
And salutes those whose face brings no joy.
O Kumbhandas, without Lord Krishna, these are false destinations.

They say Badshah Salamat felt unhappy when he heard this but said to himself, ‘If he had any greed he would sing my praise. He is a true devotee of his Lord.’

Irritated with Badshah Salamat, Mullah Abdul Qadir Badayuni said, ‘… Hindu infidels, who are indispensable, and of whom half the army, and country, will soon consist and as whom there is not among the Mughals or Hindustani Muslims a tribe so powerful, he could not have enough. But to other people, whatever they might ask for, he gives nothing but kicks and blows…’

When it began to be murmured in Fatehpur Sikri that Badshah Salamat had turned Hindu, Sheikh Abul Fazl was forced to respond,

‘This rumour is spread because His Majesty, being of an open mind, would meet Hindu holy men, raise the rank of Hindus and be kind to them in the interests of the welfare of the country… There were three reasons these rumours spread by evil men gained currency. First, people following different religions gathered in the darbar, and because there was something good in every faith, everybody got some bit of praise. Secondly, because of sulh-i-kul, people of various kinds got spiritual and worldy success. Third, the crooked ways of evil people of the age.’

(Excerpted from Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021)

About the book

Conventional historical accounts tend to paper over seemingly minor events related to Akbar’s life, to the detriment of a comprehensive appreciation of one of the most important figures of Indian history. Shazi Zaman fills the gap with this remarkable novel rooted in history.

Akbar’s writ ran from the Hindukush in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east, an empire his father Humayun and grandfather Babur had only dreamed of. And his religious policy, boldly unorthodox, was as fierce a contest with the clergy, particularly Islamic, as were his military campaigns with his political opponents. Most histories give us Akbar the commander who never lost on the battlefield, and the fearlessly iconoclastic ruler. But we rarely come across the restless, questing soul who wished to reconcile a sensitive and compassionate heart to the sometimes ruthless obligations of statecraft; and the man who, in his struggle for sulh-i-kul, peace with all, could dare to treat as equal not only all faiths—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and others—but all life as well—human or animal.

With a scholar’s rigour and a storyteller’s insight, Shazi Zaman, in this transcreation of his acclaimed Hindi novel, sifts through fact and many an anecdote to paint a complex yet enchanting portrait of one of the world’s great monarchs. There isn’t another book, as vast in scope and as layered, to help us fully understand the phenomenon that was Akbar: the unsparing pragmatist and benevolent ruler; the austere leader and indulgent friend; the unlettered prince and philosopher-mystic.

About the Author

Shazi Zaman started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since then worked with several media organizations. He has had a long association with the ABP News Network as a senior executive producer and as their Group Editor. He has been on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. Akbar is his third novel. His earlier Hindi novels are Prem Gali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism ke Log.

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Categories
Essay

Cinema Viewing: Zooming In & Zooming Out

Gita Viswanath and Nikhila H explore how the world of moviegoers has changed with time and with COVID19

During the pandemic, people all over the world watched a lot more films due to the lockdown than they normally do. The use of social media also increased exponentially. The proliferation of OTT (Over the Top) platforms has given immeasurable access to cinema and other modes of entertainment to those who have the means and technology (such as internet connection and steady bandwidth, viewing devices, etc). While some term this phenomenon as a democratisation of film-viewing practices in a given society, others feel that the nature of cinema is bound to change in the absence of a collective social experience of film viewing.

The history of the motion pictures has seen a shift from 35 mm to 70 mm; the decline of the latter, and then its resurgence in the 1980s. During these times, going to the cinema was an event in itself. It necessitated the rituals of planning, the booking of tickets in advance, dressing up and stepping out of the homes. The singular mark, if we identify one, of this era of film spectatorship, would be its collective nature. It was not uncommon to witness several members of the audience cry, laugh, or cheer together. While there are several films that show their characters watching a film withing their plot, Abbas Kiarostami’s entire film Shirin (2008),focuses on women audience’s responses to watching a film on the legendary lovers, Shirin and Khusrow. The story of the lovers reaches us exclusively through the soundtrack. The creation of the star was also a consequence of collective viewing. The euphoria surrounding the star, at times translating to audience performances in the form of whistling, hooting, flinging coins at the screen, and performing aarti (a Hindu prayer ritual)when the star appeared, could not have happened in the isolation of the home. 

By the mid-1970s, almost all major cities in India had television broadcasts. The growing popularity of the television, even with its diminished screen size, as a means of watching films challenged the primacy of the cinema hall as a site of exhibition. The spatial shift from the public cinema hall to the private homes as viewing spaces is also a consequence of the arrival of television. However, the total individualisation of the viewing experience was yet to happen. Families, at times, even neighbours, would gather in front of the television, where the Doordarshan telecast around 6 pm and ended by 10 pm. Programmes were made specifically to appeal to groups of people across age, occupation, and class. While Tania Modelski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Women’s Narrative Pleasures (1982) argues how television, particularly soap operas play upon women’s fantasies and feed their longing for an alternative to their isolation within the nuclear family, it is also possible to argue that watching films on television meant being subjected to informal censors within the family and domestic situation.

Scholars have talked about how cinema-going created a new kind of sociality and public sphere around cinema. In the Indian context, a short story by a Kannada feminist writer Vaidehi titled “Gulabi Talkies mattu sanna alegalu” (Gulabi Talkies and small waves) for instance, gives us a glimpse of how through cinema-going the public sphere became accessible to women, otherwise sequestered within their homes. Girish Kasaravalli’s film Gulabi Talkies (2008) ostensibly drawing from the short story, gives us an insight into the fantasy worlds opened up by cinema for women, as well as delineates the destruction of that social imaginary and their proclivity for fantasy, when women got pushed back into the private sphere with the coming of television.

Soon after, the advent of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) and Video Cassette Player (VCP), became hugely popular ways of watching movies with the added advantage of recording them for repeat viewings. Lending libraries mushroomed and entire families were able to watch a movie for the price of, or perhaps, less than that of a single movie theatre ticket. In India, this led to a complete change in leisure practices to the extent that cinema hall owners ran into huge losses and most theatres that had seen their glory days had to either shut down and get converted into shopping complexes or lay in a state of neglect.

The 1990s heralded the era of the multiplex that once again drew audiences to theatres, at least in the urban areas. With admission rates way higher than single screen theatre tickets, the multiplex became a site of the upper middle-classes flush with funds in a newly globalised, consumer-driven economy. This even gave rise to an entire new genre of films called the multiplex film. Young filmmakers with exposure to world cinema cashed in on this change and made films that may not have been feasible in the era of single screen theatres whose audiences comprised people from different classes. The more homogenised audience of the multiplex enabled filmmakers to produce films that catered to the taste of a particular segment of the market.

And then came mobile telephony in the new century. The miniaturised screen size transformed film viewing, which was essentially a public and later family/group activity, into a highly individualised one. Today, it is not unusual to see different members of a family watching different films on their phone screens in the same house or even same room – the use of headphones or earbuds making it even more convenient.

We are all familiar with the phenomenon of the intermission/interval; peculiar to film screenings in India. This device, as Lalitha Gopalan has noted in Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema (2002), even became an important consideration while scripting the film wherein the interval would be located at a turning point in the narrative. The interval in cinema halls also provided the scope for sale of snacks, which in the era of multiplexes turned into a focal point with the aim of providing a wholesome and complete form of entertainment for the audiences.

Turning our attention back to viewing films on the laptops or phones, we may say that the act of determining the interval is also controlled by the viewer. We could stop watching to eat, to visit the washroom, to turn off the stove, to get the door, or when the plot slackens and our interest wanes, to doze off. With the alarming speed with which attention spans are decreasing, filmmakers are turning their attention to short films.

The abundance of OTT platforms for distribution of films has led to easy access to world cinema. Until some years ago, it was difficult to view international films unless one frequented film festivals. Now, it is a different story. Platforms such as Mubi, Netflix, Prime Video, among several others, provide us with opportunities to watch films from all over the world. Just as in the case of the rise of multiplexes, similarly, OTT platforms also have proved to be a boon to filmmakers. Professional organisational set-ups, constant demand for fresh scripts, and scope for experimentation have made OTTs viable for young filmmakers.

At a time, when socialising in the real world became highly restricted, a flurry of activity was visible in the virtual world. One such popular enterprise was the formation of online film clubs to watch and discuss films, which the authors of this article also engaged in. What is interesting about such groups is that the film viewing experience is not collective. We do not watch the film to be discussed together; rather, we watch them at our convenience after deciding upon the film and only get together virtually to discuss our individual responses in the process of a personalised experience of viewing. 

Let us think about the nature of spectatorship that online groups engender. The sense of the collective does not stem from the act of seeing, which, in any case, happens in the privacy of our homes. Rather, it stems from the sense of a joint endeavour and the need to contribute meaningfully to it. While most theories of affect talk about the process of experiencing cinema, it may be equally important to look at the communicative aspect of affect; hence articulating what we feel about a film is a way of affirming and making available for ourselves (and others) how we feel about a film. Lakshmi Srinivas (2013) talks of how film viewing is framed by the social aesthetic, that is, film is a pretext, which provides a context for the social experience of film going. The audience response in any Indian theatre, she argues, provides a frame for the filmic experience; similarly, in our isolated film viewing case, the Saturday meeting becomes the ‘social’ within which our filmic experience may be framed.

With COVID-enforced isolation and restriction to stay in the house, films and social media platforms became a way of escape and reaching out, though not in the same way as the more conventional ways of watching cinema. The need to have social interactions beyond the family may have motivated some of us to embrace the world of online interaction. The form of discussing films (and virtually all of the films we discussed spoke to and of the contemporary times) on our Facebook group, Talking Films Online, for instance, became a way of thinking beyond and outside the oppressive present.  It helped most of us gain a perspective by contextualising the present itself, while we seemed to be in danger of being cut off from the known and the familiar past. Thus, the activities of watching films and logging in for discussions on Saturdays became a way of regaining a hold on our lives, when we all felt adrift.

The lockdown gave many spectators who were part of online film groups, the experience of seeing and hearing and being seen and heard on screen. While initially thrust upon as an inevitable fall-out of the situation, people soon learned to equip themselves with better devices (where possible), requisite apps, necessary accessories to be better seen and heard. Being part of the discussions on the films, recording them and sharing them make participants content generators in their own right, leading at times, to the creation of independent YouTube channels for uploading the recordings of the discussions and for live broadcasts.

Thus, the shift in patterns of spectatorship over time goes beyond a mere change in ways of viewing films. Rather, the ways of generating content to accommodate these changes have themselves transformed. The resultant transformation in modes of sociality is just about beginning to become apparent. 

Gita Viswanath is the author of a novel, Twice it Happened, a non-fiction book, The ‘Nation’ in War: A Study of Military Literature and Hindi War Cinema, as well as a children’s book, Chidiya. Her poems and short stories have been published online. Two of her short films, “Family Across the Atlantic” and “Safezonerz” are available on YouTube.

Nikhila H. teaches in the Department of Film Studies, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Her areas of research interest are Filmic Translations and Gender Studies. Her recent publications have been on remakes and multimodal translations. Her current projects include a commissioned essay for a volume on Shyam Benegal for Edinburgh University Press, and for a collaborative volume on New Cinemas of India.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.