When I was asked to deliver their annual lecture by the Amal Bhattacharji Centre for European Studies,footnote＊ my immediate response was to say no. It was easy for me to do so, since 15 years of saying no to such requests has turned it into a habit. The only occasion when I didn’t decline, the lecture never took place. Although I had, in the end, to yield to persuasion, a great deal of diffidence remains. It is difficult to dissociate the idea of discourse from the idea of erudition; especially in the present case, where the enterprise is meant to perpetuate the memory of an outstanding scholar. Now, erudition is something which I singularly lack. As a student, I was only a little better than average, and in all honesty, I cannot say that what I learnt in school and college stood me in good stead in the years that followed. I studied for a degree, of course, but my best and keenest memories of college consist largely of the quirks and idiosyncracies of certain professors. College was fun, but college, at least for me, was hardly a fount of learning. All my useful reading has taken place since I finished my formal education. This reading has been wide and varied, but it has not been deep. Even on films I am not particularly well read. When I got interested enough in films to start reading about them, there were hardly a dozen books in English on the subject. By the time I finished them, I was already at work on my first film. One day’s work with camera and actors taught me more than all the dozen books had done. In other words, I learnt about film-making primarily by making films, not by reading books on the art of the cinema. Here, I must say, I am in very good company. This is how all the pioneers of film-making learnt their craft. But for a few exceptions, none of these pioneers was a learned scholar. Rather, they liked to think of themselves as craftsmen. If they were also able, on occasion, to produce works of art, they often did so intuitively. Or at least, that is how most of them feel. The famous American director John Ford was once asked by an admiring critic how he got the idea for a particularly felicitous touch in one of his films. Ford said: ‘Aw, I don’t know, it just came to me.’
Which brings me to the second reason for my diffidence. Film-making is such a demanding process that directors—especially those who keep up a steady output—rarely have time to assemble their thoughts. Of all the major directors in the world, only one—Sergei Eisenstein—lectured and theorized on the cinema, and described his own creative process at length. But we must remember that in the space of nearly 20 years, Eisenstein made only seven films, of which two were never completed. I have regularly pursued my two vocations of film-making and writing for young people, untrammelled by any thoughts of ever having to describe or analyse why I do certain things in the way I do them.
Yet a third reason concerns a special problem that faces one who must talk about films. Lectures on art should ideally be illustrated. One who talks on paintings usually comes armed with slides and a projector. This solves the difficulty of having to describe in words, what must be seen with the eyes. The lecturer on music must bless the silicon revolution, now that he can cram all his examples on to a cassette no bigger than a small bar of chocolate. But the lecturer on the cinema has no such advantage—at least not in the present state of technology in our country. If he wishes to cite an example, he can do no more than give a barely adequate description in words, of what is usually perceived with all one’s senses. A film is pictures, a film is words, a film is movement, a film is drama, a film is music, a film is a story, a film is a thousand expressive aural and visual details. These days one must also add that film is colour. Even a segment of film that lasts barely a minute can display all these aspects simultaneously. You will realize what a hopeless task it is to describe a scene from a film in words. They can’t even begin to do justice to a language which is so complex.
So when it was suggested that I talk on the European cinema, I declined. I didn’t wish to talk about films which would be unfamiliar to many of the listeners. Even reading about such films can be tiresome. But at least, with a book, one can stop reading, and think, and try to visualize. Unfortunately, it is not easy to stop a lecturer, and ask for time to think. At least, it is not conventional to do so.
So I shall avoid describing films which the majority of my listeners are unlikely to have seen. I should also make it clear that I do not propose to discuss the cinema in all its aspects. You will not learn about its history from this talk, nor about its sociology, its economics, its semiology. Nor will you learn about the New Wave, the star system, or the regional cinema, and what the governments are doing to help or hinder its growth. I shall confine myself mainly to the language of films, and the possibilities of artistic expression inherent in it. This will involve an occasional glance at the other arts, as well as at films from other countries and other epochs. My main concern, however, will be Bengal, the Bengali cinema, and my own films.