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'It is Ray's genius that the humanity he showed in his film is also universal'

April 20, 2009 16:18 IST

Richard Pena, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's director of programming for more than 20 years, is one of the most influential opinion-makers in America. The films shown at the Society and its annual New York Film festival have brought to the American attention the work of filmmakers across the world.

While the emphasis is on the artistic films, the Society has, under Pena's urging, shown popular benchmark films such as Mother India, and has held a festival of Amitabh Bachchan movies.

The Society's New Directors/New Films annual festival has served a launching pad for directors including Steven Spielberg, Pedro Almodovar, Atom Egoyan, Spike Lee, Wong Kar-wai and introduced more than 100 directors, including Dev Benegal from across the globe.

He has also organised retrospectives of Abbas Kiarostami, Robert Aldrich and Youssef Chahine.

Pena is excited over First Light, Satyajit Ray, from Apu Trilogy to the Calcutta Trilogy, showing through April 30. He talked extensively on Ray and Indian films in a telephonic interview from his home on Easter Sunday.

What is special about this series?

It has been quite a while since New York has seen a series of Satyajit Ray films. We are offering the films made in the first half of his career. We consider him the greatest filmmaker in India and now, with the heightened interest in India and Indian films, there is a rare opportunity to discover and rediscover Ray.

What was the biggest challenge in mounting this series?

We had to get the best, and in some cases, the new prints. We had good success with But there are many more Ray films that we could have shown. We are waiting for good prints, and perhaps we could have another series.

Who played a key role in helping you organise this festival?

We are presenting this series with Columbia University, which is also holding as day long seminar on Ray on April 25, in collaboration with the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project at the Academy Film Archives in Los Angeles.

You have said: 'With film, you're seeing images, confronting situations, as if you were walking down the street…You discover a certain universality, as opposed to differences, among people.' How does Ray's films fit into this thinking?

It is Ray's genius that the humanity he showed in his film is also universal. For American audiences, it is not difficult to accept French, German and Italian films because there are cultural similarities between us and the Europeans. But the people in Ray's films could not have looked and acted more differently (from us). And yet while we watch their lives and the contradictions, the joys and sorrows in them, we feel we are watching our own stories.

You have also said there is little excuse is needed to re-examine Ray's work.

True, he is one of the greatest filmmakers anywhere in the world and millions of people have seen his films since he made Pather Panchali in 1955. The recent spike of interest in India -- from its emerging as an economic power to the worldwide success of Slumdog Millionaire -- makes this an apt moment to celebrate the achievements of Ray.

Everyone is surprised by the extraordinary success of Slumdog Millionaire worldwide. In Brazil, which has some of the biggest shantytowns in the world, the film has grossed nearly $6 million.

Isn't that any indication of the universal power of cinema? The film also came at a good time when India is becoming a greater part of American consciousness. The movie, with its attractive story and strong visuals, brought people into India. Our series will remind a new generation that long, long before Slumdog Millionaire was made, Ray had made films about the poor and struggling people. But the series also shows the variety of films he made touching various genres from comedy to detective films.

Surely, this festival could not have been planned after the release of Slumdog Millionaire seven months ago.

[Chuckles], We have been working on this well over a year. This would be one of the best and most exhaustive festivals we have had in a long time.

I believe your passion for cinema started when you were 12.

That was the year my serious interest in cinema started and I attended for the first time The New York Film Festival. I think I fell in love with the movies when I was five or six.

Did you watch English films right from the start?

I saw many English films but I also went to see Spanish films with my grandfather.

Would you have fallen in love with world cinema if you weren't a New Yorker?

Three or four decades ago, there were many theatres in New York that showed foreign films. Now we have just about a handful. So it is left to The Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and similar organisations to bring the best of foreign films to New York. On many occasions, distributors have picked up the films after we have shown them.

When did you first encounter Ray's films?

When I was in high school in Massachusetts (about four decades ago). We had a teacher who was interested in world cinema. At that time world cinema meant mostly French, German and Italian films. But we slowly getting to see Indian and Japanese masters too. We had a 16 mm screen. The experience was so awesome. I loved it and soon I was running the screenings. 

What happened then?

I discovered that Ray films were getting wide attention in art theaters in big cities in America. There were long lines for these films. I got to see them in the theatres too. 

There is quite a bit of literature on Ray including a biography by Andrew Robinson. Do you suggest any reading on Ray before seeing his films?

I will say, go and see the films. The films themselves will reveal a lot about Ray. I have said this before:  A Ray film invites you in, but also demands that you accept it on its own terms...And those who open themselves to Ray's method are in for some of the richest experiences the cinema has to offer.

What are the Ray films you would recommend to someone who is getting to see them for the first time?

Absolutely, the Apu trilogy. And Charulata. I would then suggest they see Chiriyakhana (The Zoo). It is a very different kind of Ray film, a detective film and a murder mystery at that!. He was not going to direct it, his assistant was going to make it  but Ray ended up, luckily for us, making it his own.

Most of these films are available on DVD, though it is not easy to get them.

You must see these films on the big screen, even though you might have seen them in a movie theatre years ago -- and have their DVD. It is quite an experience to see them on the screen with an appreciating audience.

What other Indian filmmaker is going to be featured at the Lincoln Center?

In fall, we are showing nine of Guru Dutt's films. I have believed for a long time that we ought to know more about him and his work.

Many people put Ritwik Ghatak next to Ray. If there is a trinity who would be the next one?

Why not Guru Dutt? He worked within the parameters of the commercial cinema and yet he was innovative, and with Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam his vision was changing. He was making a film that looked deep into the predicaments of its characters.

Ray deservedly got wide acclaim in America but some of us feel that the interest in Ray meant that many other talented directors did not get enough attention.

I don't blame Ray for it. I blame certain kind of critical shorthand. Look at the number of distinguished Iranian film-makers but they don't get the kind of attention Abbas Kiarostami gets. Kiarostami is a great film-maker, one of the greatest directors in the world. But other Iranians are judged against his achievement. And this happened to Indian film-makers, especially Ritwik Ghatak. He had one thousandth of the recognition Ray had.

And will there be another Ray series?

Surely, we hope to build a series around the second half of his career in not-so-distinct future. It will, like this series, include some of the significant documentaries he made.

You were recently in India...

I spent a few days in Maharashtra. I am amazed at the energy and promise many young filmmakers are showing. Some of them are working within the big, commercial cinema. Some are working outside the industry. Over the years, we have shown the films of many emerging Indian film-makers ranging from Ketan Mehta to Dev Benegal. We hope to highlight the new generation of filmmakers soon.

Arthur J Pais