This essay has been taken from the book, The Director's Mind: A step by step study of the process of film-making by Ujjal Chakraborty. Translated by Arunava Sinha. Alchemy Publishers, New Delhi, 2008. Note on the filmmaker: Satyajit Ray (1921- 1992) was, arguably, India's greatest filmmaker. His very first film, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road) became a landmark in Indian cinema, while Pather Panchali won eleven international awards, including the one for the Best Human Document at the Cannes Film Festival. Ray was the founding father and the finest exponent of modern Indian cinema. All of his films, except for two, were made in Bengali.  

Ujjal Chakraborty was groomed in the techniques of classic animation in Italy. He has been a lifelong student of cinema in general and of Satyajit Ray's films in particular. He has written four historical novels, and is currently engaged in writing screenplays.

Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction,  nonfiction and poetry from India and Bangladesh into English. Twenty-six of his translations have been published so far in India, UK and the US, and in other countries through further translation.

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The speed at which an audience thinks, when it watches the events of a film unfolding, cannot be maintained when it comes to understanding the statement of the film. The latter speed drops suddenly—and this entirely natural. We would read Stevenson's 'Treasure Island' at a much quicker pace than we would Russell's 'Philosophical Essays,' because the former is descriptive, while the latter s inference-based. If we were to read, say, ten pages of "Treasure Island," go on to ten pages of 'Philosophical essays' and switch back and forth this way—reading the two books simultaneously—we would face the same problem that viewers of serious cinema face. Their thought-processes move at two different, parallel rates (quicker when watching the events, slower when trying to understatement the statement). Since the film has to be viewed at one sitting—without taking time off in between, viewers get into all kinds of trouble, caught as they are between two speeds. On the one hand, a fast rate of thinking irritates the slower thought process—on the other, this slow process interrupts the quick flow of thoughts.

Consequently, there has to be a balance between these two speeds. This can be achieved if the statement of a film can also, like its events, gain a certain speed.
How is this speed to be acquired? Speed is inherent in movement. (This movement does not necessarily imply physical movement of the characters, but rather, moving from one situation to another, from one location to another.) It is because an incident in a film moves into another that the succession of events provide a sense of speed, and consequently enjoyment.

The statement of a film, however, tends to stand out suddenly on its own—as though conjured up out of nowhere and slammed into the viewer's face. Now, if this statement can, however, be made to move from some other source, it will acquire this necessary speed. What could the nature of this source be?

No statement can be conveyed clearly through action or through symbolic language, since any statement is primarily verbal (e.g. Man created God, or Love relieves loneliness—neither saying could be expressed clearly through actions.) Therefore, its source, too, should logically be verbal.
A question can act as this source, since a question cannot have a non-verbal existence, either.

How can a question be raised in the screenplay? As the characters in a film move through its events, they will naturally want to clearly understand what is happening. This will lead to their raising questions—not symbolic questions, but clear, articulated questions—in the course of their dialogue. After this happens, they will naturally—along with the audience—seek out the answer.

The statement will move along this path. In other words, it will appear as the answer to the question. Only then will the statement acquire the speed of the events themselves. Let us consider an example from Satyajit Ray's "Nayak" (The Hero).

The popular film star is on his way to Delhi to receive the President's Award. Plane bookings not being available at the last moment, he travels by train. The Editor of a "little magazine" introduces herself to him on the train, and says that all the pieces about the hero that have been published in popular magazines lack in depth. They are unable to bring out the real picture of the hero's life...
Description from the Nayak:
Editor: "...all those pieces aren't very interesting!"
Hero: "Really? ... well ... what do you consider interesting?"
Editor: "For example...the question that keeps occurring to me...this great reputation of yours... how do you feel about it?"

The hero deliberately evades the serious nature of the question.
Hero: "Not bad... quite all right... pretty good!"
The young editor isn't satisfied with this answer. With a thoughtful face, she asks another question, with a mixture of emotion and sensitivity—
Editor: "But you get so much of everything—isn't there an emptiness somewhere?... Don't you feel something missing? ... Haven't you any regrets?"

Photocredit- Nayak. Dir. Ray. 1966

The question probably touches the hero somewhere deep within. He looks steadily at this unknown editor. Then, using the habitual skill of famous men, he suddenly withdraws himself. He lowers his voice to a deep timbre—
Hero: "What's the use of knowing all this? ...eh?"
The editor is not prepared for this and is taken aback considerably. She does not know what to say.
Hero: "If I tell you all this, might not our market be ruined? Will you be responsible for that? Look, Miss ... Miss Sengupta, we dare not say too much. We move in a world of shadows, you see. So it's best if people don't get to see our flesh-and-blood selves."

Here, as we can note, the hero evades the question in the scene. But the question has carved a niche for itself in the minds of the audience. All that takes place over the rest of the film appear to be answers to this larger question. We gradually see how fame takes the hero away from his friends, how being established has compromised him politically, how he has been penned in by his suddenly acquired enormous wealth. These answers constitute the substance of the film "Nayak."

The point to be noted is that the editor of the "little magazine" brings up the central subject of the film in the form of a question—subsequent events move from this point and constitute the "answer." And, in this manner, the screenplay-writer has established the statement of the film (which normally comes towards the end) at the beginning.

When a screenplay-writer wants to raise the appropriate question through the dialogue of a particular character, she needs to know, consciously and accurately, what the film wants to state. Without that, he cannot underline the basic subject of the film with the help of a question. A question, here, acts like a magnifying glass in a screenplay. Just as the magnifying glass makes all the light rays converge at one point, a question helps one particular aspect, of all our thoughts and considerations and of all the scattered incidents, to concentrate at a point. Even before the stream of incidents starts flowing, the question indicates the focal point from which the film must be considered. It is the question that , thus, drives the film.

At the end of the film, "Nayak," the editor receives a verbal answer to her question—
Scene from Nayak—The train is barely a few minutes away from Delhi. Having slept through the night, the hero meets the editor in the dining car.
Editor: "How are you?"
The hero is standing in front of her, looking into her eyes. His glance does not hold any trace of the habitual haughtiness of famous people.
Hero: "You can follow it all, so why don't you tell me how I am."
Editor: "Fine."
The hero shakes his head slowly.
Hero: "No."
Editor: "Why?"
Hero: "There's an emptiness somewhere, something is missing."

Here, the audience might remember that the editor had used the same words—"emptiness," "missing"—in her original question, at the onset. At the end, the hero uses the same words, as though replying to that question—a verbal reply to a verbal question. Interestingly, the answer also clarifies the statement of the film.



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