Kolkata-based film academic Father Gaston Roberge underlines the need to view movies the Indian way

Father Gaston Roberge may well be described as a magical realist who had the dream of setting up “Bharat Movie Studio” (Bharat stands for India and Bharat Muni) but could not, due to lack of a congenial atmosphere. Instead, he turned his dream into a book, “To View Movies the Indian Way”, to be published soon. According to him, the title has several meanings. All these are intended.

Interested in cinema as a strong means of communication from his primary school days, he obtained a master’s degree in Theater Arts (Films) from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Now 78, Father Gaston, considered “The Father of Film Studies”, is a senior faculty member of the Department of Mass Communication and Film Studies at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Father Roberge arrived in Kolkata from Montreal in 1961 and made the city his home. He also established a film study centre, Chitrabani, in Kolkata.

Father Gaston says after he watched Satyajit Ray’s “Apu trilogy” at one go, and “Pather Panchali” and more of Ray’s films till “Agantuk”. It “attuned” him to Indians and their culture and he understood that a movie is experienced in the viewer’s heart. He says, “Watching a movie the Indian way is to enter the cave of one’s heart and contemplate the images some cavemen — old or new — have created on the walls of the cave.” Excerpts from an interview:

On his dream book

I have almost completed it. I say almost because as far as I am concerned it is not final. At times, we get very good advice from a publisher and I feel I need to refine my thinking. This is my 25th book and is the result of years of thinking, making experiments in the field of cinema and teaching mass communication. I have the impression that I found what I wanted to find already 30 years ago, viz. to formulate a film theory from the Indian point of view. I was not the only one to want that. Chidubabu (Chidananda Dasgupta) wrote in an article which agreed with mine that we need a film theory. Both of us hold that there are big problems there. One is that we have suffered what Solanas, the Latin American filmmaker, said about 20 years ago — “As a result of a cultural imperialism we have developed a kind of complex of self-inferiorisation. We think we are less good than some of the things in the West. The themes came from the West in 1895 or so and our filmmakers responded as Indians. But our film scholars wanted to emulate the film scholars abroad who have a point of view from theirs.” But our filmmakers, consciously or not, had a different view. The Greek word (for it) is theory-in-theory. So when Dadasaheb Phalke made his first film he was not even a filmmaker. He was a still photographer. He saw “The life of Christ”and was triggered — not from a religious point of view but by the fact that we too have mythical characters. So he made “Raja Harishchandra”. He reacted as an Indian but the film scholars react as Westerners because they think, since the films come from abroad the theory comes from abroad too, which is not a fact. There is a general theory and I write about that. You should be able to say what the film is without your definition being constrained by Western or Indian films or whatever.

On the majority Q:Majority of audience are not being exposed to Western systems

Yes, except in the educational systems. In the classroom, there is a certain type of experience and outside, another one. So two theories are there. In the classroom, it is formulated by the teacher and outside, in the milieu you absorb. Say for instance, when little Apu in “Pather Panchali” goes to see a Jatra, how much he was affected. The classroom is the room where “class” mentality is injected in you. For instance, if I ask students, who do not know me, ‘Could you name a few films that you have seen?’ they will never mention a popular film. Popular film is not in the field of academia! That’s what I am fighting against! The students will mention all other films that are recognised as classics. Only by interaction, by getting close to them, we talk about “Sholay”. It has been seen by millions of people and if I ask my students who have seen it more than once, what is it that they liked in the film, they give me a long list usually associated with foreign films. In other words, they don’t know why they liked “Sholay”. They cannot name the experience they have had. Films arouse emotions.

On the general audience

They don’t have this mentality, do they? If they do, then it is imposed on them by the leaders. I happened to see the film “Raghu Romeo” (about a chaiwala in love with a TV star), with another famous filmmaker at Dhaka. Both of us were invited from India to be on the jury of the film festival in Bangladesh. At one point, there was a rajkumar and rajkumari dancing. I was so happy to see that because to me it was a beautiful example of what Bharatamuni says — “If you arouse emotions by means of a drama, you reach a point where you cannot go further, you will take a leap in a higher level of bodily expression — dance and music”. But my friend felt the fine plot development was spoilt by the dance and he saw it from the Western point of view and said critics would not accept it. I did not argue. I have not lost any respect for him but he had not seen the film as an Indian. Bharatamuni does not say you should have stupid stories but he says more than once that the plot should be flexible enough to be able to arouse a higher level of emotion.

On solutions

It’s a very complex problem and I am very concerned about this because it has to do with our educational system. If our students progressively become unaware of their cultural identity because of the pressure of globalisation, what will happen in the long run? They don’t know why they love something. They cannot name their own experience and they are not allowed to discuss it in the classroom as it is out-of-syllabus. And this is not new. It has been identified at the end of the 1960s and we have a book, “Deschooling Society”, by Ivan Illich, an Austrian priest, and around the same time a South American social worker Paulo Freire wrote a book called “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. So with that inspiration, I call one of my chapters“Pedagogy of the media oppressed” with a focus on Indian folk movies. The purpose is to help the oppressed in the field of cinema realise they are sadly oppressed without being aware of it. I think each one should do something about it and there is no social change without personal changes and I believe that Rancho of “Three Idiots” gave a good example of a man who disagrees with the system and yet does not hate anybody, fight with anybody, does not take revenge, even helps others. I think seminars should be organised to discuss this film.