Aparajito and Aristotle: An interview with Gaston Roberge

Published : 5 June 2008, 03:22 PM
Updated : 5 June 2008, 03:22 PM

Film scholar Gaston Roberge talks about Indian film, Greek and Indian theatre and the power of the internet.

Gaston Roberge, Photo by Amirul Rajiv

You are a Jesuit, a member of a religious society. Why did you go to study films?

– There are two reasons mainly. First as a member of a religious society I do what I am told. So, why I was told to work in the films? During the 1960s we became of the

Chitra Bani: A Book on Film Appreciation, 1974
importance of the mass media in the life of the people. We are committed to education of the people, helping the people to take a meaningful place in society. But it is felt that the educational system alone cannot provide the education required and if this was true in the mid 1960's it is still more true today. Also the situation of the media is very fluent and the media today are used for influencing people's opinion much more then in the past. So, I was asked to look at that on the one hand—they needed somebody.

The second reason I work in this field, I have been interested in films from very low age. As a schoolboy I used to attend shows. There was no TV of course. But in the school we were shown serials of cowboys. I was very fascinated by those stories. After that, when I was about sixteen, I heard that a film society was being created that was Other View, in the city I was staying. I asked if I could join without knowing what it was about and then I discovered cinema. I saw many films prior to that as a sort of exciting dream. But once I joined the film society I discovered that cinema was much more than just fun.

What interested you about film? What do you like best in film?

– For me it was the meaning of a film. Of course, I was not insensitive to the form in which the film is made. But the deep meaning that the film could convey, I felt that when I saw a film that has a deep meaning, I became much enriched, much better from that.

However, I can say that the first film I saw as a cine film member disturbed me. It left me with a little uneasiness. You will find this strange, but that film was Battleship Potemkin. For maybe ten years some scenes would come back to my mind and I could not understand why. It was disturbing. Only when I studied Eisenstein I understood. Because he explained that the purpose of his making films is to plough deep in the psyche of spectators of a specific class. Since I belonged to a bourgeoisie milieu and that film had a Marxist orientation, I felt a little uneasy without knowing why.

Perhaps I could say that even when I was watching the cowboy films as a kid, I experienced the power of cinema, which I understood only later. What I mean to say is that even if I saw films that we would consider of little worth, I was experiencing cinema even as a kid. This is very important to me because the films that the scholars tend to dismiss as worthless have something in them. And it should be the duty and responsibility of the film scholar and film critic to help people make the best of the film experience that they have — even if the so-called trash, commercial films.

You spent your early days in Canada. Then in 1961 you came to Calcutta and experienced Indian cinema. How was it different from your earlier experiences of cinema? How much did it influence you?

– I can say that I started cinema in various steps and with various events. As a kid I used to see films, and then came the discovery of cinema with not only Potemkin but also other films such as the Bicycle Thief. My third discovery of cinema was when I saw the Apu Trilogy.

But I saw the Apu trilogy in a particular frame of mind; namely, it was the last night before leaving my country for India by boat. I had to spend the night in a small hotel in New York and I looked at a newspaper like anybody would do and found that there were three films from Kolkata, being shown in an art theatre—three, not only one—so I thought let me see that because I was going to Kolkata. So I went to see and I saw the entire trilogy, Panther Panchali, Aporajito and Apur Sansar one seating.

It had a tremendous impact on me. It was like introducing me to Bengal. I found the characters so lovely, so human that I was very fascinated. After that in the ship, it took nearly forty days sailing to Italy, going to Mumbai. So I had the time to think and it was as if I was creating my own Panchali about the India that I was going to see. Even before that I thought with love about the people I was going to, but here it was more concrete.

Did you find any difficulty with Satyajit's Indian characters as a man born and brought up in the west?

– There was no difficulty at all. On the contrary it would have been difficult not to love them– Apu, Durga, Sabrajaya, Harihar and Pishima — because they were so human. That they lived in a village, that they were poor and worse, was almost insignificant to me. What was fascinating was their human quality. Humanness is not measured in takas or dollars whether it is in India or in Canada.

There was a tacit agreement that the two friends met once or twice a month, always on a Sunday around nine o'clock in the morning at the residence of Satyajit Ray. This agreement was inspired by a passage from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's novelThe Little Prince.The prince had befriended a fox, and visited him often. One day, the fox told him, "It would be better if you always visit me the same day of the week at the same time. In this way, I can wait for your visit." "Good advice. But with time, I began to wonder which of us was the little prince and which was the fox," commented Roberge.
You see what is happening in the Apu trilogy is that the Aporajito is jibon — cholchhe cholchhe abar ashchhe chholchhe ashchhe chholchhe kono poriborton noi. Also, death of Harihar is given much attention. In American films there are many deaths but nobody dies, whereas in the Apu trilogy there are at least five deaths. Harihar has one of the most realistic deaths on the screen. It is death as part of life. Life can only progress leaving some deaths on the way and these deaths are positive.

Film scholars and critics tend to dismiss popular film as worthless, but the people are very interested in these films. How do you view this gap as a film scholar in the context of the Indian subcontinent?

– As a film scholar, I am interested in the films that people see. I mean I consider two types of films that the people

Gaston Roberge with Satyajit Ray
see. Films that they enjoy and films that they somehow find meaningful. They love to see these latter films usually more than once. These are the films I am interested in because my guide is the public.

People may be addicted to the frivolous enjoyment — a little sex, a little violence, and a little death — but usually they do not see the same film twice. There is no need because after they have seen one can see another. It will be the same thing, the same formula — eight songs/dances, what not.

There are other films; one example is Beder Meye Jushna, which people see more than once. They feel that there is a meaning and at times they are very clear about the meaning. When I saw Beder Meye Jushna in Kolkata — although I thought the film was much inferior to the Bangladeshi version — when Jushna tells the king, "you may be the king but you are not above the law," people clapped in the hall!

Box office hits may not be really popular films. They are films that people see for fun. But the ones that people see for meaning are those I call popular. The reason why popular films are not always seen positively by academics is because they see the film in the framework of a western theory of film as expressed by Aristotle two thousand years ago based on the great dramas of his time. I am convinced that if we want to understand the popular film we have to look at it from the point of view of the Indian subcontinent — because two thousand years ago popular drama was not separate from high drama in the light of Indian art theory which is certainly not inferior to that of Aristotle.

Recently here in Dhaka I had an interesting experience after seeing Roghu Romeo by Rajat Kapur. After the film I was about to express my enthusiasm when a friend, a famous Indian filmmaker, said, "Oh! What a pity. He has such a beautiful dramatic structure. He has to destroy it by throwing in a song as a compromise to the public." As if the public should not be there. It's a fantastic film made by a young director. It was a beautiful example of a film having a dramatic structure in the western tradition, and an aesthetic approach in the Indian tradition.
I encourage film scholars here to be a little Greek oriented. If we take dramatic structure positively, perhaps we can help the film industry -the Indian and Hindi film industry- to do a better job. If they have to put eight songs and dances in their films at least let there be something of quality.

You have been writing on film and media for many years. During this time span massive changes have taken place, we are told of a 'revolution' in the field of communication. From Chitrabani to Cyberbani, how did you experience that revolution as a writer?

– Although I am always involved in the field of audio-visual, my personal medium of expression is writing. If I can put an idea well in writing I feel that I understand it to an extant. In writing a book like Another Cinema for Another Society, I was looking for the answer to how you would make another cinema for another society. The process of writing is my way of learning and publishing is my way of teaching.

When I started Chitrabani, I felt that although there were many excellent books on film, there was no book designed for Indian students. The result was my book Chitrabani. Later I felt that there should be a shorter edition of it for high schools that I called Mass Communication and Man. I felt that media education is best started at the high school level where the students are more open, receptive. So that was the beginning of my writing on film.

About ten years ago I became aware that people do not read books as in the past from start to finish, but because of the experience of reading web pages you feet less and less inclined to read a b c d…you may open the book in the middle or at the end and read from anywhere and jump from one place to the other. Already in 1978 in one book I have hyperlinks. I have not invented that; I copied it from a French encyclopaedia. But I found it interesting that every time—in an encyclopaedia it goes by articles, usually

Cyberbani: Being a Human in the New Media Environment, 2005
alphabetically arranged—every time in the text there was a verb on which there was an article, it was underlined. You cannot click it, there was no key board or mouse, but you knew that this verb you could …so already the inclination to go from one thing to another one and come back—move like that with much freedom—already before 1980 I had experienced it in a book. Then you saw Cyberbani is not organised like a usual book. Now I am making one, which is more obviously built like the web. For instance, each lesson will be totally included in a double page like that and the outlook of the page will be the outlook of what you have most often on the web. Some students were kind enough to volunteer to transform the text from usually book text into a web text. Eventually the text will be on the web also. It will be what you call copy left, open source. That does not mean there is no licence, there is a licence authorising you to use the text, copy it as often as you want as long as it is not to make business. You are also authorised when you take it you change it make it better. Because the prevalent culture is a collaborative culture, this is much impeded by the copyright system. I am totally against the copyright system as it is. I am not against anyone's works to be kept at decent paper, but I am against people who don't work making money out of others who do work. Here you have to distinguish between the author and the owner. The author makes minimum money and the owner makes maximum money. I am against that in principle, but also because the effect is to jump the culture.

We are always told to develop a "balanced view" of the world. But in Cyberbani you said, "Balanced views are not the views that change the world." Would you please explain it?

– There is a common understanding, acknowledge, accepted principle that in your view of the world there should be a balanced view. For instance, if you tell me that the streets of Dhaka are beautiful, one can say yes but some are less beautiful. That makes it balanced. My view is that I try to arrive at a balanced view, but a balanced view is not for action. If you want to improve the streets of Kolkata, you cannot say there are bad streets but there are good ones so you do nothing. For action you must target specific facts, you cannot look at all the facts at the same time. You have it as a view, but for action it must be unbalanced. Otherwise you don't change anything. If there is a balanced view, then you want to keep it balanced. If you consider the negative side and want to improve it, then it must be an unbalanced view and then you will rebalance it somehow. Personally I have experience in the field of the media, for instance that so many students waste tremendous amount of time on the web. Immediately you can say that is true but others learn a lot from the web, so keep quite. My approach would be, since many students learn a lot from the web, why not helping those who waste time to learn. I take an unbalanced view to look, tackle or focus on the negative aspect, well aware that there is a positive aspect and I want the negative to become positive.

When you talk about the "pedagogy of the media-oppressed" or media awareness for collective action, it seems that you are talking in terms of Paulo Freire. But you said that your approach to education is quite different in some aspects from Freire's. Would you explain it?

– The purpose of calling that coming book Pedagogy of the Media Oppressed is to put it under the umbrella of social workers, inspired by Paulo Freire, and may be one of the main features of Paulo Freire's approach was his dialogical, dialogue based work. You just don't come and from top downward push on the people what is good for them. There must be on equal putting, a dialogical approach. Because the circumstances in which Freire worked in Latin America are different but I thought those who were familiar with Paulo Freire with the spirit of dialogue, to call the book that way, would be meaningful. But it is not, I would say, it does not go any more or deeper into the methodology of Paulo Freire.

What you want to mean by the term "media-oppressed"?

– Well, I accept the "balanced view" of those who say that while we were used to say the British Empire before that Mughol Empire, Roman Empire, now all the countries have more or less achieved independence, so there are no empires any more. While some of us are waking up to the fact that there have never been so powerful empires as to date and the empires are difficult to locate, they are Transnational—above the national limits. The power is partly military, partly economic and partly legal, for instance, the copyright laws. This power, which used to be exercised through administration, say the British Empire was present in India, in Bangladesh and took control of the administration to control the people. No more. They subscribed to the burden, the administrative burden. Now they control the mind directly by means of the media. If you control the media then you control the news that reaches the people.

This is one of the, I would say, difficult experience of our time– we do not know if we know what we should know. However, something new has happened, what you might call, the parallel news broadcast through the Internet. While on the one hand the elite who control the media can to an extent control the knowledge that we have. We have now for the first time inhuman history, we have the means to resist false information. Then it's not so easy, a lot more has to be done to educate our people as to the possibility of resisting and as to the duty of doing so. If we want to be free, we have to fight for it. Fight for it does not mean to go around killing people, but we have to do something without hatred, quietly but efficiently. For instance, when George W Bush declared the war to Iraq, in a few hours, they say, I have not counted the people, but they say that over 10 million people went to the streets to express their disapproval of that in a large number of countries. They speak of 10 million people and it is incredible took to the streets to stage demonstrations. Of course they never listened to them, but they can never say that they were not told. On the one hand, the power is there, the power is used, on the other hand, the very weapon if I may say that are used by the power tool, can be used against the power. They cannot prevent it. If they can use the media, the people also can use the media through the parallel outfit of Internet. You see Internet means millions of people all over the world and nobody can stop it. When McDonald's company told a club to close their website, otherwise there will be court case and complication, okay, close it…the next day it was on another website. How much McDonald's can do that. They cannot stop it.

The media environment has been structured in such a way that it divides people into those few who do/act and those many who watch/use/consume and that this becomes a model for the ruling structure where there are few in power who do and many who watch, the action of history. How much space can the new media environment make for resistance to the present order?

– The source of the power of the ruling class is also the source of their weakness: through the very technologies

Photo by Amirul Rajiv
that make some of us so powerful, all humans can work out their own liberation. And freedom is first of the mind. The communication media that can spread worldwide lies, slogans, allurements of the empire of mind can also spread instantaneously the world over true information as well as calls to mobilisation.

Self-education for liberation is an attempt to regain the freedom of mind. You can regain your freedom of mind any day you want. You are only to want it and do a little effort. Only those who are free can bring freedom to the world.