A Remembered Conversation…

December 30, 2014 at 9:15 AMDec (Cinema, Friends, Literature, Media, Slice Of Life)

“Give me a call when you arrive,” Sir had written back to me when I wrote him a mail saying I was coming to Kolkata and wanted to meet him.

On arriving at Kolkata I sent him an sms to which there was no reply. On the final day at Kolkata when I tried calling him on his mobile number the operator said the number does not exist. Then I called on the landline and Sir picked up the phone. He asked me to meet him between 12:00 and 1:00 and gave me directions to reach where he stays. Having early lunch I left to meet Fr. Gaston Roberge.


A decade ago my teacher and friend Anil Pinto introduced me to the book of Gaston Roberge- Chitra Bani [the copy of which still with me and I do not intend to return it.] That was the first book that I read on Cinema and I was impressed by the book because it laid the foundation for my understanding of cinema. Roberge Sir became the Dronacharya of this Ekalavya. Later when I drew my first salary I had written to the Institute started by Roberge Sir in Kolkata- also named Chitra Bani- and got all the books written by Roberge Sir till then. Those books not just helped me learn but also teach.

Remembering all of this I went to St. Xaviers College in Kolkata. The security stopped me and asked me who I wanted to meet. He called Roberge Sir saying I was there and asked me to wait for a while. In sometime Roberge Sir came towards the gate to escort me in which was very embarrassing. He said, “Lets have a cup of tea first,” and took me to the canteen. As we were walking towards the canteen I saw the following words printed on the back of his shirt, “Still learning how to think.” After a cup of tea at the canteen we walked to his room in the Fathers Residency.

Asking me to sit down Roberge Sir placed a bottle of water next to me and a bowl full of toffees on the table. “You can eat toffees as we speak,” and with a notorious smile said, “Whoever speaks more might require water. Usually its me who speaks a lot.” I smiled with him not being able to move my eyes off my teacher.

Being sure that I would not know, on meeting him, what to speak, for my admiration, I had written down in my note book a few questions to ask him. But when he sat right in front of me and was speaking to me in such a friendly manner I did not feel comfortable to ask questions from my book and thus turn the air more formal.

“Is there anything in specific that you want to talk?” asked Sir. “No Sir. I just wanted to see you once, from whom I have learnt so much, who I owe so much.” “And I owe a lot to my uncle,” he said and asked if I knew who his uncle is. I shook my head to say no. “Bharata Muni,” he said with that notorious smile on his face and I knew the class had begun.

“Bhartha Muni is the father of cinema in a way,” he said and pointed that Greek tradition did not have song and dance in it while the Indian text Natyashatra by Bharatha Muni spoke of song and dance. “Song and dance is sight and sound,” he said and went on to add, “When I first read the text by my uncle I was shocked to see the emphasis laid on sight and sound. It is audio-visual.” With a shine in his eyes he continued, “That is the idea of cinema. There lies the desire for cinema.”

20140904-0003Saying Indians are used to the dramatic tradition of Natyashastra culturally though they cannot name it Roberge Sir recollected an incident of watching a popular cinema in Bangladesh with a renowned filmmaker from India who dismissed the film completely. “When someone dismisses there is no point in discussing,” he said, after with raised eyebrows saying he had loved watching that film. “Several years ago when I was still teaching I asked once in the classroom if my students had watched Sholay. Everyone raised their hand. I then asked how many had watched it more than once. All of them raised their hand. Then I asked them what they had liked about the film. As they went on mentioning what they had liked I went on writing them on the board. By the end of it we had a number of elements but not one of them had mentioned anything that could be called as an Indian element…”

The flow of his words was interrupted by a call on my mobile phone. As I was taking my phone out of my pocket Sir said, “Please attend the call.” I took my phone out, cut the call and switched it off. By then Sir’s mind had shifted to his other preoccupation. “Mobile immobilizes you,” he said. “That is one of the reason I stopped using a mobile phone. It was making way for unimportant conversations. I am not against mobile phones. But people should reflect. The question is not about how many hours is spent in speaking to people or communicating through sms. The question is: are you becoming more human with that communication? The greatest danger of some of the technologies and even mobile phone is that it is not making us more human. And the most important thing at this point of time is to be humane more and more.” As he was saying this I pulled out my note book from my bag I started making notes of our conversation.

Realizing the conversation had drifted he asked me where were we before we started talking of mobile phones. When I reminded him that we were speaking of Sholay he nodded and returned to somewhat the same theme we were speaking of before being interrupted by a mobile phone call.

“The opening shot of Sholay is that of a train arriving. The train, in the film, is arriving to a village. But the film train has exported us to a fantasy world called cinema. Its not a different world but a parallel world. Its not entirely imaginary. But its not entirely real either. That is how art is in the Indian tradition. So we cannot use western concepts and western ways to understand Indian art or Indian cinema. We need Indian film studies and not studies in Indian films.”

Suddenly without him realizing or me realizing the topic got shifted. “The education system needs revival. The syllabuses are all outdated. Colleges have become assembly line productions that look at students as products. In my opinion every student’s particular desire for knowledge should become the syllabus, the time frame for education should be dictated by the individual’s rhythm and the exam should be life itself. Education should prepare students for life,” Sir spoke in one breath. Pausing for a while he asked me if I had seen 3 Idiots. I nodded. He said that the two suicides in the films were murders committed by the education system. “Its sad that no institute seems to have responded to 3 Idiots. Suicides after suicides are reported from institutes across the country proving 3 Idiots right. But nobody is waking up and changing the way of education,” said Sir and went silent for a while as though mourning for all the suicides because of education system, that he spoke of.

“Sorry. I got carried away. Where was I?” asked Sir. “You were mentioning of Indian way of studying films,” I reminded him.

20140904-0013“Yeah. India has a dramatic tradition. Plus the Indian way of life and western way of life are different. So there has to be different aesthetics for both. There is. And there should be different ways to understand them also. Though it might sound simplistic I must say that in a broad sense we can say that the western life is mind-centric and Indian life is heart-centric. You see that most of the times people dismissing Indian cinema as illogical. When they say that they are using a mind-centric definition of logic. But as Pascal said, ‘Your heart has the reason that reason does not know.’ We just need a different way of reading them and understanding them,” said Sir and went on to say that though there are different traditions within India they, to understand, were like different trees from the same family which were not similar and though were different from each other there was some cultural unifying factor. “To understand one’s own culture is very important and to be rooted in one’s own tradition also,” he said because he is of the opinion that its only then that one will genuinely respect other cultures.

“Before one understands cinema the Indian way one should have an understanding of cinema which is universal,” said Sir and gave his definition of cinema which he said is universally applicable: The film is an imaginary sequence which starts with the filmmaker who imagines it and translates it to an audio-visual sequence. And the audience imagines the sequence through the audio-visuals sequence that has been presented. [Imaginary sequence & audio-visual sequence are key in his definition and so is the creator and the audience.]

Giving his definition of cinema he got back to the need to understand cinema in an Indian way. The western aesthetics, he said, aims at purgation of emotion while the aesthetics of Indian art tradition aims at the arousal of emotion to the highest level possible where the experience goes beyond self and becomes collective. The emotion gets elevated, he said, to ‘saadhaaraneekaran’ where the experience is beyond the individual level and is united with the experience of all those who experience the same emotion.

“I am not comparing the western aesthetics and the Indian one trying to evaluate which one is better. I am just saying what the differences are,” he explained himself and emphasized that knowing the differences is important.

“Classroom mentality,” he went on to say, “cuts you from your own tradition.” He remembered his students at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad telling him that they all had watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai more than once but asking him not to watch the film when he expressed the desire to watch the film. “Its not for YOU to watch,” the students had told him which kind of intrigued him even the more. He said he went and watched the film that very day in the nearest cinema hall in Ahmedabad and loved it. “I did not understand and still do not understand the untouchability our academia teaches us about something which is popular,” he said and went on to recollect another episode from his life.

“I was invited to Bangladesh once,” he began and continued to say that on reaching Dhaka he asked them which film was running in the theaters and on being told that the film Beder Meye Josna [Josna the daughter of snake charmer] which was the highest grossing Bangladeshi film ever. But the organizers advised him not to watch the film because it was a popular film. “I was told not to watch a film which thousands of Bangladeshi people had watched and probably watched it more than once,” said Sir. The film, he said, was based on a story which was almost 125 years old. “The story had lived for so long and the film had appealed to so many people and I was advised against watching this film,” said Sir and went to say that he has had such experience often where he has been advised not to watch films which millions have watched and had struck a chord with the masses. He said one needs to understand the pulse of people and understand why popular films become popular. “My uncle,” he said referring to Bharatha Muni, “said that to understand art one should begin from where the audience are,” and stressed the need to understand cinema also with the audience and their experience in the center and not just by placing the creator or author in the center.

gaston with rayGaston Roberge Sir came to India in 1961 which he calls as being “reborn” at the age of 26 from Canada as a Jesuits priest. Remembering his journey from Canada to India via New York he said in New York he had watched Satyajit Ray’s Apu Triology which made a lasting impression on him. He said he did not even imagine then that the filmmaker would become a dear friend of his soon. Speaking of Pather Panchali he said, “There are eight close-up shots of Apu and Durga tasting pickles. EIGHT,” and remembered a scholar commenting that it had delayed the development of the story. “The scholar,” he said, “had seen the film as a westerner,” and very proudly continued to say, “But I had watched it as an Indian and so could enjoy it the way Apu and Durga enjoy the taste of pickle. I felt their joy.”

“Then I came to India,” he said and then hurriedly added, “Actually I am still coming to India.” That is when I realized why Sir was referring to Bharatha as “Uncle.” I remembered how long ago in some interview he had said that he had come to India not to convert but had get converted after arriving to India. Coming to India and settling in Kolkata Roberge Sir also started the Institute Chitra-Bani apart from writing around 20 books. His Institute and his books nurtured many, like me, over the years.

Speaking of India he expressed sadness on how the spirit of India, not as a state but as a civilization, had undergone changes. “Sustainable development is an oxymoron,” he said and added, “Development is all about money and profit. And sustainability is not some project but a quality of human mind.” He also said, “Spirituality is not a part of any religion but a quality of humans.”

When I asked him for an autographed copy of any of his book for a friend of mine he walked to his desk took out a copy of Cyber Bani and wrote on it, “This copy of Cyber Bani is dedicated to abc a friend of my friend Samvartha,” and signed it. While signing the copy he was explaining the concept of super-book which is non-linear and said how he had tried to achieve it with Cyber Bani.

“My first book was Chitra Bani. This is Cyber Bani. Things have changed so much and are changing so much,” he said as he was walking me out of his room. When we came out of his room I was looking for someone to click a photo of ours. There was none. I asked him to pose for a selfie with me. He asked me what a selfie is and when I explained he said, “This is something new,” and posed for one. By then someone came near the lift and he requested them to click a photo of ours together. We both posed again.

[The notes that I made on 4 Sep 2014 while conversing with Fr. Gaston Roberge were majorly some key words here and there. I had intended to write down the entire conversation, with the help of the notes, immediately. But my itinerary did not permit initially and when after months I went back to my notes I couldn’t make sense of the key words. I had to spend a lot of time staring at those key words that I made note of and had to press hard on my memory to recollect my conversation with Roberge Sir. That is the reason I have titled this: A Remembered Conversation.

This meeting with Roberge Sir and this post wouldnt have been possible without three teachers of mine who I have to thank here immensely. Anil Pinto, for introducing me to the book Chitra Bani. Richie (Fr. Richard Rego) who helped get in touch with Roberge Sir years ago. Buroshiva Dasgupta for making this meeting possible by forcing the lazy me to visit Kolkata.]

1 Comment

  1. Towards an Understanding of Salman Khan Phenomenon | Crazy Mind's Eye said,

    […] having listened to Gaston Roberge say that there is something about the popular films which is in tune with the collective cultural […]

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