An interview with Father Gaston Roberge
Aparajito and Aristotle
Film scholar Father Gaston Roberge talks about Indian film, Greek theatre and the power of the Internet in an interview with Amirul Rajiv and Ahsan Habib
One of the top film scholars and critics in India, Father Gaston Roberge founded the Chitrabani media institute in 1970 with support from the late Satyajit Ray, and was a lecturer in film studies at the University of Kolkata before retiring in 2006. This interview was taken last month on the most recent of his many visits to Dhaka.
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? We are committed to the education of people, helping people to take a meaningful place in society. But it is felt that the educational system alone cannot provide the education required. During the 1960s we became aware of the importance of the mass media in the life of people and if this was true in the mid 1960s it is still more true today.
The second reason I work in this field, I have been interested in films from a very young 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 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 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 the spectators.
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 so-called 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 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 theatrethree, not only oneso I thought let me see that because I was going to Kolkata. So I saw the entire trilogy, Panther Panchali, Aporajito and Apur Sansar in 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.
You see what is happening in the Apu Trilogy is that the aporajito [unknown] is jibon [life] -- cholchhe cholchhe abar ashchhe cholchhe ashchhe cholchhe kono poriborton noi. Also, the 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.
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 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, a little death -- but usually they do not see the same film twice. There is no need because after they have seen one they can see another. It will be the same thing, the same formula -- eight songs/dances, what not.
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, I believe, 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.
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 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 founded 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 from start to finish as in the past, but because of the experience of reading web pages felt less inclined to read a, b, c, d. Already in 1978 I had hyperlinks in one of my book. I did not invent that; I copied it from a French encyclopaedia. But I found it interesting that every time in the text there was a verb on which there was an article, it was underlined.
My book Cyberbani  is not organised like a usual book. Now I am writing one that is more obviously built like the web. Eventually the text will be on the web also. It will be what you call copyleft, open source. There is a licence authorising you to copy it as often as you want as long as it is not to make business. You are also authorised when you take it to change it, make it better. Because the prevalent culture is a collaborative culture, though this is much impeded by the copyright system.
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 an accepted principle that your view of the world 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. My view is that 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. Otherwise you don't change anything. You consider the negative side and want to improve it, so then it must be an unbalanced view. For instance, so many students waste a tremendous amount of time on the web. Immediately you can say that is true but others learn a lot from the web, so keep quiet! My approach would be, since many students learn a lot from the web, why not helping those who waste time to also learn.
I take an unbalanced view to tackle the negative aspect, well aware that there is a positive aspect.
What you want to mean by the term "media-oppressed" in your writing?
Well, the "balanced view" of the world is that now all the nations have more or less achieved independence, there are no empires any more. But 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 -- beyond national limits. The power is partly military, partly economic and partly legal. Power used to be exercised through administration, as in that of the British Empire in India, in Bangladesh. No more. Now they control the minds of the people 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, problems of our time -- we do not know if we know what we should know. However, something new has happened, what you might call, 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 in human history, the means to resist false information. But it's not so easy; a lot more has to be done to educate our people as to the possibility of resisting and the duty of doing so. If we want to be free, we have to fight for it without hatred, quietly but efficiently.
For instance, when George W. Bush declared war on Iraq, in a few hours, they say they say that over 10 million people worldwide went to the streets to protest. Ten million people, it is incredible. Of course they did not stop the war, but they can never say that they were not told. The very weapon -- if I may say that -- used by the power can be used against the power. If they can use the media, the people also can use the parallel media through the Internet.
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/consume. 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 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 the lies, slogans, allurements of the empire of mind can also spread instantaneously around the world true information and 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.
Amirul Rajiv is Photo Editor, Forum
Ahsan Habib is Reporter, The Daily Star.