Godard and Ray, two filmmakers – The Tribune India | Episode Movies

Amitabha Bhattacharya

Former Principal Adviser, Planning Commission

The Franco-Swiss film director Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022) and the director Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) are two of the masters of world cinema who have become icons at home and abroad. Yet no two contemporary filmmakers could be so different. Ray enriched cinema with the classic format of storytelling, endowed it with irony, brevity and understatement and raised it to the level of a generally accepted art.

More political, experimental and often rebellious in his approach, Godard broke with conventional storytelling and cultivated what one commentator called “extreme art cinema”. Although both have received wide attention since the release of their first feature film, one was composed while the other was restless.

Interestingly, Ray understood best what Godard sui generis was and wrote more about him than any of his peers. For Godard, however, India remained virtually non-existent. Last year, Godard received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 25th Kerala International Film Festival, which he attended virtually. Amartya Bhattacharyya directed an Odia film, Adieu Godard (2021), which had its world premiere at the 43rd Moscow International Film Festival.

Since Godard’s passing is widely mourned, especially among art film enthusiasts and historians, it might be interesting to imagine why he remained completely aloof from India and why his Histoire(s) du cinéma are silent about India’s cinematic expressions. In fact, this commitment was completely one-sided.

In an essay entitled An Indian New Wave? Ray wrote in 1971: “Godard is the first director in the history of cinema to have completely dispensed with what is known as a story arc. In fact, it would be correct to say that Godard invented a whole new genre for cinema. In his most recent films, Godard has sacrificed art for politics, but even in his best and most characteristic early works he was a poor role model for young directors, simply because his brand of cinema demands the highest level of craftsmanship, not to mention various other equipment on an intellectual level.” Ray also noted that Godard was able to turn convention on its head because he had a firm grip on convention itself.

Godard and some of his French New Wave colleagues took narrative risks and expanded the language of cinema, facilitated primarily by two factors – advances in film technology and the presence of a sophisticated, urban audience willing to deviate from accepted norms to accept art. Godard was extraordinarily gifted, but Ray feared that if filmmakers started using Godard’s idiom “in an all-or-nothing attempt to be contemporary,” the results could be very unsatisfactory.

In an earlier essay, a few years after the release of Godard’s first feature film, Breathless (1960), Ray commented: “For a mind attuned to the conventional unfolding of plot and character, such things can be quite disturbing. But Godard can never be blamed for daunting expectations, as he is careful to establish his credo from the first recordings.”

Admittedly, Ray’s interpretation of directors who influenced him, such as Jean Renoir or Vittorio De Sica, is on one level and Godard’s on another. Although a conceptual similarity can be noted between a sequence in Ray’s Devi (1960) and Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), neither was obviously influenced by the other.

Wasn’t Godard Ray’s work known? Didn’t he know what Ray wrote on him? Ray’s reputation in France was indelible, from the time Pather Panchali (1955) won at the Cannes Film Festival to France’s rediscovery of Jalsaghar (1958). Cahiers du Cinéma, the influential film magazine with which Godard had been associated since the 1950s, had covered Ray’s films.

Former French President François Mitterrand visited Calcutta to present Ray with the Legion of Honour. Shakha Proshakha (1990) was co-produced by Erato Films of France. In this context, Godard’s claim that he wanted to see Jalsaghar, asked many people to send it but could not get a print, sounds rather defensive and unconvincing.

If Godard’s consciousness had no place for India, it might reflect his intellectual exaltation or his artistic indifference. Was he trying to be unconventional, or was he more conventional because he was western-centric? India as a civilization and the emergence of the new India are too significant to ignore. However, being the unusual genius that Godard was, he could possibly have deliberately closed himself off to India. Was he afraid that his single-minded quest to establish a new identity for cinema would otherwise be compromised? It could also be that he just wasn’t interested and was being honest. Only a researcher can elucidate the reasons for this total reluctance.

Whatever it was, both Godard and Ray would be remembered for as long as cinema survived, but for very different reasons.

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