Man of god who dreams films

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By SOUMITRA DAS
  • Published 7.07.13
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Ever since Georges Méliès took viewers on a trip to the moon, movies and dreams have shared a symbiotic relationship. Filmmakers are often referred to as dream merchants, and three Hollywood media moguls have named a California film studio DreamWorks.

Father Gaston Roberge, who is considered the father of film studies in this city, has the “dream” of setting up “Bharat movie Studio” (Bharat stands for both India and Bharat Muni, who had authored Natya Shastra). But the environment here is sadly not conducive to translating it into reality. So the “dream” turns into a book. He would have liked to start from the film institute Chitrabani as a platform for his “dream” but that could not be done.

The proposed name of the film studio is typical of a man who regrets that his students here have very little awareness of their Indian cultural identity. When asked why they love a certain Indian film, they parrot the words of praise western film academics have for non-Indian movies, he says. He is also not happy with their being snobbish about popular films. Like Bharat Muni, he has faith in popular opinion. To quote his book in the making, titled To View Movies the Indian Way — enter the cave of your heart, “In matters of performing arts the ultimate authority is the public, not the expert” (Bharat Muni). Fr. Roberge quotes these words in strong reaction against the negative attitude of academia towards the popular theatre and movies.

The 78-year-old priest-turned-film academic from French-speaking Montreal arrived in Calcutta in 1961, and the city has been his home since. He lives in a room in St. Xavier’s College, which, apart from his bed, has his workstation, complete with a desktop computer and a printer. On the walls, Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy coexist with a picture of Christ.

He says he has been fascinated with films since primary school when cowboy films used to be screened on Saturdays. The first Indian film he saw was the Apu Trilogy in New York on the eve of his journey to India and “I was very impressed, particularly with Pather Panchali.” He had done his Masters in theatre arts (film) at the University of California in Los Angeles, and when he came back to Calcutta he thought of starting a centre, Chitrabani, to initiate people to the study of films.

Thus began his long association with Chitrabani, which he started with the help of Satyajit Ray and Rita Ray, whose pen name was Kabita Sarkar and who was Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s sister-in-law. Father Roberge was director of Chitrabani till 1996.

“I felt I must go after 26 years to make it possible for new leadership to take charge,” he says. Then he moved to the headquarters of the Society of Jesus in Rome as secretary for social communication. After he returned to Calcutta and more specifically to St. Xavier’s College in 1999, he again became involved in teaching mass communication and film studies, which he does till today.

Man of god he may be, and he presumably gestures towards heaven every time he talks about his “dream” that never fructified, but Father Roberge’s concept of a film institute is quite radical.

It was inspired strongly by Ivan Illich’s 1970 book, Deschooling Society. It would have been a real film studio, without teachers or students, but with practising filmmakers and apprentices, that is, masters and disciples.

Besides, “if the studio is as good as I see it, one would not have to go to Mumbai to work on one’s film. Lastly, if it is a real studio it could make money, and Chitrabani would not have to depend on foreign funding.”

“Excessive importance is given in the West to reason. India can play an immense role in reversing this trend,” asserts Father Roberge, whose talk on “Re-reading 3 Idiots” still creates a flutter on Facebook.