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Satyajit Ray’s approach to screenwriting, in his own words

In this excerpt from a new collection of Satyajit Ray’s writing, the director discusses screenwriting tenets and the choices that shaped his films

Satyajit Ray looks through the viewfinder on one of his films

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My method has not changed very much, except that over the years I have acquired a certain proficiency. Basically I think the process has remained more or less the same: first the outline, then the breakdown.

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Writing the dialogue has improved enormously, I think one always overwrites at the beginning. Even now, I find occasionally—not as frequently as before—when a scene is being shot, that they’re talking too much. Maybe a gesture here, a gesture there, will take the place of words which you can drop. The general tendency is to overwrite, to put too much. That’s because your visual imagination is not working to the same extent while you are writing. You have to get into a state where you just live the scenes and imagine the actors living them, surrounded by the props in this or that location, getting up moving about. Generally, when you start writing dialogues, you imagine the actors are just talking, which is not the case.

‘Satyajit Ray Miscellany’, edited by Sandip Ray, published by Penguin Random House India 272 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
‘Satyajit Ray Miscellany’, edited by Sandip Ray, published by Penguin Random House India 272 pages, 599

That’s why I never rehearse, except on location, or, in the studio, when the set is ready with all the props and everything, so that I know precisely how the actors will move, what they will do, etc. In fact, every action affects the words. Sometimes your mind is distracted momentarily and you repeat something you said just before. And so, everything in the scene, in the shot, has to be taken into consideration, even the season of the year, because, for instance, in winter you talk in a different way from summer. You’re more relaxed at certain times. Your state of mind, the props surrounding you and the business that you’re performing, whether you are just sitting idly or active in some work, all this makes for different types of dialogue. So, I think my dialogue is becoming more and more life-like. This is not naturalism, but a kind of selective realism, which works only for a particular scene and with a dialogue the actors find very easy to say. I have discovered that a dialogue which is easy to speak improves the acting, because the actors know that what they are saying comes naturally and not like rhetorical speech.

I have also made progress with regard to the structure of my films. For instance, in Pather Panchali and in Aparajito, there were things which had to be cut out at the stage of editing. These things seemed redundant, or weak and unnecessary. That would obviously mean that the script was not perfectly conceived. On the other hand, in some cases, I could shoot only parts of some scenes because of lack of money, so the unprinted bits had to be left out. Some of these were very good scenes. Had they been completed, they’d be in the finished film. But they were not. The trilogy had a very special character in the sense that it was not a story: it had a kind of biographical quality to it, and this needed a different kind of script. If you had a plotted structure, that would need another approach. Since the trilogy, I have not attempted anything on the same lines, that is, a film with the quality of a biography, with the flow and rhythm of life rather than that of a plotted story.

If I am working on somebody else’s story, then to write the script means, first of all, casting the story into the form of a film. It then becomes a slightly different story, with a different rhythm and a different sequence of events to it, unless the original story happened to be very close to a film treatment, which is very rarely the case. So, often there is a considerable degree of adaptation which is required, and I do that adaptation. I cast the story in the form of a screen-story. But this is never for me a literary effort. It’s something that I have to do, which I wish I did not have to do. Anyway, it’s a form of writing, which I don’t think of as a literary effort at all. It’s just a kind of an outline—a block treatment, as the term goes—and as brief as possible.

In script writing, everything works as long as the final product is satisfactory. I don’t think you can frame strict rules any more. A certain degree of grammar is necessary, and you learn that by looking at films more than anything else. That’s the way we learned.

We used to go to movies which we liked, even to movies we did not like, more than once—the bad movies, to see what was wrong with them, but the good movies we could see five, six, or seven times. I even started at one time to take notes in the dark. But when it actually comes to shooting your own films, all that may be at the back of your mind, but I think your style, your editing method, your set-ups are all dictated by your material.

You are not applying rules there. The material of your story, of your subject matter, guides you. Such rules as “don’t cut from extreme long shot to close-up”, all that is gone. Nobody takes that seriously anymore, because emotional continuity is much more important than continuity of external movement.

I visualize everything very clearly, so all I have to do is to convey what I have in mind. Often, I express it pictorially. This is essential. I think that all the directors who have a sufficient degree of control over their material do the same thing. I do small sketches for my shots. That is the final stage of shooting the script. This is not a typewritten thing which I distribute to my crew. It’s a series of drawings of shots, with notes on the dialogue and camera movement. It also shows the frame and the magnification. That is good for discussion with the art director and the cameraman

Music does not come right at the beginning. But at the time of writing the scenario. I become aware of certain situations. I know I might need music. If a certain theme or motif presents itself, I note it down in my script, sometimes in the margin. Suddenly a line of melody comes and strikes me that it would suit a certain situation. I generally use music in a leitmotif sort of fashion. It’s not a new piece of music for every situation, but it rises out of certain thematic material. It maybe one or two main themes. Then I produce variations on them, like in the film Charulata. This process is very clear there. I also have a separate notebook with staff notation. In that book I keep noting down themes, not necessarily for a particular film, but for some film in the future.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Satyajit Ray Miscellany’, edited by Sandip Ray, published by Penguin Random House India.

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