On the Collar and the Camera: Gaston Roberge’s Life in Film

by SB Veda, Calcutta

“People say I am the ‘father of film studies in India’. I am not; that honor goes to Bharat Muni” – Gaston Roberge, SJ

Film-maker, priest, writer, critic, professor – these lives of the Montreal-born monk, Gaston Roberge comprise of the stuff of which films are made.

A Canadian Jesuit volunteer, Roberge came to Calcutta in his early twenties where he was ordained as a Catholic priest and sent to California to study the new communications medium of film by The Society of Jesus. Rising to the position of Executive Secretary, Social Communications for the Vatican, he longed to return to home – not to Canada but to Calcutta, where he has stayed for over fifty years.

In his genteel and sparsely furnished room at the monks’ residences of the prestigious St. Xavier’s College, where has been a senior professor and former head of the Film Studies department, he continues, at age 78, to do what he loves: writing, teaching and chatting about film, handing me a proof copy of his latest book, Viewing Films The Indian Way.

Despite his Western birth and upbringing, he has, during the course of studying and teaching film, been doing just that: developing a theory of how Indians might interpret the celluloid medium according to a paradigm that is distinctly their own.

How did a simple Jesuit volunteer from Montreal come to be known as the Father of Film Studies in a city described both in terms of Lapierre’s City of Joy and Kipling’s The Dreadful Night?  The answer: serendipity.

He explains: “I was attracted by the childhood stories of South Asia told to me by my uncle, who was a specialist in RADAR for Canadian Aviation and served in South Asia during the war …to make it more dramatic when he told his stories, there was a tiger skin on the floor and a boa on the wall, so as a five year old, I was very impressed, fascinated even. This remained dormant in me. And later, I became exposed to (Rabindranath) Tagore, read Gitanjali. After joining the Jesuits and being with them for five years, I asked to go to this place that had fascinated me, so. Upon my arrival in Calcutta, I was given five years by my elders to decide if I should stay on.  It took me five minutes to make the decision! That was in 1961 and except for a few years, I have been here ever since.”

Father Roberge came to India with a strong desire to learn about the place. “I was not one of those priests who wanted to convert everyone and this and that…I wanted to learn from different people about what I didn’t know, especially about God; and I obtained permission of my Jesuit superiors to spend three months with a Hindu family for my own enculturation (sic).  I was especially fascinated when I read the Gospel of Sri Ramakrinshna and was impressed by his use of parables in teaching; he was a great communicator in that way. “

Recognizing the growing importance of the medium of film in communicating with the masses, he requested permission from his regional superior (called a Provencal) to study the increasingly popular art form at the UCLA, California. “It was decided we should be trained in certain specialties and my Provencal knew that I had been interested in cinema, new media, so I was sent to California to do my Masters in Film” he says.

Years earlier, on the eve of his departure for India, he had been denied permission to go to the local movie theatre to watch Indian films in Montreal by his then superior in Montreal. But Roberge felt the hand of God was guiding him after learning that Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy was playing at a local art theatre in New York, the port at which he set sail for India in 1961. As the city fell outside the jurisdiction of his Provencal, the circumstances permitted him to watch the films without violating the dictat from his superior. He did just that – watching all three, in succession on his last night in North America. “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 truly charmed, fascinated.” says Roberge

Nine years later, he dared to arrange a meeting with the Trilogy’s famed director.

“Although I wanted to meet (him) immediately, I didn’t want to just go and see him like he was a living museum piece. I wanted to prepare myself, get to know his works more, so that when we met, there could be a worthwhile dialogue.”

While it is not difficult to imagine the six-foot five Ray’s imposing stature (both physically and intellectually) would make him appear unapproachable, Roberge paints a self-effacing portrait of a friend with a subtle sense of humour. “It was a wonderful friendship, enriching in so many ways, that we had. Manik-da (as Ray was affectionately called by friends) was a shy person, and rarely demonstrative of his emotions; maybe he saved that for the screen” says Roberge, a half-pained smile on his face as he looks off into the distance as though looking for his old friend.

They would meet on Sunday mornings at Ray’s home as a norm, and the award-winning director invited Roberge to private screenings of his latest films, welcoming comments on them.

Their collaboration continued when Roberge and Ray co-founded with four others, West Bengal’s first Communication and Film Studies Institute called Chitrabani, though Roberge insists this was merely an act of generosity on the part of Ray: “He lent us his name, and it gave us immense credibility.”

While not training students in the art of film-making, the institute provided instruction on the study of the social impacts of the medium with an aim to influence academics, critics and film-makers alike. Roberge was its director for 25 years.

After retiring from Chitrabani, he continued to teach and write, residing in the monk’s quarters at St. Xavier’s college. Academically and socially, he has been interested in the common man, perhaps owing to the vow of poverty required by his order.

“As you can see, though we believe in the poverty of Christ and disavow all forms of ownership, our form of poverty is somewhat grand in a place like Kolkata.  Still, I try to interact as much as possible with the common man, so I can relate to him. This is why I am interested in popular films.” he remarks.

His analysis of films from ‘Sholay’ to ‘The Three Idiots’ has been widely acknowledged as the most significant academic work on popular Hindi cinema or Bollywood. It seems ironic that someone so close to an auteur like Ray, would put so much effort into understanding the cinema of the masses. But Roberge sees no disconnect in this. “Manik-da’s films might appeal to the intellectual but he was also deeply concerned with the life of the common man, and portrayed such life realistically and fantastically, certainly evocatively.” he says.

Having authored twenty-four books, including an acclaimed collection of essays on Satyajit Ray published in 2007, his latest book, To View Movies The Indian Way focuses on guiding the audience on interpreting Indian cinema through the lens of Indian culture, which he feels is lacking in critical and scholarly review of Indian film.  “To understand Indian film, one must go back to Bharat-Muni and the Natya Shastra.” Roberge is widely known for comparing the ancient Indian dissertation on drama, Natya Shastra to is western analogue, Aristotle’s De Poetica (The Poetics).

Like Sri Ramakrishna might have done, he explains the dichotomy Western and Indian drama using a parable: “They see the same thing but it affects the sensibility of the viewer entirely differently: Westerner hears something – ‘Calcutta is a backward place, why would anyone want to live there’ and he thinks, ‘this unfair as Calcutta is more complex than this’; The Indian hears the same thing and thinks ‘this may be true but the way it was said that demonstrates he really meant it! What an unfair thing to say!’… So both people come to the same conclusion but through a different process of internalizing the same words. It is exactly the same in film – Bollywood is internalized through the emotion, Western films through the intellect – of course this is an over-simplification. But the audience reaches the similar heights of enjoyment.”

So, would this mean that within Roberge there is a strange dichotomy? An internal dialogue with Daniel Day Louis going on as his heart beats out an item number with Amitabh? He laughs at the suggestion. “Bollywood item number, indeed,’ he quips. “You’ll get me in trouble with such a question. I’m still a priest, you know.  But my heart definitely beats with India, and in Calcutta this I can say without reservation.”

He goes on, claiming that, were it not for his pension from the Government of Canada, which he gives to the Jesuits for the works of The Order, he would have applied for Indian Citizenship.

“I am really a Global Cacluttan – that is the label that would best describe me.”

In reading the dedication to me, written in his book, I notice that he had penned the moniker, “Fadar” in brackets beside his name, and ask him about it; he replies that after completing a Bengali language course in the nineteen sixties, his teacher proudly introduced him to then President of India, Sri Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who was giving out the certificates as ‘Fadar Gautam Roberjee’. “I was delighted to have been given a Bengali name, and have been proud to be known as Fadar, ever since.”

Roberge’s book, Viewing Films The Indian Way is due to be launched by him at Nandan in his adopted home, Calcutta on January 17th at 2 pm.

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