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Fr. Gaston Roberge: A Life Dedicated to Studying Cinema and Its Commune with the Heart

August 27, 2020 | By

Master teacher Father Gaston Roberge (May 27, 1935 to August 26, 2020), the founder of Chitrabani, gave a new dimension to film studies and analysis. Many an established filmmaker and film scholar in Kolkata and outside, would testify that their first understanding of cinema as an art form and as a medium of communication happened at Chitrabani.
Subha Das Mollick pays “a humble tribute from a lifelong student”.

Father Roberge with Mother Teresa

Father Roberge with Mother Teresa

Father Gaston Roberge came to India in September 1961. After leaving his hometown Montreal, where he had been ordained as a Jesuit in 1956, he had to halt for a night in New York before setting sail for India. The 26 years old Jesuit priest spent the evening watching Apu Trilogy back to back at an art theatre on Fifth Avenue. That was his initiation to India and Bengal – a relationship that took deep roots and spread its leaves and branches for sixty odd years. Father’s first reactions to Apu trilogy may be summed up in his own words, “The image of Mother Teresa as the Saint of the Slums had bothered me. Did such poverty exist? Was helping the poor sufficient? These questions had been following me like phantoms. Seeing the Apu Trilogy both reassured me and seduced me. No. Apu, Sarbajaya, even Harihar did not need my help.”

After arriving in Bengal, Fr. Roberge learnt Bengali and took up a teaching assignment at the Junior Technical School in Basanti, near the Sunderbans. In this rural hinterland of Bengal, he met the real life Apus and Durgas. He passed effortlessly from the screen world to the real world. The bridge had been built by the trilogy.

Satyajit Ray and Father Roberge

Satyajit Ray and Father Roberge

Nine years after coming to India and after completing M.A in Film Arts from UCLA, Fr. Gaston Roberge met Satyajit Ray, the creator of the trilogy. A hesitant encounter turned into a life long friendship. Sunday morning 9 am adda with Satyajit Ray became a regular event in Father Roberge’s weekly routine. When Chitrabani was established, Satyajit Ray was offered the position of Honorary President and the maestro readily obliged.

Chitrabani, a pioneering media institute in India, came up in 1970, of which Fr. Roberge remained the founder director till 1996. At Chitrabani, with the help of a few other scholars and thinkers, he developed a curriculum of cinema studies, set up a library, a film library and himself wrote books on cinema. As the years passed, the library and the film archive increased in volume. Chitrabani rapidly became a haven for film buffs where they could spend hours browsing, viewing, dreaming and debating cinema. Many an established filmmaker and film scholar in Kolkata and outside, would testify that their first understanding of cinema as an art form and as a medium of communication happened at Chitrabani. To fill the lacuna in serious books on cinema, particularly for the Indian readers, Father wrote his first book “Chitra Bani” in 1974. Since then he has written more than two dozen books on various aspects of cinema, communication and spirituality. His book Communication Cinema Development. From Morosity to Hope received the National Award at the 46th National Film Festival of India, 1999.

Father Roberge

Father Roberge delivering a lecture

Father was not an avid movie buff. But he went deep into the movies he watched and dissected them threadbare. He brought popular films under an academic scanner and analysed the cause of their popularity. He always said that the spectator was the ultimate judge of a film. If the spectator liked a film, the critic had no business to dismiss it as ‘populist or ‘crass’. Some of the popular films that Father Roberge has taught and written about are Roja, Beder Meye Jyotsna, Sholay, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and 3 Idiots. He traced the popularity of these films to socio political conditions of the times.

Father Roberge and Mrinal Sen

Father Roberge with filmmaker Mrinal Sen

Among Ray films, after Apu trilogy, Charulata was Father’s favourite film. He never failed to point out to his students that when Charu was going from window to window and opening the shutter to train her lorgnette at the fat pedestrian with an umbrella, she was actually creating her own cinema. In lighter moments outside the classroom, Father liked quizzing his students on the dialogues of Charulata. He would identify “nobinas” and “probinas” among his students and get excited if he stumbled on a name beginning with B.

Roberge interviewing Satyajit Ray

A young Father Roberge interviewing Satyajit Ray

Father Roberge termed the last three films of Ray as the “Heart Trilogy”. When film critics in Calcutta were busy proclaiming that Ray had lost his edge, Father Roberge could feel the vibes of deep communion between individuals in these films. He has written in his autobiographical essay, My Pather Panchali (song of the road): A Journey with Satyajit Ray to the Cave of the Heart, “The cave of the heart is where humans commune and are bound together. When in Shakha Proshakha, Prabodh and family take leave of the ailing Ananda Majumdar, they do not really commune at the level of the heart. But Prashanta does. And that is symbolized by the joining of hands, a gesture displayed by Ray already in Gana Shatru. Here it is further emphasized by the fact that Ananda and Prashanta have joined hands tightly on Ananda’s heart.”

Father Gaston Roberge

Father Gaston Roberge delivering a lecture – a familiar image to the film students of Kolkata for the last five decades

Just as Eisenstein had dreamt of a unified field theory till his dying day, Fr. Roberge dreamt of an Indian film theory based on Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra. He applied the principles of Natya Shastra to many a film sequence, one of them being the scene where Apu and Durga enjoy the forbidden achaar on a lazy afternoon. Francois Truffaut had found Pather Panchali like a rough cut of a film. Father argued that Ray held on to the shots even after the basic information was transmitted because he wanted his spectators to be immersed in the ‘rasa’ of the action. Indian aesthetics should be applied to an Indian work of art.

Father Roberge breathed his last on August 26, 2020. Sixty five years ago, on the same day, Pather Panchali was released. It is now left to Father’s intellectual inheritors to give shape to Indian Film Theory.

(Pictures courtesy:  The Author. Source: Chitrabani Archive )

More to read

Father Gaston Roberge – A Master Teacher of Film Theories

‘Illuminating Ray’ A Critique on Gaston Roberge’s Satyajit Ray: Essays (1970-2005)

60 Years of Pather Panchali and Some Questions on Indian Cinema

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Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Deptt. at the St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.
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