(PAST/ ARCHIVE) The River - Jean Renoir

The River (1951)

Directed by Jean Renoir. Duration: 99 minutes


Presented as part of A Cup of Tea Solves Everything Programme of Events


When speaking of Jean Renoir's timeless masterpiece The River, one can easily exhaust their supply of superlatives. Frequently listed among the greatest films ever made, it was Renoir's first English-language film and his first in color…and what rich, astonishing Technicolor it is! Shot by Renoir's nephew Claude, the film is a love letter to India, seen through the eyes (and narrated as memories) of an adolescent British girl living with her family near the banks of the Ganges, a location which allowed Renoir to indulge his burgeoning affection for the region, it's people, and the exotic allure of the Orient. Under challenging conditions, Renoir and author Rumer Godden adapted Godden's autobiographical novel into an elegant, loosely plotted reflection on the romance of India, and on coming of age in a culture that, until then, few Western filmgoers had ever seen on screen. (To enhance this journey to a new world, Renoir used Indian music recorded live in Calcutta instead of a traditional score; the effect is hypnotically inviting.) The film was meticulously restored to its original glory in 2004.


Q: Why did you choose The River to open your exhibition?


Curator Hamja Ahsan: There were a number of common themes in all the submissions we received for the exhibition. One was the colonial encounter between the British Empire and Asia. Another was the quaintness of the etiquette that make up the English tea party. These come together in this film.


We also sought to relate to the locality of East London, which contains the largest Bengali community outside of Bangladesh and West Bengal. There is a place called Calcutta House in the local area which has been into a converted London Metropolitian University library where all the tea trade from Bengal came from in former colonial times via the East India Company. Sylhet (from the majority of British Bangladeshi origanate from) is still home to idyllic tea gardens. A lot of these are still owned by foreign companies. I am also a passionate champion of Bengali parallel cinema and tea features as a vital subtext throughout. From Satyajit Rays Kapurush (The Coward) which is a tormented love story set in a tea garden to a film called Sagina starring Dilip Kumar that features a communist revolt on a tea estate. It is a significant part of the social encounters in Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowinhee Lane too it indexing dying colonial rule. Tareque Masud’s Homeland about the Bangladeshi diaspora is partly set in a Sylheti tea garden too which we showed earlier at Departure.


Tea features in the film as a backdrop and an encounter that provides a key to mapping the power relations between the characters in the film and wider historical struggles


Influence on Bengali Cinema


The film was seminal for lauching the career of  Satyajit Ray and Subrata Mitra, Ray’s legendary cinematographer who he met on the set.


In the 1951, Jean Renoir came to Kolkata to shoot his film The River. Satyajit Ray helped him to find locations in the countryside. It was then that Ray told Renoir about his idea of filming Pather Panchali, which had been on his mind for some time, and Renoir encouraged him to proceed.


It was Lindsay Anderson who asked Ray to write about Renoir for a Cine magazine called the Sequence, which Ray did by interviewing Renoir.


Renoir was the first European director who warned Ray against Hollywood influence in Indian films. Renoir had noticed how the Indian film industry was churning out melodramas to cater to the taste of ever-enthusiastic Indian public. But he was optimistic that better films were going to be made and he blamed the current state of affairs on the Indian directors who found more "inspiration in the slick, artificiality of a Hollywood film than in the reality around him." Of all the films of Renoir, Ray admired La Regle du Jeu the most, a personal favorite of Renoir himself. Regarding filmmaking Renoir said that a filmmaker need not show a lot of things in a film but to show only the right things. Ray diligently followed the same advice that Renoir offered him in 1952: "You don't have to have too many elements in a film, but whatever you use must be the right elements, the expressive elements." From Renoir, Ray learnt that there was nothing more important to a film than the emotional integrity of human relationship in the film. No doubt technique was important but he said that it should not become the dominant force. "In America," Renoir said, "they worry too much about the technique, and neglect the human aspect."


In Calcutta, Ray often used to drop by Jean Renoir's hotel-room during the evenings to discuss Europeans films and filmmakers. Renoir would point out the distinctive and specific features of the landscape of Bengal which symbolised the essence of Bengal. For instance, a clump of banana trees, a small pond in a village or a waving paddy was quintessentially Bengal to Renoir. Like in Renoir's The River, the placid Ganges is a recurrent symbol in Ray's films including Aparajito. The film, shot in Benares, continuously shows man's dependence on the river as a source of life. Renoir even told Ray that if Indian filmmakers could get Hollywood out of their system, they would be making great films. (Marie Seton, Satyajit Ray, OUP, 1974; p. 145)


True to Renoir's advice, Ray focused on details which typified the city and the village in Bengal. The vast plains of Bengal, the rivers, the monsoon rains, and heavy moisture-laden clouds formed the backbone of Ray's earlier films.


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