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What cinema owes to Orson Welles, Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt

It is the likes of such auteurs that make you want to fall in love with films all over.

 |  3-minute read |   07-05-2015
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With the birthdays of auteurs such as Satyajit Ray and Orson Welles falling within days, the first week of May is a time of celebration for film aficionados. And with 2015 marking the 100th birth anniversary of Welles it becomes all the more special. The passage of time is a tricky thing when it comes to cinema and on most occasions the years tend to change the way we experience our favourites, but over time, if films retain the same magic, or perchance get better, you know they are the great ones.

satyajit-ray-630_050615121303.jpg Veteran auteur Satyajit Ray shares his birthday with Orson Welles.

Amongst filmmakers, Orson Welles is one of the rare ones whom many filmmakers consider the greatest and his seminal creation, Citizen Kane (1941) continues to be influential even after seven decades. Welles was in his early 20s when he got what could be considered the greatest contract ever offered to a director and that too for his debut - complete artistic control. Chances that anyone with half a brain would make good of such a deal are a given, but Welles took it one step further and ended up redefining cinema as the world knew. Now, it's a different thing that it took the world almost a decade-and-a-half, when the film was re-released in the mid-1950s, to realise Welles' genius. But since of the early 1960s Citizen Kane has topped almost every greatest films' list worth it's salt and only added to the aura of Orson Welles. Citizen Kane had enjoyed favourable reviews upon it's release but a showdown with William Randolph Hearst, the publisher on whom the film was based, marred the film's fortunes, and as a result lessened Welles' endless power. The same studio, RKO, mutilated his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) behind his back and its failure pushed Welles out of the A-List.

citizen-kane_post_050615121413.jpg A still from Citizen Kane.

Welles' inexperience ended up helping him during the making of Citizen Kane and along with cinematographer Gregg Toland, he created a new visual language of film. By the time the interest in Citizen Kane revived, Welles was past his prime and indulged in a variety of things including television commercials, lecture tours and such to keep himself in the news. Unlike some filmmakers such as Guru Dutt, who, like Welles has been an influence on not just viewers but also filmmakers themselves, Welles lived to see the brilliance of his creation being discovered by people. Ironically, Guru Dutt has been called the "Orson Welles of India" and one can't help wonder how things would have turned out had the world noticed the virtuosity of Dutt's Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) while he were still alive. In contrast to Welles, Dutt enjoyed a higher degree of commercial success and unlike Welles, didn't come a step down in stature with every subsequent release. Interestingly, in both Welles and Dutt's cases, their resurgence was on account of an interest in their works by European critics and common to both is the fact that passage of time has only been kinder. Both filmmakers have made more than one genre-defining film. In Welles' case, there's drama (Citizen Kane), noir (A Touch of Evil, 1958) and thriller (The Lady from Shanghai, 1947) and adaptions (Macbeth, 1948, and The Trial, 1962), whereas Dutt, too, has a great noir (Baazi, 1951), period (Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, 1962), thriller (Aar Paar, 1954) and of course, dramas (Pyaasa, 1957, and Kaagaz Ke Phool, 1959).

gurudutt_050615121655.jpg Guru Dutt in the song "Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai" from Pyaasa.

Nestled between the birthdays of Ray and Welles a restoration of Pather Panchali (1955) had its premiere 60 years after the first time the world witnessed Ray. The restoration's screening met the same impassioned reception that has greeted the original. In a time when films are becoming exceedingly pointless and filmmakers direct a major portion of films in front of a blue screen, it's Welles, Ray and the likes that make you want to fall in love with cinema all over and even at 100 they don't age.

(May 6, 2015 is Orson Welles' 100th birth anniversary.)


Gautam Chintamani Gautam Chintamani @gchintamani

Cinephile, observer of society and technology and author of the of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna.

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