Updated: Jul 22, 2021
(The legendary French cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s visit to the Institute in 1997 was for me an occasion to attend one of the most satisfying workshops in that discipline. But I am especially happy and proud of this article that I took care to complete within a week of the event—otherwise it would be stray notes now—which spells out and consolidates the richness of that experience. The only way to digesting lessons is by passing them under the pen, as the adage from my school days goes.
You may have seen abridged versions of the article in various fora. Here is the complete original, in two parts).
Raaool Kootaa is how the Institute director Mohan Agashe kept calling him throughout his welcome address. But for us the silver haired, portly “old monkey” in the chair, the star cameraman of Jean-Luc Godard, and the grand old man of the French New Wave couldn’t be pronounced any other way except strictly—and crisply—as spelt, Raoul Coutard. Alongside Coutard sat Xavier Guerard of the French embassy who we were told had worked through all of his first twelve months in India to get him here. Having done which Guerard now sat beaming, taking Agashe’s generous praise and our heart-felt gratitude.
Raoul Coutard at FTII
For we have literally been brought up on that mother of all waves, the nouvelle vague of the late fifties and early sixties. 400 Blows, Les Mistons, Breathless, Le Petit Soldat, Jules Et Jim; not Bresson, not quite Resnais, certainly not Louis Malle, but Chabrol, Godard, Truffaut; and all of them from Cahiers Du Cinema, and all blessed by Andre Bazin. Surprising though that all along nobody knew what Coutard looked like, and here he was suddenly in person—the first ever actual participant from the great wave, incidentally, to visit FTII—to conduct a weeklong workshop for our cinematography students. The excitement in the Classroom Theatre air was palpable.
“Just cinematography students, sir?” Well, that’s how we had planned it to be. But for a week before that we had been showing our Coutard collection (which means just about everything of the early New Wave) by way of a warm up, and after the films everybody decided Coutard looked more a man from cinema rather than just camera. And so everybody was here in the CRT today—including indeed some ex-students who had smelled the workshop in Mumbai and came.
Coutard doesn’t speak English; nor did he have a very structured approach to the workshop. All he had brought with him was VHS copies of his more recent films (but no subtitles) and was game for anything the students might want him to do. Standing heavily by the rostrum and sharing it with a local Fergusson girl as interpreter, he announced as much and fell silent, making faces, waiting. Suddenly realising that it was their time ticking away, the students began to search for questions while their think-tank got busy trying to figure out plans for the rest of the days. And before long the workshop had found its working rhythm: Of longish questions asked, interpreted into a brief French mumble, responded to by a torrent of outpourings in loud French (laced with equally lively shrugs, rolling of eyes, pauses and an occasional laughter, then turning for translation) and everybody finally lapping up in hushed silence everything that the petite, efficient, soft-voiced Amrita Kulkarni—“my voice”—had to say.
No wonder some people thought that it was a three-day workshop translated over six. From 24 to 29 November 1997, to be precise.
Finally as it shaped up, half the workshop remained Classroom Theatre bound question-answer sessions around Coutard’s films and the other half devoted to a shooting demonstration. Predictably, most discussion with him tended to slip to his New Wave days, to his long association with Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, and particularly to their Breathless (1960) and Softskin (1963) which we were most familiar with. By comparison, his newer films appeared to be works of experts in all departments—well mounted, spick and span, and in beautiful colour, but more like assembly-line products. Fortunately Coutard didn’t seem to mind going back to the past and staying there awhile for us.
“Softskin had to have a subtle erotic charge,” Coutard told us by way of an opening statement on the film, “ and one of the devices used to bring that out was weaving in a profusion of big close-ups, sensuously shot, of details like lovers’ hands, locks and keys, stockings and shoes etc. The intertwining lovers’ hands in the title sequence were additionally shot in the reverse in order to add an extra dimension of mystery.” Similar device, he told us, had also been used earlier for a kiss in Jules Et Jim. Economy of resources being another hallmark of the New Wave, it squared well when he told us that the professor’s split-level house in the film had been Truffaut’s own apartment, but how were the airplane shots, including those taken from another plane in the air, managed, we asked. “It was a low budget film but not that low budget,” Coutard laughed. “Moreover, we were advertising the airline too, so the planes may have come free.” Interestingly, another question asking why the audience were only suggested through the sound track and not directly shown when the professor goes on stage to address them, was answered obliquely by Coutard, more as if on Truffaut’s behalf than on his own as a cameraman. “From a wall if a brick can be taken out without the wall falling, then it was unnecessary there in the first place.” Later we learnt from his filmography that he had also been directing films off and on.
The Breathless story too revealed many a surprise for us. For one, he hadn’t been Godard’s choice on the project, but rather the producer’s for whom he had shot three films earlier. But he did offer to pull out in case Godard had someone else in mind. Godard discussed his cinematographic approach with him, which to Coutard simply meant that he wanted the film shot newsreel style. That apparently settled the terms of the celebrated collaboration between the two. Similarly, contrary to a prominent mention naming Truffaut on the credits, there had in fact been no script written for that film. Having established himself with a hit in 400 Blows, this was Truffaut’s gesture of lending prestige to help a friend find financial backing. “Every morning Godard would come with notes for that day’s shooting. When he brought blank pages, that meant no shooting that day,” Coutard chuckled.
“Anyway, he always shot in sequence and controlled that film—and many others afterwards—on a one-line formula: Take a situation of impossible love and resolve it with death. That’s what gives those otherwise cold films their emotional core.”
However, emotional core of a Godard film is one thing, but any effort on the part of actors to play out that emotion is quite another…
Surender Chawdhary is a retired Professor and Head of Direction Department at the Film & Television Institute of India, Pune. He currently resides in Gurugram in Delhi, NCR. This blog in two parts has been published at various fora before and is a part of Prof. Chawdhary's Wordpress blog blogsite.