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Interview with Victor Banerjee

BROADCAST: Apr. 23, 1985 | DURATION: 00:46:05

Synopsis

Discussing the film "Passage to India," with actor Victor Banerjee.

Transcript

Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.

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Studs Terkel It's a delight to be sitting here with a magnificent actor: Victor Banerjee. The name may even not ring a bell to you, if you've seen "Passage to India", you'll know who he is, Dr. Aziz, it's an indelible experience watching him as this young Indian physician during a certain time that Forster wrote about and that David Lean directed, that change. The end of the British rule, and beginning seeds of independence and Victor Banerjee's in town, and that's one of the roles he's done, and I was thinking, your feelings. And we'll ask -- we'll come to your life in a moment, too, but your feelings as you're playing this young Indian Moslem [sic - Muslim] doctor. Then when you go through a variety of changes. At first he's almost -- some would say a Chaplinesque figure, but then bit by bit, as there's a missed, almost a miscarriage of justice in his acquittal, he suddenly finds love and there's a certain moment when you put on a kind of eye shadow and think, "Now I am an Indian." It's a tremendous moment.

Victor Banerjee Well, Studs, first let me tell you I'm very glad to be here, and I'd like to congratulate you for the Pulitzer Prize. I mean, that's incredible. That's wonderful. I mean, it's an honor to be interviewed by you, then coming back to the trivial, or the trivia, Dr. Aziz and films. Yes, it is, it is a marvelous part that examines if you like more than one Indian that exists in India. And one of the traumas or the joys of playing Dr. Aziz was to discover a different person in every scene, and that's what made it extremely difficult to convert the Chaplinesque Dr. Aziz into the, the actual Dr. Aziz that you see at the end of the film. And there was just one scene to do that, and as you say, the putting of the carbon, the coal dust in my eye, which I'd like to inform all the listeners here is it was entirely my idea. David and I were both talking about what should be done. David Lean and I, yes, and I said, "Look, David, there's a, there's a custom that's died out which used to be there with the aristocracy with which the Muslims, and Aziz is a Muslim, still adopt, which is to put coal dust, or surma, as we call it, in the eyes," and he showed immediate interest and he said, "Well, well show it to me." So I sent out for it, and it was flown out, that little instrument that you saw in the film belonged to my grandfather, and I used that and it's amazing, but there you have the genius of David Lean as well, because he introduces this with a massive close-up. And when you see me doing something as dramatic as putting that eye shadow, when I then emerge and say, "I'm an Indian at last," it's almost like we were talking earlier on in private about how when you intersperse real-life drama with a stupid commercial on television, the mind does not know how to evaluate one from the other. Similarly with this very striking close-up, the mind is immediately willing to accept a transition which is almost improbable into the Indian at last.

Studs Terkel I think that's one of the keys I think of all drama, all great theatre, is that gesture. I guess something I think someone once called "the psychological gesture," but in this case it's a historic gesture.

Victor Banerjee Absolutely.

Studs Terkel And that gesture suddenly grabs you, as it obviously grabs not just myself, all who've seen it, and that's certainly the moment perhaps you most indelibly remember.

Victor Banerjee I'm very proud of that, because it was my contribution, it was very nice, yeah.

Studs Terkel By the way, that come to the [max?] say your grandfather, you yourself come from I guess one of the Indian aristocracy.

Victor Banerjee Yes. That's a dubious distinction these days. But yes, I, yes, I do. Yes.

Studs Terkel At the same time, even though you came from a class well-off, your grandfather was a backer of the independence movement,

Victor Banerjee Oh, absolutely, yes. Sure. In fact, both my grandparents were. One was a policeman, and he fetched up as being the Inspector General of Police in India and which is as high as you can go. And I remember he was a member of the king's police, and he was out controlling a procession in Bengal once because they didn't want any trouble, because someone called Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the greatest freedom fighter of them all, in fact the man most responsible for having won India's freedom was coming into town. Now, he and Subhas Bose had studied together right through school and college, so when the convoy was passing along, Subhas Bose, who was standing in the car, garlanded and waving to the crowds, saw my grandfather who was there, up with a panel of top-brass English policemen, and he yelled out to him and said, "[Droghope?]," [Droghope?] was the name, "[Droghope?], what are you doing there? Come with me!" And my grandfather, I mean, I have to admit had a lot of cheek and guts. He left the Englishmen and went up and stood beside Subhas Bose and drove off in the convoy. So yes, we've, I mean that's only

Studs Terkel Well, this leads to an interesting question before we come to another director, perhaps the great of all Indian directors, one of the world's greatest directors I think, Satyajit Ray, with whom you worked. But before we come to his voice and thoughts and your reflections on him, so all classes united, because we know that in all freedom battles against colonialism, sometimes the upper class goes along with those who have put them down. But in the case of India, was it, was this almost universal or pervasive, the aristocracy and the poor or the middle?

Victor Banerjee More or less, Studs, yes, because in some of the western parts of India, the aristocracy tended to support the British. And in fact which is why today when you talk of the great maharajahs of India, they're nearly always the people who were -- fell in line with the British and allowed them to just walk into their territories. Whereas in the east we were completely quelled, and the Maharajah and the raja system just died an unnatural and premature death. So I can certainly speaking for Bengal and Calcutta, yes, the aristocracy had a great part to play in the freedom of the people, and it wasn't only financial. I mean, their children died for democracy and freedom, and even the mothers. The women of Bengal are some, is something that that we're very proud of. I mean, they were a liberated race years ago, but only in terms of a moral freedom. And they would fight for what they thought was morally just. We are a chauvinistic society otherwise, and so much as women are sort of you know, "Look after the home and we look after the front." But in terms of moral advancement

Studs Terkel I remember this funny, as you're talking now, you're, you've been in the film "Passage to India", Rama Rau, the daughter of Lady Rama Rau, who I met, who is head of the, she was head of the Planned Parenthood movement of the world. She was. The head of it and very eloquent woman, was her daughter, was it not, who adapted "Passage" into a play?

Victor Banerjee Yeah, that's right. She did. And Forster in fact loved it so much that he left her the rights to whatever film or play that might be enacted afterward, so she is extremely happy with the result of "A Passage to India" now.

Studs Terkel See, now we come to something that's going to lead into the voice of Satyajit Ray in a minute, and that's at this moment in the United States and England understandably, there is a great interest in India in that period when English were fading out and independence and it began of course with "Gandhi" but then particularly with "Passage to India", the film in which you are Dr. Aziz, and the magnificent Peggy Ashcroft is Mrs. Moore, but also in the long television series "The Jewel in the Crown", so the question always comes up, how come this what appears to be nostalgia for a certain period. Now, you have a number of thoughts on that.

Victor Banerjee Oh, several, Studs. I think the, to sum it all up would be to take a direct quote from Salman Rushdie, who called it "a nostalgic twitch of an amputated limb."

Studs Terkel A word about Salman Rushdie.

Victor Banerjee Well, Salman is probably one of the finest writers in the English language today. I mean, he writes better than most of the English do. He's gifted with an imagination that very, very few people have, and that's led to creativity that I hope will not stop. He has in the last few years I think been faced with a bit of bitterness and sort of animosity in terms of social problems in England, and the Asian community there aren't as comfortable as they were a few years ago, and that I think has led to rather severe and unkind criticism of "Jewel in the Crown" and "A Passage to India". But by and large what I mean if you take the bottom line, I think what Salman is trying to say is that all you are seeing in films like this is the English point of view. You never are grasping what India is or was all about, and the fascination for the India that that everyone's talking about, that the media is hyping up to make into the year of India, is in fact sort of a very narrow view of India seen through the eyes of the British.

Studs Terkel In fact, Rushdie has a few harsh words for the man you like, David Lean the director, and he says, Lean quoted as saying, "No one's really done a film about India yet, a real film about India," and Rushdie says, "Oh, well that takes care of Satyajit Ray pretty well," and we think of this man now, we come to this director with whom you just finished

Victor Banerjee "Home and the World".

Studs Terkel Based upon a Tagore memoir.

Victor Banerjee That's right. Well, I must in defense of Salman and David Lean, I must say that that what he's picked up on is a genuine quote, but what is originally a misquote on the part of the first journalist that wrote it. And I mean, David would never make an ostentatious or stupid statement like, "No one's made a movie about India before." What he in fact was referring to was the Western world, he and he also went on to say that he had not seen "Gandhi" then, and but he didn't think anyone had tackled India as it ought to be. I can see where his point of view, because E.M. Forster was the only Western novelist that seemed to have successfully probed the Indian mind, the Indian psych, psychology if you like. And so to that extent when David was translating that novel into celluloid, he felt he would be revealing more of how India really worked and how the Indian mind worked more than anyone else had done before him.

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear the voice, just to remind the audience of, some of you may have seen a remarkable trilogy or one of them, Indian films "Patha Panchali", was the first and that was the most celebrated. Then was "Aparajito", and "The World of Apu".

Victor Banerjee That's right. Absolutely.

Studs Terkel These three, and the maker was Satyajit Ray.

Victor Banerjee That's right.

Studs Terkel And to me, you said a moment ago, the British point of view expressed not the Indian point of view. No matter how much I like "Passage to India" and "The Jewel in the Crown", I never once experienced or saw or witnessed Indian grief. I saw British grief, but not Indian grief. Now in this film "Patha Panchali" is an indelible moment for me in my life of movie-going, and that is that one moment when the mother starts crying. Her little girl, really bright little girl dies, and she cries out, and we don't hear her cry out, but we hear the sound of the sitar of Ravi Shankar, and it just stuns you. It grips you and holds you and I'll never forget it. Now there was grief Indian expressed. So this I think is what Salman Rushdie I think

Victor Banerjee Oh, absolutely. I mean, but I just to take, to digress partly on that is also Ray's wonderful use of sound. There he employs the music, replaces sound by music, and in "The Home and the World" which I have just completed, one of the -- when I saw the film I told Ray that the music that I most loved in the film where there was no music at all, there is this woman who is absolutely shattered and broken and she is crying against a mirror. You see her and her reflection, and there's no music, and everyone, I mean would normally wait for the scrape of violins, and all you hear is the scrape of the fingers down the glass of this mirror. It is magic as far as I'm concerned. I've just flown in from Paris, Studs, and where "Home and the World" and "A Passage to India" are both opening this week, and it is wonderful. I met about 30 different journalists and they had about half an hour or 40 minutes with me each, and they all spent two-thirds of their time discussing Satyajit Ray and "Home and the World", and it was wonderful to see how people in France reacted to Ray's films and how they felt he was such an important and wonderful filmmaker.

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear his voice, [unintelligible] lead into this. He was in Chicago maybe 15 years ago, there was a retrospective, and a film that you know, the mad-- "The Music Room". Now, this also deals with the end of an era. We're just talking about the end of the British Raj.

Victor Banerjee Yes.

Studs Terkel But this was the end of a a young Indian nobleman's time.

Victor Banerjee That's right. The [unintelligible] aristocracy,

Studs Terkel And what the difference is. Suppose we hear the question and your friend's voice.

Victor Banerjee Sure.

Studs Terkel And here's the end of a class, a nobleman's class.

Satyajit Ray The end of feudalism, yes. I would say that. Yes.

Studs Terkel And yet you point out there's a poignance quite obviously because there's a rise of another class.

Satyajit Ray Yes, certainly. The death of, the death agony of a particular class, and it's, fascinates me, and one has to take a sympathetic attitude to something which is dying after so many years of, you know. So this is a film which has a sympathetic -- shows a sympathetic attitude to even the noblemen who are, were useless people really, but to tell a story about such one character, one has to take an attitude of sympathy.

Studs Terkel I suppose what makes you the artist is precisely that, isn't it? He's someone with whom you may disagree as far as his use or his work or idleness in our time, yet it's the death of something.

Satyajit Ray Yes, indeed. And from his point of view it's a major tragedy, and this, the folly of trying to cling onto something which is inevitably going to vanish, and the new class which certainly hasn't got the finesse, but obviously the culture as we know it, you see, they were great patrons of music and the arts and that is all gone now.

Studs Terkel There we go again. This happens of course in Western society, too. But here in India so clearly you pointed out, even though they lived off others and they were, spent a lot of money and they were friends of the British overlords, at the same time they were patrons of the arts, in your film of course this fantastic music and dancing.

Satyajit Ray I was able to use the top musicians, classical musicians

Studs Terkel But even more class. We come to class. If I had to find one word to describe your films aside from the move from the rural to the city and the industrialization, the matter of class.

Satyajit Ray Well, that has fascinated me all along. And the fact that such contrasts could exist side by side, even today, and this conflict between the old and the new, that has been one of the major theme themes I think on analyzing my films over the last 20 years I think one can come to that conclusion.

Studs Terkel Your thoughts, Victor Banerjee, on hearing Ray. Your immediate thoughts.

Victor Banerjee Well, he in passing mentioned how the feudal classes were useless. And then of course you know makes retribution immediately afterwards by saying they were patrons of the arts, because coming from an artist like him I think he ought to give us due where we deserve it, in so much as we did patronize all the people that were musicians in his team.

Studs Terkel You're associating yourself with your family now.

Victor Banerjee Yes, I am. Yes. And the part that I play in his latest film "Home and the World".

Studs Terkel Oh, in "Home and the World" you're

Victor Banerjee Yes.

Studs Terkel Is this a reflection of Tagore's own life?

Victor Banerjee It is. It's autobiographical to a very large extent. The only reason I say to a very large extent is because Tagore also put in attributes into the character of Nikhilesh, which is what I play, attributes that he thought were necessary for a person to become the ultimate gentleman. So it's autobiographical plus, as it were. The other thought that comes to mind immediately is about Ray's films depicting one era but having a timeless quality and thereby a reflection on what's happening today. That that is very true. I mean, he even in "Home and the World", in spite of the fact that he deals with the same period of time as "A Passage to India" does. He deals with it from a social point of view as well as a political point of view. Socially today, the feminist movement has sort of suddenly emerged in India, and it's taking on a very, a tigress-like dimension like it always does wherever it first appears. And here, "Home and the World" is in fact how one woman, a wife of this aristocrat, emerges from the home into the outside world. And I don't think that Tagore meant to put her down when this woman goes through an unfortunate experience that leads to a tragedy. He was merely showing how an emancipated woman ought to be, or women should be emancipated and how important it was for them to be educated, and how when educated they could have a much finer perspective of social and political environment. At the political level, Ray talks about the freedom movement as being an occupation of the idle rich. And it was only the rich who could afford to be a part of the freedom movement, because the aristocrats, the part that I play, talks to the freedom fighter who is an old college friend and who's gone into freedom fighting as, and says to him that "Look, it's all very well for you to go into the freedom struggle, but you can't ask the poor people to do it because what you're asking of them is too much. You're asking them to buy clothes made in India. Salt and sugar that's made in India, soap that is made in India, when everything that's imported is cheaper. They can't afford it. How on earth -- it's ironic, it's a dichotomy if you, you know, you can afford to buy everything that's more expensive. So how can you introduce freedom with your kind of struggle? So please don't do it in my village. You can do it where people don't have a social conscience, where the old aristocracy has died and the nouveau riche have come into power. Go into those areas where there are people who have different values." One of the great things about the old aristocracy was also their sense of values. I think it's not only gentleman, the gentleman that we're talking about, it's of a very -- it's of a sense of refinement and culture that we're losing rapidly everywhere in the world with the economy going where it is and with inflation and with the striving to survive.

Studs Terkel How did Gandhi then succeed with the -- is that called the satyagraha movement?

Victor Banerjee Yes.

Studs Terkel You know, and that is we stick to Indian-made and boycott British cotton.

Victor Banerjee Well, Gandhi in fact didn't really succeed as much as the -- nothing succeeds like success. So Gandhi was successful in so much as he did win us freedom. I think the non-cooperation movement in terms of, you know, making our own salt and by boycotting salt, his salt movement was the most powerful. I think Gandhi is not as popular in Bengal as he is in the rest of India because he did also to our country a great disservice by bowing to Jinnah and allowing the partition of India. And of course we

Studs Terkel The Moslem [sic - Muslim] leader.

Victor Banerjee That's right. In combination with the first Yuppie of them all, Lord Mountbatten. I think he's, he was the most charming and most unqualified person to have been playing such an important part in the history of our subcontinent.

Studs Terkel As you're talking, I'm thinking of all the complexities involved. Let's stick with a few other things before we turn back. Since you're Bengal, and Bengal also had a horrendous famine we know

Victor Banerjee Yes.

Studs Terkel And there's a voice at the very beginning of this tape that [mat? might?] will go back to, but before that, class. "A Passage to India" and "Jewel in the Crown", both of them deal very much with, not only with colonialism, but with class as well. Certainly in the case of the character Merrick in "Jewel in the Crown" was a big factor. He felt inferior to those others, the better people, as well as to the young Indian whom he was persecuting, Kumar, who went to a private or you -- public school you say.

Victor Banerjee That's right.

Studs Terkel Whereas he didn't. That was, that's a factor here too, isn't it?

Victor Banerjee Where, in India today? Well, class, yes. Class unfortunately has been, is something indestructible in any society. I mean, sometimes it's dictated by money and sometimes by birth. The British certainly have always had a very distinct class distinction in their society. It exists even today. I mean, within their own community they will not merge or will not wed or will not eat. And that's 1985. In India of course we have a class distinction that, let's say in Bengal is very often determined by education. Now, Ray is a member of the aristocracy. He would like to believe he isn't, in that statement that his great grandfather went, although he owned a modest printing press was still the first printing press in that area and he belonged to or at least on the fringes of the aristocracy and certainly today he is a very noble person, and he's there by virtue of his achievement and by virtue of the fact that people acknowledge his mind and that I think has been the focal point of a class distinction in Bengal all along. People have always admired uneducated people like Rabindranath Tagore. I mean, I don't need to say why, because I mean he was a brilliant mind. Tagore was a member of the aristocracy and but instead of just being called useless and lazy and unresponsive if you like to social problems, he was adulated as a great poet, because he did. I mean, social problems were reflected in his poetry. The class system in India is very, very difficult to define, because India is a mixture of several cultures. The caste system, which is where one distinguishes between a Brahmin and a Kshatriya and a Shudra and a Harijan, is fortunately for us in Bengal almost non-existent. I can, I only say I qualified non-existent by almost, because the only time it's ever called into question is when one is getting married, and then also in passing because one would like to see a Brahmin marry a Brahmin. But it's never of any significance at all, but in other parts of India, where largely uneducated [belts?], the caste system still prevails, and all the horror stories you read about in the Western press where people of the lower costs are murdered and slaughtered and burnt alive are, it's all happening in a few sections of India and it's unfortunate, I don't know why, I hope and I think it is with education that it will it will improve.

Studs Terkel There's a regionalism here that also makes for a different political and social climate.

Victor Banerjee Oh, absolutely. For instance

Studs Terkel -- In

Victor Banerjee Oh, yes. I mean the, well, I mean again strangely enough, we are the only Communist state government in India, but that has that has again a reflection on the fact that we were -- I mean our people are very educated, we had a 94 or 95 percent literacy when we were independent, so at that point we were really -- I mean, every village in India subscribed to the daily newspaper.

Studs Terkel Really?

Victor Banerjee And the daily, the leading daily newspaper in Calcutta [sic - Kolkata] has the highest circulation in all of India. And so I guess they then wanted to have an anti-establishment sort of party. And it is unfortunate that we should have chosen Marxism and gone into communism. I don't think a Bengali by nature is a communist at all. Not at all. He's far too romantic, far too much of an idealist to be a genuine communist.

Studs Terkel We're talking about Bengal. Let's go back, there's some more questions to ask about, we know questions come up about "Passage to India" and about "Jewel in the Crown", and Salman Rushdie's point about that great comment of his that what? It's a nostalgia as though for an amputated limb.

Victor Banerjee Yes. Yeah.

Studs Terkel Now you want -- let's get an Indian view. So let's go back. We know Bengal had a horrendous famine, didn't it? That was when?

Victor Banerjee Nineteen forty; '42, I think.

Studs Terkel This is an Indian actress, her name was Shanta Gandhi, I met her back in late '50s, early '60s, and I was playing this for Satyajit Ray. And suppose we hear her voice and her memory, and it's followed by some of the sitar music of Ravi Shankar and then the thoughts of Ray. Suppose we hear this.

Shanta Gandhi In one village we had an experience which I'll never, never forget in my life. It used to be our practice that after the show we would come out and just appeal for whatever people could give. We used to tell them in very few words sometimes with song even, extra song and [beelapeal] to give whatever they could for the people of Bengal. And on one such day in a very small village it was, after the show when we came out in the auditorium, there we found there was tremendous commotion when old woman, she must be about 55 or 60 or she was bent, and she was dragging cow, right into the auditorium. I couldn't understand what is happening and before I could recover, out of the surprise, there she came and said, "Take this." I didn't know what to say. What could I say? I said that " Well, well, well," and that's about all I could. All the speech or all the appeal or everything was gone, forgotten. It was the old woman who said that "My child, I have nothing else to give, but take this cow. It still gives milk, you know. And as you say that children are star-- without milk. Please take this. I'm old woman, I don't need very much milk, and I -- 'til I'd live, village you will see to it that I don't quite starve. You take this cow with you. And she insisted on taking the cow, giving the cow to us. What could we say? We didn't want to deprive the old woman of the cow. More than that, it would have been very difficult indeed to take the cow to Bengal. Luckily, we hit on some idea and said to her that "Grandma, please look after the cow for us 'til we are able to make some arrangement to take this cow to Bengal. And it is our cow, we know. But you are just there, I mean who can look after the cow better than you?" And that alone persuaded old woman to take the cow. That was the India of that time, and we wanted to depict that to India. I'm afraid art is very, very pale compared to real life sometimes. Very pale indeed.

Studs Terkel In hearing the voice of Shanta Gandhi recalling a famine in Bengal, I'm thinking of a very distinguished Indian film director Satyajit Ray, who is here as a guest. His retrospective, [rife?] with some of his quite remarkable films at the Chicago Film Festival, including one, a new one, "Distant Thunder", dealing with the Bengal famine, your thoughts on hearing this woman's voice, Mr. Ray?

Satyajit Ray Well, it is extraordinarily touching to hear that. We were, at that time I was just got my new job as an advertising designer, and we were living in Calcutta [sic - Kolkata] and hundreds and thousands of people from the villages were streaming into Calcutta [sic - Kolkata]. And I remember the railway stations were just jam-packed with refugees. People who were at the point of dead or dying. I would have died in a few days' time, and we had to step across -- we would come out of the house on our way to work and step across dead bodies just lying all over the place. It was like that. I didn't experience it in the villages because I had my job in Calcutta [sic - Kolkata], and I think 10, 15 years later I read this novel by a writer whom I admired greatly. He was the writer of the book, a book -- the two novels on which the trilogy was based. It's the same writer, "Patha Panchali", "Aparajito", and "World of Apu", and this writer was actually living in a village at the time of the famine, and he had written the book from his own experience of the conditions, and that writer died. Banerjee died, and the book was, this novel was serialized in the magazine and his widow found, you know, the back numbers of the magazine, and the book came out posthumously, and read it soon after that. This was around 1958, '59, and I decided immediately to turn this into a film. But several things got in the way. I couldn't find the right actors to play the part, and all sorts of things happened. I went on to make other films and then finally

Studs Terkel Finally that came.

Victor Banerjee I wish I could substantiate why I recall it as having been referred to in our family as a man-made famine. I don't know where the responsibility of such an accusation would lie, but I know it was not a natural famine caused by drought. That happened before I was I was born and it certainly changed the history of Bengal considerably, because the refugees that came into the cities never left, and thereby developed large ghettos and slums in all the major towns, and I've seen "Ashani Sanket", "Distant Thunder" that Mr. Ray made, and that's, it's a very touching depiction of what happened and more than touching, it also revealed again, you know, the social values that existed at the time and how this one man was able to, to push his weight around as a Brahmin. And here I was telling you about how there isn't a class distinction, but the man was also a teacher, so I guess I have some reprieve there.

Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking as he was describing refugees Calcutta [sic - Kolkata], my friend, of whom you heard, the late James Cameron, who knew India as well as any British journalist

Victor Banerjee -- Certainly,

Studs Terkel Or more so. He, I remember he was in an accident just at the time of Bangladesh being formed, East Pakistan, and he's in a ditch and he's practically dead, and all the colleagues, they were Pakistani soldiers around him, and they were all dead. He's lying there practically dead, but in the back of his mind, away when he hears these feet shuffling up above, the road above. They don't see him, and these refugees going on ahead like in Beckett's "Waiting for Godot", Pozzo says "Going on," and he says he understands even though he was lying there practically dead, "Where are they going?" And he says the word of our century, if there's one new word in this particular time we live in, "refugee."

Victor Banerjee Well I've seen that happen, because I was certainly there when Bangladesh was created, and the refugees streamed into India and into Calcutta [sic - Kolkata], and it's a pathetic sight because I can only say that the Bengali refugees survived because they are gifted with a tenacity and a vision that other refugees don't have, which is, but it's also accounts for why their state never improves, because they are willing to accept what's happened to them much more willingly than let's say the refugees that came into Punjab were a much more industrious. We are far too idealistic and romantic and so we tend to accept our fate a bit more than we should.

Studs Terkel Punjab is more militaristic, though too, isn't it?

Victor Banerjee Yes, it is. They for years, for centuries defended our faith and our people, and we're very proud of what the Sikhs have done for our people in fact.

Studs Terkel Coming back to Victor Banerjee now, I'm thinking two directors you work with, Ray and Lean, others you will. You yourself, as an actor, when you even talked of that powder that you remembered your grandfather using, say "Now I am an Indian at last," you call upon everything: your background and memory as an actor, and of course your equipment is, is vast it seems. And so we're looking forward to that film, and you would like to work with Ray again on a remake of

Victor Banerjee Of "The Music Room".

Studs Terkel Yeah, if we come back and you play the young nobleman

Victor Banerjee Yes, but unfortunately that is a dying nobleman, so I'll have to wait a few years, but that would be ideal. I told Ray that there's nothing he could give me better than "Home and the World" that my ambitions had all been fulfilled, I mean

Studs Terkel Now, what is your feeling now, how I was going to ask you, you quoted the novelist by the book "Midnight's Children", full of all sorts of rage and everything else. He spoke of -- he looked with, you know, with somewhat jaundiced eye on not the film which is the idea of the British classes. What are your thoughts? The end -- there is this nostalgia quite obviously not on the part of Indians, on the part of the British. And here as an American, it's something new I think, well, that'll be a subject of a panel that you and I are part of on the night of this particular conversation. But your own thoughts, because you span two worlds and two cultures.

Victor Banerjee I do, and I also lived with the dregs of the -- by dregs I mean what was left and not necessarily the worst of the British culture that existed after the, after independence. I don't know. I must honestly say that my mother was a student of history and my grandfather from my mother's side was like the aristocrat in "The Music Room", and he would spend late nights with me as I sat and ate my meal with him and tell me tales from Shakespeare, and I grew up, you know, with a very romantic and a very lovely and a very beautiful and charming view of life, and never, never, never in any of his stories did he talk about the British. If at all, our history was worth talking about. We even went as far back as Alexander because Alexander was a great man and he brought to us a totally different culture whose influence we felt for hundreds of years, and even the name Sikander is an Indian, is in fact Alexander. So he's done an awful lot for us. We -- the Mughals give us our music. Ravi Shankar today is famous with music that was brought to us by the Mughals. The Taj Mahal that everyone goes to discover in India was brought to us by the Mughals. Then we had earlier than that we had the Ashoka period which gave birth to Buddhism after Gautama Buddha, and they gave rise to the paintings and frescoes in Ajanta and Ellora and it's -- so our culture, our history, I mean anything of significance or beauty or value is before the British, or and above and beyond the British.

Studs Terkel So where'd they get the sense of superiority?

Victor Banerjee Well, because we, I mean we had all this to offer them, and we were the jewel in their crown. She was called the Empress of India and not just the queen of England. In fact, I heard a very casual and perhaps misquoted little anecdote the other day where the Queen Mother, who is a charming sort of Peggy Ashcroft, you know she's a marvelous old lady, she was at the royal premiere for "A Passage to India", and on my way back from the premiere, and someone that was mentioning that recently she had been at a tea party with the Queen Mother, who said "She's only the Queen of England," talking about Queen Elizabeth. "As for me, I was the Empress of India." And now I mean that so I think even in their, in their sort of level of society, the one-upmanship would amount to being part of the jewel in the crown. I mean, India was the greatest moment in British history. I mean, they before that they had the Norman Conquest coming into them, and before that they had the Romans coming into them, so there was never really anything that they were extremely proud of except India. I mean, their museums are packed with India, all the great buildings that seem to have been erected in Great Britain seem to have coincidentally been architecturally conceived and executed during the Raj. So I tend to think they've suffered a great loss for having lost India, and in the last 40 years we've certainly progressed in leaps and bounds, and

Studs Terkel This is funny, this is precisely the opposite view that is conventionally offered, that the British for all the depredations and Amritsar and everything else, my God, "We gave them a semblance of organization and government," and you're showing how there was a culture and there was a highly developed civilization when up there in the British Isles they were still wearing bull hides on their backs.

Victor Banerjee Well, yes. All they succeeded in doing was dividing India, which is a shame because that that theory has extended itself and ingrained itself so deeply into Indian thinking today that it's one of the major problems we have.

Studs Terkel This leads to a delicate point. I admire Alec Guinness very much as an actor, very much indeed. But the role he played in "Passage to India", Godbole, this Indian guru.

Victor Banerjee Yes, professor.

Studs Terkel Who was, looked like fairly comic silly character. I'm not, I'm not criticizing

Victor Banerjee The performance.

Studs Terkel The performance, the idea of the concept and nothing matters. The old ["phone it in"?] for it doesn't matter, no matter what you do. Pretty fatalist. Pretty sad character.

Victor Banerjee Well, years before that Kipling had once suggested that it was okay for the West to try and probe the Eastern cultures, but to try and probe the Eastern mind and their religions would be mind-blowing and it just wouldn't work. I think Forster blew it when he wrote the part of Godbole, because you cannot simplify Indian philosophy, and what Godbole does is mouth a lot of simplistic language about, you know, "no matter what you do, the outcome will be the same," and that is so simplistic that it's childish, and therefore the part turns out to be comic. I personally am very grateful that Alec played the part, because I mean I got an opportunity to be able to say to my great-grandchildren that I worked with Sir Alec Guinness at one time, and he is a charming man, a wonderful actor. There was not much he could do with that part, it's the way it was written.

Studs Terkel It had nothing to do with him, just

Victor Banerjee -- Because if you remember Lawrence of Arabia, he was, I mean there are people who saw that film six times and didn't know an Arab wasn't playing King Faisal.

Studs Terkel Was there criticism because an Englishman was hired to play, why not an Indian, an Indian character actor? Does that come up?

Victor Banerjee If it ever does, I shall, I shall squash it, because I think if you look at the film, the person who acts as our guide into the mountains, the person who cooks the breakfast and the lavatory, they are all actors that were flown out from England to play those minor roles. Just because Alec Guinness is a principal, it draws attention, but I think the worst aspect of that kind of, I guess it is British trade unionism that dictated it. But all the minor, the minorest of characters were all played by either Asians -- they're all British subjects, as they are called in in England, and it's a shame because there were several opportunities for Indian actors to be used in those minor roles, but they just weren't. They were all flown out.

Studs Terkel In any event, for those who haven't seen "Passage to India", to see my guest Victor Banerjee as Dr. Aziz is quite an experience, as well as of course the magnificent Peggy Ashcroft, who is good in anything, you know. And the Australian actress?

Victor Banerjee Judy Davis, yeah.

Studs Terkel And we're going to look for you in the Tagore work.

Victor Banerjee Well, that's open to massive, massive reviews and great reviews, and it's going to be in New York next month I think in May or June, and it should be lovely. Studs, I'm very grateful for you for having invited me.

Studs Terkel I'm delighted. Any base? I always say, I wind up by saying, "Any base we haven't touched you feel like touching?" Any?

Victor Banerjee No, I think you've covered it pretty much. One can go on for hours talking about, about India. I would perhaps like to touch on one aspect, that when people ask themselves about India and why it is the opinion of Indians that India is not being shown in films correctly, it's because in our estimation India is a far more spiritual experience than it is a social or an economic experience, and the social distinction of East and West or white and Black or rich and poor is not what is of consequence in India. What is and I hope will always matter to Indians as is the value we place on human life, and the value we place on trying, trying to understand why we are on this planet and the whole Hindu philosophy of rejecting Maya, which is materialism, is something that does not form the best material for film scripts, but is what actually draws every person to India. And I've always maintained that the reason why everyone should go to India at one point or another is because if you go to India, you really discover yourself. You see in the Indian people a primeval image of your soul, of your being. And it's what humanity is all about. And it's interesting that a California preacher who'd been preaching wealth and prosperity for years, a lady, went to India a month ago and came back to California to give up preaching forever. I mean, forget wealth and prosperity, it's, I don't mean to say we are superior in any way, but we certainly can make a better Christian out of a Christian, and we don't distinguish between religions at all. It's a wonderful way of life and I, and I hope I hope we can export some of that quality to the rest of the world.

Studs Terkel Okay.

Victor Banerjee Thank

Studs Terkel Thank you very much. Victor Banerjee.