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India's Jesuit film scholar dies at 85

Father Gaston Roberge encouraged many young talents to explore visual media through photography, film and video

India's Jesuit film scholar dies at 85

Father Gaston Roberge was respected and admired in Indian cultural circles. (Photo: SIGNIS)

Jesuit Father Gaston Roberge, the French-Canadian founder of Chitrabani media training institute in Kolkata and film and media scholar par excellence, died at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, on Aug. 26. He was 85.

Both Chitrabani and the Xavier Institute of Communications, founded by Francis “Packy” MacFarland, were born within a year of each other, a little over 50 years ago in 1969-70, in two different parts of the country, Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay (now Mumbai). 

The Xavier Institute — or XIC as it came to be known — defined itself as a training institute for professional media from the very first. Bombay was the media capital of India, and it seemed the right place to start a college for professional media training. That’s why XIC was located on the campus of St. Xavier’s College. Though its courses varied in name, scope and duration over the years, it has always adhered to its academic blueprint: professional skills within the context of a humanist ethos — the universal Jesuit hallmark.

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Chitrabani’s design was different. Its emphasis was film (its name means sight and sound) and it soon established itself as a place for film lovers and serious students of cinema. Father Roberge encouraged many young talents to explore visual media through photography, film and video. Among the many friendships which developed as a result, Roberge counted Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul and Kobita Sarkar.

One of his protégés, George Ponodath, a Jesuit like himself, took charge of the Educational Media Research Centre at Kolkata’s St. Xavier’s College and made it into arguably the best production unit of educational films in the country.

If XIC’s contribution was linear, systematic and academic, Chitrabani was more intuitive, asymmetrical and highly personalized thanks to the genius of Father Roberge.

For several years, he also headed an adult education program in Bengali through radio. Called Chetana (inspiration), it broadcast its messages of literacy, childcare and women’s empowerment all over Bengal and Bangladesh.

Father Roberge’s major contribution, however, has been in film scholarship, and with it a critical understanding of new media.

His first book, Chitrabani (1975), is a basic handbook for film enthusiasts, helping one to understand the grammar and idiom of film with perceptive insights into the history of Indian cinema.

Another, Mediation (1978), is a collection of articles, anecdotes, photos, cartoons, questions and quotations on the action of the media in society. Father Roberge always believed — much like McLuhan before him — that the technology of the electronic media was slowly but surely changing society, and with it human nature as we’ve known it. 

In the 1980s, when XIC started its Mediaworld program to inculcate critical reflection on the media in high schools, he warmly encouraged it. Mediaworld was a venture ahead of its time but sadly short-lived.

In essence, Roberge the film scholar explored the various facets of today’s media culture with imagination and variety. The books followed, one after the other. The Faithful Witness (2000) explored the nature of Christian communication; Cyberbani (2005) is “being human in the new media environment”; and Media Dancer (2008) took the analysis further with the internet and social media. Father Roberge wrote almost 30 books on topics related to cinema and the media.

One of his last books, Indian Film Theory (2011), returns to his favorite topic, popular film. “I had been asking myself since the 1980s why we do not have a new theory of popular film,” said Father Roberge. “It was only recently that I got an answer after studying a 2,000-year old Indian treatise of drama and dance, Natya Sastra — The Science of Drama.”

The result was a new perspective on the theories underlying Indian commercial cinema. It is widely acknowledged that this Jesuit priest made a significant contribution to film with his book on Indian film theory.

All through that marvelous decade of the 80s and in the early 90s, when we passed from Doordarshan/Akashvani to color TV, video, FM radio and cellphones, Father Roberge was a frequent visitor to XIC.

Those were still the early years of mass communication in India, and the Jesuit fraternity through its umbrella group JESCOM would meet frequently to discuss and argue, to share project planning and squabble over funding, to build friendships, solidarity and encourage innovation. Gaston Roberge was always there at these meetings, looked up to with respect, admiration and certain affection.                                                                

It is a sign of how much the last decades have changed us that no one speaks of the “mass media” or “mass communications” anymore. Today the buzz words are “online,” “social media” —  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — and the little gizmo you hold in your hand connecting you with everyone, everywhere.

Father Roberge was a Jesuit in Calcutta, one of a rare breed of scholars — men like Lafont, Goethals, Johanns, Antoine, Beckers, Verstraeten and so very many others — who left their imprint not just on a city but on a whole epoch.

Wherever Indian cinema is studied, wherever the new media culture is analyzed, we will never forget that it was Gaston Roberge and his writings which first opened the door.

Father Myron J. Pereira SJ, a long-time friend and colleague of Father Gaston Roberge SJ, retired from XIC in 2009 after serving the institution for two decades.

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