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Sensitive Writings Offer Insight into Cinema

Explaining why directors rarely write about movies, Satyajit Ray once commented that a typical filmmaker ''is either too busy making one, or too unhappy not to be able to make one, or too exhausted from the last one he made.''

Ray himself managed to pen a good number of articles on film, however, ranging from diary-like descriptions of his directorial adventures to commentaries on the cinema scene in India and abroad. A selection of his writings, ''Our Films/Their Films,'' has been published by Hyperion (219 pp., $22.50).

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As an expert on Bengali cinema, Ray blends astute observation with a keen sense of irony that affords much insight into the challenges, opportunities, and occasional absurdities that go with his position as a world-renowned filmmaker. For all the difficulties involved in assembling a production, he reports, ''there is something about creating beauty in the circumstances of shoddiness and privation that is truly exciting.''

As a critic of movies from other lands, Ray shows his greatest sympathy for the sort of high-art ambitions he harbored in his own career. Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa are among those he mentions most frequently, often favorably but with full recognition of the shortcomings that intruded on their imperfect oeuvres. Also evident is a healthy skepticism toward the pretension and self-indulgence that terms like ''experimental'' and ''avant-garde'' often try to mask.

Ray doesn't always get his facts straight, and some of his opinions are questionable: An attack on the innovative Indian filmmaker Mani Kaul seems more contrary than constructive, for example, and one wonders how a phrase like ''slapdash methods'' creeps into a reference to French director Jean-Luc Godard, whom Ray clearly admires elsewhere in the book. But it's a pleasure to disagree with a critic as sensitive, sensible, and amiable as Ray continually proves himself to be. While his punditry is less imposing than his artistry, it's every bit as engaging.

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