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Satyajit Ray wrote 52 letters to ‘Jana’ over 16 years. Who was she?

Print edition : Jun 17, 2022 T+T-

Satyajit Ray wrote 52 letters to ‘Jana’ over 16 years. Who was she?

An ongoing exhibition reveals yet another facet of Satyajit Ray, that of prolific letter writer, which opens a window into the uniquely vibrant mind of one of India’s greatest film-makers. 

At the age of eight, young Manik wrote a letter to his cousin Nini. The burden of the letter was that he had learned to write down the word ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’. It was among the earliest of the countless letters that Satyajit Ray wrote over the decades to come. Any research on Ray sooner or later throws up references to people being surprised that he had personally replied to their letters. His biographer Andrew Robinson had received a personal reply to his fan letter—typed “on a ribbon not in its first youth”. Last year, in a special edition on Ray, Frontline printed a letter from a fan who had written to him when in college and was astonished to receive a reply. Recently, a friend posted on Facebook that his mother’s most prized possession was a letter from Ray, acknowledging her appreciation of Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Ray’s son, Sandip Ray, said: “He answered every letter that came in himself.”

It is remarkable that Satyajit Ray managed to be such a prolific letter writer even as he was making films, scouting for locations, writing dialogues and lyrics, composing music, drawing costumes and sets by hand in his famous kheror khatas [red books], designing posters, running Sandesh [the children’s magazine], writing and illustrating the popular Feluda and Professor Shonku stories, writing articles, travelling extensively, and much more. But this propensity for the epistolary serves as the context for his 52 letters to Nilanjana Sen, recently published as the book Iti, Satyajit Da.

The first letter that Satyajit Ray wrote to Nilanjana Sen.
The first letter that Satyajit Ray wrote to Nilanjana Sen. | Photo Credit: MUSUI ART FOUNDATION

In 1970, Ray visited Santiniketan to make a documentary on his teacher, the artist Benodebehari Mukherjee. Young Nilanjana—‘Jana’ to all—was in her second year of college and already a big fan. She met him as well as Bijoya Ray [Satyajit Ray’s wife] twice, and wrote her first letter to him in 1972. Thus began a correspondence that lasted until 1988 when Ray became too unwell to keep up the usual pace of his life and long-distance telephone calls took over. The letters, Nilanjana’s most prized treasures, were tucked away in her safe until recently when her brother-in-law, the sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan, persuaded her to share them with the world.

A letter from Ray to Nilanjana and its English translation.
A letter from Ray to Nilanjana and its English translation. | Photo Credit: MUSUI ART FOUNDATION

Ray—whom Nilanjana called Satyajit da—was clearly very fond of her. The letters create an intimate, affectionate, easy world in which the director can freely relay his news, give his opinions on people and films, and share his concerns. They are a window into Satyajit Ray’s world as well as a portal to the 1970s and 1980s—and when it comes to power cuts, they are both! (‘Loadshedding’ is mentioned 11 times: we learn that work on Sonar Kella “did not get finished due to terrible loadshedding”, and that “we can’t do more than three days of film-work a week, as per the government’s orders” (June 1975). The “horrors”, “ tandav nritya” and “depredations” of loadshedding continue all the way to his last letter in 1988.)

History in the telling

“The story is by Premchand—titled ‘The Chess Players’. An extraordinary story, and will make an excellent film. My first Hindi film—which is why I didn’t want to broadcast it. I’m only telling you because you asked me more than once. I hope you won’t tell anyone else.” —Satyajit Ray, December 22, 1974

This appears to be one of the first, if not the first, mentions on paper of Satyajit Ray’s project to make Shatranj Ke Khiladi (finally made in 1977). The letters have plenty of such fascinating glimpses for film scholars. For instance, the fact that Ray almost made Ghare Baire 10 years before he actually made it in 1984. His letters of 1973 mention one Haimanti with whom he has “more or less settled everything”, and with whom he may start shooting in October. (The lady concerned was Haimanti Bannerjee from Santiniketan, with whom he had corresponded about playing the character of Bimala in Ghare Baire). Ray’s next letter, however, complains that Haimanti’s husband had written saying that her consent was without the family’s knowledge. Irritated with her for having wasted his time, Ray says he will now look for another story.

Promotional material for Ghare Baire.
Promotional material for Ghare Baire. | Photo Credit: MUSUI ART FOUNDATION

Financial worries also follow the filmmaker. In 1973, he writes: “The one who had said he would produce Sonar Kella suddenly back-tracked….saying the same thing (‘no heroine, no romance’).” In 1976, he is found ruminating: “I have observed that of all my films it’s the ones for children that are received well by the general public. So, in the not-so-distant future, I may have to count on Goopy or Felu to a greater extent.”

One of the more enjoyable snippets in the letters is Ray’s opinion of Dimple Kapadia. Having watched a charity premiere of Bobby in Metro cinema, he confides to Jana that it was “a shamelessly commercial film”. However, he adds: “Dimple Kapadia is extraordinarily good. As talented as she is attractive. The girl has made a big mistake getting married so early.”

The inner voice

Am sitting and thinking about what new film I might make; this situation recurs each time—it seems as if there’s nothing I can find to make a new film on, or that there can’t be any justification for making any film at all. Though this is a temporary situation, yet it seems to last a bit longer every year. The question is, how long will it last this time.” —Satyajit Ray, November, 11, 1977

Anyone who has read Satyajit Ray would agree that this was a very unusual register for the filmmaker to speak in. He is always thoughtful and analytical but there seems not much room for self-doubt or lack of confidence in his articulation. The letters to Jana too are mostly energetic and cheerful.

A cover of Sandesh magazine, designed by Satyajit Ray.
A cover of Sandesh magazine, designed by Satyajit Ray. | Photo Credit: MUSUI ART FOUNDATION

The timing of this letter, however, is instructive. Shatranj Ke Khiladi had been made and shown in Bombay (now Mumbai), but the distributors had backed out of earlier arrangements. Ray’s first biographer, Marie Seton, had spent a lot of them with him throughout this year, watching the shooting of Shatranj. She described “an atmosphere of tension there had never been before….”. “Never before had the close-knit Bengali unit….felt so buffeted by outside people from Bombay….Temperamental explosions took place….”.

Marie Seton also implies that established film lobbies, insecure about his entry in the world of Hindi cinema, worked to hamper the chances of the film when it came to distribution and exhibition.

Ray, the writer

The letters are equally evocative of Satyajit Ray, the author and publisher. Around every August, he settled down to write a Feluda story (and draw its illustrations) for the Puja issue of Desh magazine. When he found himself unable to do so in 1975 because of an injured thumb, the editor of Desh (Sagarmoy Ghosh) postponed the publication date for a month. Two years later, when he was too busy to write, the editor pleaded that he would lose his job.

A cover of Sandesh magazine, designed by Satyajit Ray.
A cover of Sandesh magazine, designed by Satyajit Ray. | Photo Credit: MUSUI ART FOUNDATION

Ray’s concern for Sandesh—the children’s magazine run by him with his aunt and cousins—is reflected in many letters. He selected pieces for it, wrote stories, drew, and worried about the finances. After a successful compilation of the best of Sandesh came out, he writes in 1982: “I never imagined, not even in my dreams, that a book would sell for sixty rupees. The money will go to Sandesh, so the magazine might eventually find a way out after all.”

‘Iti’, a conclusion

As the letters end, with hindsight, a certain poignance enters the reader’s heart. In 1983, Ray suffered his first, massive heart attack followed by a major operation in Houston, and several further complications. His next letter to Jana was written after the gap of a whole year. There is no lift in his house and he has to be carried up in a chair, he tells her in 1984. In 1986 he writes: “Just thinking that I haven’t done any shooting for two and a half years makes me feel awful. It will take time to get used to it all over again.”

A promotional booklet for the film Devi.
A promotional booklet for the film Devi. | Photo Credit: MUSUI ART FOUNDATION

In his last letter of 1988, he is finally planning to make Ganashatru. However, for the first time, Satyajit Ray is at a loss: “These days, I’m in a fix every time I try to write a letter, as there’s nothing to write about. An absolutely uneventful life.”

Ray did manage to finish three more films but only by shooting indoors, in the presence of doctors and nurses. Pain and weakness never quite left him and personal visits and phone calls by Jana took over. But, as nearly every letter does, his last one too demands: “Write to me.”

A letter written by Satyajit Ray to Nilanjana Sen.
A letter written by Satyajit Ray to Nilanjana Sen. | Photo Credit: MUSUI ART FOUNDATION

Ray’s investment in letters invokes something more than just old-fashioned courtesy. In these letters, his “Write to me” and “What’s going on?” (when a situation intrigues him) suggest a lively interest in people and their actions, covering the entire gamut from psychological analysis to sheer gossip. He had said to Andrew Robinson: “Relationships….may be said to be a speciality of mine. I think I understand human psychology.”

A letter written by Satyajit Ray to Nilanjana Sen.
A letter written by Satyajit Ray to Nilanjana Sen. | Photo Credit: MUSUI ART FOUNDATION

These are the letters of a workaholic, a uniquely vibrant mind, a creativity that would not be denied, but they are also the letters of an affectionate and interested man who deeply enjoyed the world. As Ray had said: “It’s simply that I am interested in human beings.”

Juhi Saklani is a writer and photographer based in Delhi. She writes on cinema, culture, and travel, and was the recipient of India Habitat Centre’s Photosphere fellowship for 2019. She has recently edited the centenary volume Somnath Hore  and the book Iti, Satyajit Da .

Satyajit Ray’s letters and other memorabilia are on display at the exhibition ‘ Iti, Satyajit Da’, curated by K.S. Radhakrishnan, at KCC, Kolkata, until June 8, 2022. The letters have been translated by Sampurna Chatterji.