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Book Review

A Ray hero looks back

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

A Ray hero looks back

‘Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much’ by Barun Chanda (Om Books International).

‘Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much’ by Barun Chanda (Om Books International).

A new book throws light on various aspects of Satyajit Ray’s life and works and never-heard-before anecdotes.

The “Ray Hero” (men who have played the lead role in films made by Satyajit Ray) can be perceived as one of the most exclusive clubs in the world of cinema and culture. In the 28 full-length feature films that Ray made (not including short films for television and documentaries), only 15 actors were given the opportunity to play the lead and of them 11 have passed away. As Pradip Mukherjee, the hero of Ray’s Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1975) is known to have said, “Us Ray heroes… we are the last of the Mohicans.” So when a “Ray hero” himself writes a book on the master, one can look forward to unique insights into the great man’s craft and vision. Barun Chanda’s book Satyajit Ray: The Man who Knew too Much provides that, and much more.

Barun Chanda, a 2008 photograph.
Barun Chanda, a 2008 photograph. | Photo Credit: G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

For Ray aficionados across the world, Barun Chanda’s name is inextricably linked with Ray’s legacy for his role as the suave, gentle, but at the same time ruthlessly ambitious Shyamalendu Chatterjee in the corporate drama Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971). Though Chanda never acted in another Ray movie again—in fact, after Seemabaddha he did not act in any film for more than 20 years—he remained a close friend of the Ray family and, as his book reveals, had the opportunity to observe at close quarters the powerful and enigmatic personality of Ray and his multifaceted genius. One may argue that there has been a surfeit of books and articles on Satyajit Ray and there is little to be derived from yet another book, even if it is one written by a “Ray hero”. But Chanda’s book puts to rest all such apprehensions. Not only does the book address issues and raise points hardly ever touched upon even by Ray scholars, it is a treasure trove of rare information related to various aspects of Ray’s life and works, and never-heard-before anecdotes that will delight Satyajit Ray fans across the world.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is a detailed account of Chanda’s experience of working with Ray, giving fascinating insights into the making of Seemabaddha and the lead actor’s interpretation of his character and the film as a whole. In the second part, the author talks of various aspects of Ray’s film-making and personality that have hitherto remained largely unexplored. From the evolution of Ray’s art of developing title sequences to a peek into his personal library, Chandra’s book is also an attempt to fill in some of the gaps that still remain in the study of Satyajit Ray’s craft over the last seven decades.

During the shooting for “Seemabaddha”, with Sharmila Tagore and Satyajit Ray.
During the shooting for “Seemabaddha”, with Sharmila Tagore and Satyajit Ray. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

The book is also an autobiography of sorts where the author talks of his love for acting; his life after he became a sensation with the release of his debut film; his hiatus of 20 years from the world of cinema after Seembaddha’s success; and his subsequent return to the silver screen as a senior artiste with all the respect and reverence that still accompanies a Ray hero wherever he goes.

Interestingly, unknown to many people, Seembaddha was not Barun Chanda’s first Ray film. In the book he talks of how he plays a small part without either revealing his physical identity or his voice in Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970). Chanda plays the role of Naresh da, the political leader who bumps into the protagonist Siddhartha (played by Dhritiman Chaterji) in a cafe and engages him in a short conversation. Throughout the shot Naresh da’s back is turned to the camera and there is no way of knowing who the actor is. Naresh da’s voice, too, is not Barun Chanda’s; it is that of Ray himself. Chanda writes, “…during the dubbing I am away in Bombay to direct the shooting of an ad film. Ray has fixed days for dubbing and can’t afford to wait for my return. So, what does he do? Dub my voice himself.”

Incidentally, Chanda was working in the creative department of Clarion Advertising, the same agency where Ray worked from 1943 to 1956, and while working on the script of Seemabaddha, Ray, who was “somewhat out of touch with the current advertising scene”, sought his young hero’s help in preparing the export ad for ceiling fans shown in the film. A young Tinnu Anand, who had come down from Bombay to study direction under Ray, acted as the ad-film maker.

Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much (Om Books International)
By Barun Chanda
Pages: 326
Price: Rs.395

Chanda also recalls the experience of having Ray read out the script of Seemabaddha to him—as Ray was wont to do for his heroes and heroines. “For the next one and a half hours he read out the script of Seemabaddha to me in his inimitable style. There were no pauses. He didn’t even stop to have a sip of water. It was absolutely mesmerising,” writes the author. Unfortunately, he would never have that experience again. “But,” writes Chanda, “I’ve no regrets. That one time will last me a lifetime.”

Chanda recalls that Ray never gave him a script of Seemabaddha. Here the reader gets an insight into the method of Ray’s craft and the way in which he used his actors. Chanda cites a conversation he had with Ray on this topic while filming: “‘Listen Barun,’ he told me, ‘If I ask you a question you would take a little time before answering, won’t you? Because you don’t know the answer in advance. Now, if you memorise the lines, that answer would tend to come too pat, too quickly perhaps. I don’t want that to happen.’ He took a pause, then carried on, ‘I want you to give that little bit of time to think, before you answer.’”

A still from “Jana Aranya”.
A still from “Jana Aranya”. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

This, apparently, was one of the many techniques Ray used on his actors. “I have talked to two other Ray actors on this issue of memorising, One of them is Alokananda [Alokananda Roy, the heroine of  Kanchenjungha, 1962]. The other, Pradip Mukherjee, the hero of Jana Aranya. Both of them averred they had been told by Ray not to memorise their lines.” The book says that Ray had gone over to Alokananda’s place, and, after reading out the script of  Kanchenjungha, told her, “I’m not leaving my script behind. Your lines are sparse. And I don’t want you to memorise them. All I want you to do at present is to understand the girl Manisha [the character played by Alokananda], try and get under her skin.”

Through numerous little anecdotes, the book also reveals the gentle and considerate personality of Satyajit Ray. Standing at a towering 6 feet 5 inches, with a distinctive baritone, solemn countenance, and worldwide fame, Ray often appeared to be an aloof, forbidding, unapproachable figure to those who did not know him. Chanda’s presentation of him in his book shows yet again how wrong public perception can be.

He recalls an incident during the shooting for Seemabaddha when Paromita Chowdhury, who played Shyamalendu’s wife, walked into the sets one and half hours late. Everyone expected the fastidiously punctual Ray to “explode”, more so as Paromita did not even apologise for keeping the crew waiting. But instead, Ray simply clapped his hands “gleefully” (with no sarcasm) and got on with the shooting.

Later, when Chanda had the “temerity” to ask Ray why he had not chastised the actress, Ray smiled and said, “Even if she didn’t admit it, inwardly she must have been feeling guilty. Now, if on top of that I reprimanded her publicly, it would have upset her even more. Would that have been in my interest or in the interest of the movie?” The incident not only showed the enormous sensitivity and sagaciousness that Ray was capable of, but also his practical sense. 

A still from “Kanchenjungha”.
A still from “Kanchenjungha”. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Chanda recounts how Ray gently explained to him why he had cast Soumitra Chatterjee as the iconic Bengali detective Feluda instead of him. Though Ray’s son, Sandip Ray, wanted to make a Feluda film with Barun Chanda in the lead, when Ray finally decided to make one himself, he cast the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee, the actor who had starred in 14 of his films. Chanda took it in his stride, but when Ray began to explain his decision to him, the actor began to get choked up with emotion. “I had never heard him talk to me in such a soft, gentle voice,” he writes. “You see, it’s not that I didn’t consider you for the role. I did,” Ray told him, explaining that in his vision the ideal Feluda would be a combination of three different persons: “I want Feluda to look like you. I want Sundar’s [Dhritiman Chaterji] intellect. And I want Soumitra’s way of sharply delineated spoken Bengali… So, I finally chose Soumitra. But I want you to know that it was a very difficult decision.” A tearful Chanda was overwhelmed by Ray’s kindness.

The book is full of such fascinating little stories and nuggets of information ranging from the bust of Beethoven on top of Ray’s piano to the layout of his library and the precious books in it. The author talks of the great artistes who were hand-picked by Ray, including Kamakhya Prasad (Kamu) Mukherjee, Karuna Banerjee, Chunibala Devi and Santosh Dutta. He tells the story of how the great Chhabi Biswas, during the filming of Jalshaghar (The Music Room, 1958), irritated by a music band’s lacklustre playing during rehearsals, decided to conduct the music himself and set the beat for the musicians. Chanda takes the readers through the method followed by Ray when writing his scripts, and the creative process behind his compositions.

The author examines topics that have often been overlooked by scholars and fans. One aspect of Ray’s films that has not found much mention in the works of critics and aficionados is his unique composition of title sequences at the beginning of his films. Chanda pointed out that in the early days of Ray’s film-making, no other director made any effort to synchronise the title sequence with the overall theme of the film.

A still from “Mahanagar”.
A still from “Mahanagar”. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

He observes that Devi (The Goddess, 1960) was the first film in which Ray “seemed to have suddenly found that the title part of the film could be treated quite differently, to illuminate the very theme of the film while still serving the basic function of informing the audience about its cast and crew”. The author then goes on to analyse the title sequences of subsequent films such as Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962), Kanchenjungha, Charulata (1964), Mahanagar (The Big City, 1964), Nayak (The Hero, 1966) and Aranyer Din Ratri ( Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970).

Though Chanda addresses serious academic aspects of Ray’s film-making, never once is his tone pedantic or overtly professorial. The book reads like an informal drawing room conversation, with delightful digressions and funny asides. The book is not Barun Chanda’s maiden literary venture. In the mid 1970s, he turned his attention to writing, mostly crime thrillers. As he himself puts it, the style he adopted for those stories was “cryptic, shorn of all flab, and as tight as possible”; and by his own admission, the experience of working with Ray for that one film taught him how to write like that.

Chanda eventually did return to the world of acting when, 20 years after becoming a sensation with Seembaddha, he started accepting roles in television and cinema. But for all his new ventures, Barun Chanda always remained first and foremost a “Ray hero”. It remains the ultimate badge of distinction even 30 years after the master passed away. As Chanda writes, “… when I started accepting film offers again, I always had the respect of the younger generation of directors, the respect that a Ray hero keeps commanding in Bengal.”