‘A man who knew too much’: Goutam Ghose on Satyajit Ray

Interview with Goutam Ghose, film-maker.

Published : Oct 18, 2021 06:00 IST

acclaimed film-maker Goutam Ghose shared a close personal relationship with Satyajit Ray. He remembers Ray as one who was oblivious to his own legendary status and always ready to help out young directors in whatever way he could. In a long, free-flowing conversation with Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay , Ghose spoke about his relationship with Ray, the master’s famous ‘k heror khata’ (the little red notebook that Ray always used), Ray’s use of music, his humour and his incredible time management. “Many people say that Manikda was aloof and unapproachable, but he was actually very kind and helpful to young film-makers,” says Ghose.


Ray was a man who knew too much. Even before he started making films, he was a highly cultivated young man. His bedtime reading was the staff notations of the great composers—Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert. He could listen to the music in his head as he read the transcription on the page. Of course, he was born into a very enlightened family and music was a part of their tradition. Ray’s mother [Suprabha Ray] herself was a very good singer. His education at Santiniketan, where he studied under Nandalal Bose, and his exposure to nature and rural life served to refine his sensibilities even more. At the same time there was also his interest in cinema and he began to read voraciously on films. So when Ray began to make his first film, he was already prepared. He was by then already a great illustrator and designer. I had the opportunity of making a long documentary on Ray [ Ray , 1999] after his demise, and that was my rediscovery of Ray.

‘He loved young film-makers’

I knew him personally very well, because he loved young film-makers. I remember he could not see my first feature film [ Maa Bhoomi , 1979], but after my second feature film, Dakhal [1982], won the Golden Lotus, Manikda came and told me in his mock-serious tone, “Now I will have to see your film, since you have beaten us all” [laughs]. I was so embarrassed, but he insisted that I arrange a special screening for him. The screening was organised at the India Film Laboratory in Tollygunge, and it was a particularly hot and sultry day. Manikda came over in a taxi. Even though he was such a huge name by that time, he was totally unconcerned about his own fame. His entire concentration was on his creation. I remember he had come to see Paar [1984] soon after undergoing a major surgery. He had gone to Sisir Mancha to see the film, and at that time the hall was not air-conditioned. He had not only seen Antarjali Jatra [1987], but when the film was blocked by the censors, he gave a press statement arguing against the board’s decision. It was sheer coincidence that when I was making the film, the sati incident with Roop Kanwar had taken place in Rajasthan. He told me that he had also once thought of making a film on the novel by Kamal Kumar Majumdar, but at that time, there were a lot of problems, as the region where it is set was still East Pakistan. He was delighted that I was making the film. “ Tomar shahosh to berechhey ” (you have become more courageous), he told me jokingly. Even though he was ill at that time, he still made a logo for the international release of the film.

Many people say that Manikda was aloof and unapproachable, but he was actually very kind and helpful to young film-makers. He used to sit and chat for hours with children when he was editing Sandesh magazine. He was a very friendly human being. On one occasion, during a meeting of a film-makers’ forum we were sitting and chatting, and all through, as he talked, laughed, ordered tea, he was continuously making designs and sketches one after the other in A4 size papers. One could just ring the bell at his home and meet him. People got the impression that he was intimidating because of his preoccupation with his work.

Also read: A Century of Ray

I would also like to talk about Ray’s time management. He would say, “Come over, I want to discuss your film, but come by 7 a.m.” That is because he had already slotted his day’s work in advance. It was fantastic to observe him make time for all that he was doing—making films, bringing out Sandesh (which he would edit and he did illustrations for it), composing music, writing books, and so on. I realised on the several occasions that I went to his place around 4:30-5:00 p.m., that that was his time to listen to music. One can really learn from the way he managed time.

Ray was also very lucky to have met Jean Renoir, from whom he had received a valuable lesson in film-making, which opened up his eyes. Renoir told him: “Look, there are so many elements in your multilayered country, but don’t go for too many things. Select a few elements and narrate them well.” I think that was a great lesson, and you can see that in Ray’s films—a few elements but a lot of details. We learnt from Ray that small is beautiful and that we have to create international productions with a small budget. Ray and Mrinalda [Mrinal Sen] taught us that. You can see that Ray started out with an amateur team of gifted, committed people like Subrata Mitra [Ray’s cameraman in the Apu Trilogy, and seven other films], Bansi Chandragupta [Ray’s production designer in the Apu Trilogy and 17 other films], who had some experience working in the industry. They were so passionate and cultivated that they could create wonderful things on a shoestring budget. They used to do extensive research before a project. Ray himself used to visit the National Library and the Asiatic Society for his research.

Ray was also a very responsible person, and one can see that in his writings. This was something that ran in the family. Both Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury [Ray’s paternal grandfather] and Sukumar Ray [Ray’s father] tried to combine science with art in their literary works and encouraged the flowering of a scientific mind. This was something that Ray continued in the Feluda series and the books on Professor Shonku. There is something or the other to be learned from them—be it geography, indigenous culture, history, scientific fact. Educating the young was a priority for Ray.

Making his own music

Through his films you can actually see the kind of mind Ray had. The message he conveyed through his works was that of empathy and humanism. He was against superstition and fundamentalism, and it came through in all his films from Devi [1960] to Ganashatru [1989]. His scenes were very musically structured. I loved Ray’s music compositions, and I had once asked him why he did not compose sonatas, etc. He laughed heartily. He said, “I only do functional compositions.” What I learnt from Manikda about composing background score for cinema was how to divide the musical phrase with the tempos, the number of bars required, how to make the music gel with the scene and not be overpowering. The music should go inside the psyche of the scene or a particular moment. Ray’s calculation in arrangements was just superb. I had used his arranger Alok De, and I had gone through Ray’s music scripts, and learnt a lot from them. In those days there were no digital gadgets, and the timing was calculated by stopwatch. Ray used great composers like Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan, who gave wonderful scores for Pather Panchali [1955], Aparajito [1956], Jalsaghar [1958] and Devi [1960]. But later on, he used his own compositions. Ray explained to me why: “Goutam, that exact bar-wise timing, where you change to flute or any other instrument, was difficult for classical musicians to do.” Those were great musicians, who were fantastic in improvisation and composing ragas, but writing scores for films requires another kind of precision. Ray started composing scores for his movies from Teen Kanya (1961) onward.

Also read: How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

‘Kheror khata’

I had the opportunity of going through Ray’s famous red books, his ‘k heror khata’ . My film Ray is a journey through his ‘k heror khata’ and explores his multifaceted genius. It was an amazing experience going through them. Those red books were not just script books, but more like what we call work stations. There were not only very detailed scripts but also many notes on other stories, illustrations, logos, sketches of characters—he would make quick sketches of actors who would come to see him—and numbers. He did not use any ‘k heror khata’ in Pather Panchali , but he started using his red books from the time of Aparajito . This was a habit he had inherited from his father, Sukumar Ray, who used a similar red book, which he used to call ‘ phaltu khata’ (useless copy) or ‘ jabeda khata’ (waste notebook) for writing notes, memorabilia and all kinds of things. From Aparajito until his last film Agantuk [1991], Ray used these red books of his. I remember seeing at the end of the red book, on the overleaf, the names of some of the medicines he was taking. You can find everything about him in those red books.

Once he had asked me, how do you write your scripts, and I told him, “Manikda, I try to write a shot-to-shot script.” And he said, “Absolutely. You should do that.” He told me, “You can improvise later, but while writing you should make the script shot-to-shot, because you will be working on a low budget and you need to be absolutely prepared when you go for the shooting. Once you start shooting, it is like a battlefield, so do your homework well.” This also provides a structured rhythm. I really learnt so much from him. In those ‘kheror khatas’, you find beautiful scripts with small little frames all along, designs of costumes, make-up—everything. In the red book for Shatranj ke Khilari , there are extensive drawings of Indian and British soldiers, costumes of Lucknow. In the ‘kheror khata’ for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), you find drawings of all kinds of movements—those choreographed scenes in the film. It was all so well planned. He had such a sharp mind, and he used to work very fast and was very prolific—whether it was making a film, or writing a script, or penning a story.

Child-like curiosity

He had a child-like curiosity for learning. I’ll give you a very interesting example. When he made Shatranj ke Khilari (1977), he had Hindi and Urdu writers, but during the filming of Sadgati (1981), Manikda started practising grammar in the Devanagari script in his ‘kheror khata’—like a child learning a new language. He had a Hindi writer for Sadgati , but still he wanted to try something new by himself, and at the end of the ‘kheror khata’ you will find two complete scenes written entirely by Ray in beautiful Hindi. He had an unquenchable thirst for learning, and I wonder what he would have done with Photoshop. He may have rejected it, as he made all the designs with his hands; or he may have created something unbelievable. If you see his illustrations from an early age, you will notice he incorporated all kinds of style—Indian, Western drawings, Japanese and Chinese motifs. He could adapt things seamlessly. I remember this beautiful drawing of Rabindranath Tagore in one of his ‘kheror khatas’ of the 1960s. It was a silhouette of the poet standing beside a river in a rectangular frame, and underneath he had written aekhon tomake chaai (now I need you). You can see the huge influence Tagore had in his life.

‘I don’t know’

Another thing from the ‘kheror khata’ that I used in my documentary like a refrain was the phrase “ aami jaani na ” (I don’t know). In these notebooks of Manikda, in many places we suddenly find this phrase; completely out of context. To whom was this phrase addressed? We do not know. After every four or five years, this phrase would appear in his ‘kheror khata’. Just talking about it gives me the goosebumps. I used it as a kind of leitmotif in my film. Maybe it was the eternal contradiction within an artiste; or like Tagore, a question to the unknown. Ray was an atheist from his childhood, but he had developed a kind of agnostic philosophy later in his life, which we can find in his writings. I noticed that when Ray’s films were being screened abroad, people were not aware of his other qualities—that he was a writer, an illustrator, a composer. Later when Shyam Benegal made a documentary [ Satyajit Ray , 1982] and I made my documentary, people realised that he was really a man for all seasons.

Also read: Vision of a land: Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay's Bengal in Satyajit Ray's cinema

‘Visconti second’

In 2001, I was in Naples with Soumitrada [Bengali screen legend Soumitra Chattopadhyay known for his iconic collaborations with Ray], and they were showing a retrospective of Ray. My documentary was also being screened there. I remember a friend of Luchino Visconti, an old lady, telling me a very interesting story. She said that after watching Jalsaghar in London, Visconti thought about making The Leopard [1963], a story about fading aristocracy. When I came back to Calcutta, I told this to Ray’s wife and son—that Jalsaghar had inspired Visconti to make The Leopard .

Alongside this, I must tell you another little anecdote, which is there in my documentary. Ray’s mother used to maintain a scrapbook in which there would be paper clippings about him, telegrams he would send to her from abroad, and so on. When Ray won the Golden Lion—the first prize—at the Venice Film Festival for Aparajito , he was a young film-maker and Visconti was already a huge name and an internationally famous film-maker. One of Visconti’s films was also in the competition. After winning the first prize, Ray sent a telegram to his mother, which was there in that scrapbook, saying:

Aparajito won the Grand Prix

Visconti second”

Incredible! It was so sweet!

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