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‘His eyes spoke everything’: Raghu Rai remembers Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray on the sets of ‘Ghare Baire’, 1983. | Photo Credit: Raghu Rai
Ziya Us Salam 21 October 2021 06:00 IST
Updated: 26 October 2021 19:45 IST

Interview with Raghu Rai, photographer.

The first time Raghu Rai came up with a book, he did not pen it. That was left to the indomitable Khushwant Singh; Rai did what he does best: click pictures that stay with you long after you have put the book back on the shelf. That book, published some 30 years ago, was Delhi: A Portrait. It still makes ripples in Delhi, the city on the Yamuna. Rai did not stop with that book. Like the river, he went east and found himself falling in love with Calcutta, much before Kolkata became a political reality. He did books on Mother Teresa, he shot Kali, and he realised the city had a soul uniquely its own. This journey from Indraprastha, the abode of Indra, to the city of Kali was facilitated, almost unfathomably, by the matchless Satyajit Ray. Rai had heard of him, saw his films, then one day he met him. He was then a photographer with The Statesman in New Delhi, and the great Ray was coming down from the stage at the 22nd National Film Awards in New Delhi, having just received three national awards. Rai offered to help, “Mr Ray, you are carrying so much weight. I am sure you need some help.” Ray quipped, “Definitely not in this case. It is a pleasure.”

That little interaction led to many more and a few years later Rai found himself on a jury with Ray, and including the famous painter Ramkinkar Baij. The bond was sealed. Like many others, he could not help falling in love with Ray’s craft, admire the person he was, the breadth of his knowledge and the humility to carry it with. A book on the genius seemed inevitable. So, here it is, ladies and gentleman, Raghu Rai’s Satyajit Ray, a book with a couple of insightful essays and photographs that speak a million words. From Ray on a bed to the film-maker in his studios to standing by the Ganga, Rai has captured them all. Published by Raghu Rai Foundation for Art and Photography, the book comes in the centenary year of Ray, a man he lovingly calls Dadu.

It was not designed that way, he confesses. During the lockdown and prolonged social restrictions, Rai could barely step out of his home. A restless spirit, he decided instead to walk down memory lane, flush out photographs he had taken in the past, and from his treasure trove discovered he had many gems on Ray. The book then took a momentum of its own; he chose the pictures himself, developed them, wrote the text too, and got it edited by noted editor Dipa Chaudhuri. The book is hitting the bookstores this festive season. Rai spoke to Ziya Us Salam about Ray, about the book, and much more. Excerpts:

To the film fraternity, Satyajit Ray is known as Manikda. How did he become your loving Dadu?

In Bengal they usually say Dada. By Dada I meant somebody who is a super specialist in cinema, higher than everybody else. Why? The first time I really met him was when I was invited to Calcutta to be a part of a jury of some contest. He, myself and Ramkinkar, we were on the jury. The first thing he said when we met was, “O Raghu, so nice to see you. Your photograph of a woman pushing the cart is etched in my mind forever.” Somebody like him giving me a compliment of that kind, I was really touched.

Also read: Film time, family time: Sandip Ray on Satyajit Ray

When was it?

I think it was in the mid 1980s. We had admired him so much as the greatest film-maker of India, and one of the greatest of the world. And here was that great film-maker paying me a compliment. So we had a gala time, two days of judging, having lunch and dinner together, discussing art and films. I must say, he never criticised any person.

That’s interesting.

One day, he was being interviewed by a daily when I was with him. They asked him about Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, etc. He said, yes, they are good film-makers. I said Dadu, if you do not give a critical and analytical appraisal of film-making, who would do that? He said, “No, Raghu, if you criticise somebody, they think you are arrogant.” He was one of those great guys, he never criticised other film-makers, he never took confrontation with the government. He was respected as a grand guy. He was not just a film-maker, he was a magnificent human being. He treated me like an equal artist. It was something unique for me.

Yes, that is what I wanted to ask. How did your relationship evolve from that of a fanboy to two men who respected each other’s craft?

I could talk to him at that high level, and he gave me the same respect which he would give to any other creative artist when I was discussing about other film-makers with him. I also remember that somebody proposed to him to do a period film again after Shatranj ke Khilari. I am a very spontaneous and quick guy. When I heard this, I said, “Manikda, when you do contemporary themes, your canvas is so huge and so intense, but period films limit your canvas.” He said, “I agree.”

Satyajit Ray’s sets were known for their calmness. There would be no noise, no tantrums. What was your experience when you went to take pictures during the shooting of ‘Ghare Baire’?

He was a very, very deep and silent person, but very emotive. His eyes spoke everything. He never lost his cool on an actor who didn’t deliver the way he wanted. Actually, during Ghare Baire his wife was almost running the show, and he was supervising. In between he would come in and see.

Also read: Critical insider: Satyajit Ray's cinematic trilogies

Why? Was he not well?

No, he was hale and hearty. That is why we could walk up to the Ganga, take a long walk and take the photographs you see in the book.

I heard from some actors that he did not give much room to them to improvise, to innovate. Was he the same person when you were shooting him on your camera? Did he just surrender to you, or give his inputs too?

He said only one thing. “Raghu, when I am shooting then you should just be. Your click will disturb us.” So, I would be quiet then. The moment the sequence finished, I would say, “Manikda, let me do this, let me do that.” And he would do it.

When you took him down to the river, and even when you were shooting him inside, did he take a back seat and let you do what you wanted to do?

Yes, yes. In fact, for one of the portraits, where he is seen lying on the same bed where the hero was sitting in Ghare Baire, I said, “Manikda, please look here,” like he would say, camera, lights on…. He was relaxing, looking at the other side. I went around the bed and discovered that lights and shadows from the other side were very dramatic. So, I said, “Manikda, please look this side.” And he did it very lovingly.

The portraits in your book depict him as a very intense, even somewhat a brooding man. Was he actually like that?

No, no. I found him very easy, intense and simple. Simply wonderful. I have written that once I was there in Calcutta and called him. I wanted to see him. He said, “Is it something important?” I said, “No, Manikda, just wanted to be with you.” It is a very personal, emotional thing to say. He responded, “Oh! Then come along.” If the guy can give you that kind of closeness it means he does not live with that air that oh, I am such a big guy!

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

You were very much new to Calcutta when you went to meet Satyajit Ray. Then you got hooked on to the city. Was it all because your introduction to the city was through Satyajit Ray?

Yes, in a way. But Calcutta is such an intense city even today that people live their lives on the footpaths. It overflows with human expression at any time. For a senior photographer, when human expression is overflowing all the time, what more do you want? Bengalis are very emotional.

Were they able to appraise the genius of Ray or was he always an icon to be put on a pedestal?

I live in Delhi. The amount of greetings I get in Calcutta is amazing. They stop me on the road, and say, “You are Raghu Rai? Great photography.” They are truly art lovers. And Satyajit Ray for them is like god. You don’t analyse god.

Finally, your book comes in the centenary year of Manikda. How did the idea originate?

No, no. Actually, it is by chance. Thanks to COVID we all were locked down for eight-nine months. You were face to face with yourself and your family. I am a workaholic. I cannot live without work. I cannot sit idle for a minute. I was digging up my archives in these months of COVID. I have prepared 13-14 books on different subjects. Manikda was one of them.

When is it likely to be released?

It is going to press shortly. By October-end, it should be out. I did the book because I was at home due to COVID and not because it is Manikda’s centenary year. I didn’t realise it then. It is my good fortune that it is coming at this time.

Who is the publisher?

Anybody would like to publish it but I prefer to do it myself. I can precisely design and edit the way I want. So I did it myself for Raghu Rai Foundation for Art and Photography. I designed the book myself. Also, I must say, my films were underexposed, or underdeveloped. At that time we used to do it manually. I was horrified to see them. It was difficult to make good prints with those. Thanks to digital technology even if a film was under or overexposed, you can scan it in such a way that it looks wonderful. With digital technology, I am reborn as a photographer.

The images are from Raghu Rai's forthcoming book Satyajit Ray, published by Raghu Rai Foundation for Art and Photography.

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