Film time, family time: Sandip Ray on Satyajit Ray

The film-maker Sandip Ray reminisces about his father in a free-wheeling interview.

Published : Oct 18, 2021 06:00 IST

Sandip Ray announcedhis arrival as a film-maker with the release of Phatik Chand in 1983. In the last two decades, he has come up with several memorable films, including Nishijapon (2005), Tintorettor Jishu (2008), Jekhane Bhooter Bhoy (2012) and Badshahi Angti (2014). He continues to edit Sandesh , the children’s magazine that Satyajit Ray nurtured with extraordinary dedication from 1961. He was also always deeply involved with his father’s films, especially in post-production processes such as editing. In Satyajit Ray’s last three films, his son operated the camera. In a long, freewheeling interview with Sarbari Sinha , Sandip Ray talks about his father. Excerpts:

When you were growing up, Satyajit Ray was publishing one classic story for children after another in ‘Sandesh’.

Yes, he was. People know Satyajit Ray primarily as a film-maker, but this aspect of him as a children’s writer is also very important. But now that his stories are getting translated into many languages, there is more awareness.

Please tell us more about his role as editor of ‘Sandesh’.

Well, my grandmother [Suprabha Ray] had a big role in the revival of Sandesh , the magazine that my grandfather first started in 1913. She would keep saying that Sandesh should be launched again. Unfortunately, she did not live to see Baba start the magazine again. He relaunched it in 1961 with his poet friend Subhas Mukhopadhyay.

Baba gave a lot of his time to it. How he managed to do that is still a mystery to me. He edited it and wrote for it in between shooting for his films—he had this extraordinary ability to manage time. In fact, he started writing for children when he revived Sandesh . He illustrated his own stories and many of the stories by others, though Sandesh did have other artists. He often made the layout. He proofread the magazine himself. And he took his editing very seriously.

Of course, he did not have to edit all the stories that came in, but say, 10 out of 20 that came in. He often rewrote stories if he found the plots to be weak, or the climax not dramatic enough. He would ask the writer to drop in, saying he wanted to discuss the story. “Your story is good,” he would say, “but maybe we could change it on these lines…” And these were not well-known writers. Very often they would be first-time writers, quite taken aback to be invited for a discussion by none other than Satyajit Ray. He would discuss all the changes he had made in their stories, very seriously. Same for the poems. He called in the poets and discussed the changes he had made in the rhymes or the rhythm. He was very proper in everything that he did, very transparent. There was this constant flow of memos to other editors, for instance to Lila Majumdar [the well-known children’s writer who was Sukumar Ray’s cousin and one of the editors of Sandesh ]. “Lilu pishi , you have okayed this story, but I can’t, some elements in it are unsuitable for children,” a typical memo would read.

Also read: A Century of Ray

He answered every letter that came in himself. In those days people sent in letters with “return post cards”. He would tear them out and dash off his replies. If any letter was a bit serious and called for a well-thought-out, longish answer, he would first make a draft and then type out or write down the final version.

He was also closely involved with the production and printing of the magazine. Expertise in printing technology was a family tradition; Upendrakishore and Sukumar were pioneers. Baba, too, was familiar with printing technology. His years at Kala Bhavan and in the British advertising firm D.J. Keymer had made him a layout expert. So there was no department, no function of Sandesh that he did not oversee. He loved the magazine. He was very involved with it.

There was a tradition of storytelling in your family, a family of writers, all of them writing for children. But apart from the written stories, there was this tradition of making up stories orally, playing games with children that involved each of the players contributing a little to the yarn.… Did Satyajit Ray play such games too? Did he make up stories orally for you?

No, that tradition of telling stories orally to children of the family that existed in Upendrakishore’s household ended with Sukumar Ray’s generation. In fact, Baba never initially even thought of writing stories. He wrote essays, he wrote on films. And in his early twenties, during his days at Kala Bhavan, he wrote two stories in English, Abstraction and Shades of Grey , which were published in Amritabazar Patrika . But when he revived Sandesh , he thought he should also contribute something as its editor. That is how he ended up translating Edward Lear and Lewis Caroll. And then he started thinking of plots and started writing stories. But no, he never told stories orally; he never had the time.

The atmosphere in Upendrakishore’s family was different. It was a large joint family, with many children, just the right environment for stories to be told, with many young listeners. In a way, Baba reinvented that kind of storytelling in the character of Tarini Khuro, an ‘uncle’ with lots of stories to tell and a group of youngsters willing to listen.

Baba in fact was a science fiction addict. He devoured science fiction from early on. That is why, when he started thinking of plots, he thought of inventing a character in a science fiction story.

Professor Shonku?

Yes. Initially, the inspiration for Shonku was two comic characters of Sukumar Ray, Nidhiram Patkel, an eccentric inventor, and the explorer in HeshoramHoshiar , a spoof on Lost World. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger was also an inspiration. But Professor Shonku started off as an eccentric character, inventor of a snuff gun that makes people sneeze continuously. Baba was taken aback by the success of Shonku. Children started writing in, their parents started writing in. He was in the phone book; he was always highly accessible, so people started calling to ask for more. And he always took every call himself, he answered every letter himself, he didn’t have a secretary. The same thing happened with Feluda some years later. Baba realised he would have to bring back Shonku. And slowly Shonku became a more serious character because the old wackiness, the gag kind of thing, did not sit well with the plots Baba started thinking up .

So that is how Shonku became a series. But then Baba noticed that no one was writing detective fiction for children in the 1960s. Hemendra Roy was long dead. Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s Byomkesh was for adults. But Baba had to write for children; he had to keep Sandesh afloat. So he wrote a detective story inspired by Sherlock Holmes, with Felu as detective [ Feludar Goendagiri , or Feluda’s Sleuthing, 1965] for Sandesh , with Topshe as the young assistant with whom children could identify. But then again his young readers wanted more of Feluda. This story was too short, they said, and they wanted a longer story.

Also read: ‘I am not conscious of being a humanist’

And Baba could not deny anything to children. Children were always very special for the Rays. So Baba started writing more and more Feluda stories in Sandesh , and the magazine’s sales went up. This, too, became a series. Badshahi Angti [Emperor’s Ring] ran in Sandesh for 12 months.

Then he was in trouble. He was running out of crimes for Felu to solve. Baba wrote for children, and the crime had to be something he could put into a story for children. So he hit this patch where he found his stock of crimes was exhausted. But creative artists always find a way out of such predicaments, and so did he.

Fascination for word games

Ray had a fascination for indoor games—even his criminals play indoor games. Did he himself play board games at home?

Well, yes, he liked indoor games. As a young man he had played cricket, even badminton, though I’ve never heard of him having played football. Later, he played in the film industry cricket matches. But it was indoor games that he was really into, especially word games. He loved Scrabble; we played a lot of Scrabble, the three of us, and sometimes visitors would be drawn into the game too. He liked all the word games made by Parker Brothers, the makers of Scrabble, especially Boggle, and then there was a game called Probe. Whenever Parker Brothers launched a new game, he was sure to acquire it. There was a shop called Games and Puzzles in London. Every time Baba was in London, he made it a point to go there. He even subscribed to their newsletter, which kept him informed about new games that were introduced. He made a word game himself, somewhat like Scrabble, which I remember him playing with my mother. That is lost now.

A fairy tale for children

You were 13 when Satyajit Ray made ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ in 1969, at a time when there were not many films for children in Bengali. Ray said somewhere that you were part of the reason why he made it.

I don’t remember about that very well, but obviously at some point I must have complained that none of his films were for children of my age, they were too grim, and there were far too many deaths in them. It would be nice if he could make films for children like me. He liked the idea, and it remained at the back of his mind. He always loved the story of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne [written by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore]. He was not born when it was serialised in Sandesh [1915]. But he reprinted it the year he revived the magazine. Actually, it was in 1964 that he first thought of making a film out of the story, and he kept toying with the idea. But for various reasons it did not happen at that time. And then he wrote a song for a film, Chiriakhana , and writing a song gave him a lot of joy. But the idea of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne persisted. There were many ups and downs…. One producer came forward. We even made a trip to Rajasthan to look at locations for shooting …

But why Rajasthan?

Well, because of all the forts that are there, the landscape, the sand, it’s visually exciting territory—all of it combining into the kind of fairy-tale setting needed for the story. Baba said we would look at places not frequented by tourists. So we checked out several different locations: Bharatpur, Kota, Bundi, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer. After looking at the locations, he decided if he did make this film, he would make it in colour. Parts of it were shot in Birbhum also. He even got the songs for the film recorded. But then the producer backed out.

What was the problem? Lack of confidence in the film?

Lack of confidence, yes. A film for children, in those days, and that too a big-budget film. No heroine, no romance, though of course Goopy and Bagha get the two princesses in the end. The producer was nervous and chickened out. Baba was totally flabbergasted that the project was getting stalled after so much work on it. Then he moved on to make a few other films.

And then Purnima Dutta [of Priya Entertainments] came forward and offered to produce the film. She had heard the songs and liked them very much. Her husband and father-in-law had already produced a few films. Baba told her: “It is not just your decision; you need to convince your husband and father-in-law.” She said she had taken care of all that and that she wanted to make this film for her own two children. Then Baba said: “But look, it’s a big-budget film.” She said that would not make a difference.

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

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne turned out to be a phenomenal success—it ran for eight months. I was pleased to think that I had contributed in some way in its making by asking for a film for kids. Baba was very happy—he had not expected such a huge success. Entertainment tax was waived on this film. Another first was that it was released in Calcutta’s Globe theatre with English subtitles. The songs and the dialogues were big hits, even the background score. It was the first Bengali film to come out as an LP, long playing record, with the songs, the background score, the sequence of the ghosts bestowing their three boons. It was a fun time for our family. We are ever grateful to Purnima-di for coming forward to produce the movie.

But it was black-and-white after all.

Yes, it was not eventually possible to produce the film in colour. The budget was one aspect of it. And in those days it was not really possible to get very good visual effect with colour. So he went with black-and-white, except for the last scene, which gave a different twist to the ending. This was one regret that Baba had, that he could not show the resplendent Jaisalmer fort in colour.

But then he could do that in ‘Sonar Kella’.

Yes, when he decided to film Sonar Kella , he was happy that he would finally be able to show the golden fortress in colour. Baba had some favourite locations. Darjeeling was one, Puri was another. Another place he was very fond of was Gopalpur [on the sea coast in Odisha], a quiet place in those days. Oberoi had a property in Gopalpur, and Baba used to go and stay there now and then, sometimes to write scripts. In fact the entire screenplay of Charulata was written in Gopalpur.

Filming stories

What was his reaction to your ‘Goopy Bagha Phire Elo’ [Goopy And Bagha Are Back] in the late 1980s?

Hirak Rajar Deshe was made before that, exactly 10 years after Goopy Bagha . In between, he would express a wish to write songs again, like he had done for Goopy Bagha . The songs for Hirak Rajar Deshe were written before the story was written, and when the story was ready, he wrote a few more songs to round it off. Then later, he wanted to write songs again for a new Goopy Bagha film, and he actually did write one or two songs. Again, the songs came before the screenplay. But he was not well. So he said I should make the film. I was nervous at first—to live up to the first two would not be easy.

But then, I had made Phatik Chand a few years earlier, and that had given me confidence. I had wanted to make my first film on a story by Baba, and I chose Phatik Chand . He said he would do the screenplay for me and the music, but the rest was up to me. I was very wary that no matter what I did people would say Baba had made the film for me. So I did not allow him on the shooting floor. He could come and sit outside, have tea if he wanted, but I made my shooting floor out of bounds for him. He got to see the film only at the time of the ‘first cut’ after the initial round of editing.

His response was silence. Finally I had to ask, well, will you say something? He said: “My script calls for a one-hour-forty-minute film, yours is two hours 20 minutes. Cut it. How and what you will cut, that is up to you.” I was nervous, but I went ahead, and I had Baba’s example before me. Baba was completely ruthless about editing his own films. No matter how much work had gone into a shot, no matter how good the acting, he would cut it if he thought it was superfluous. Sometimes, after an entire day spent on outdoor shooting, he would throw away the scene. To my anguished “why”, he would only say, “It doesn’t help the story in any way.” I managed to cut down Phatik Chand to one hour 45 minutes. Baba was happy. “Now I will do the music for it,” he said.

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But when Phatik Chand was released, people said it was Baba’s work. My feelings were mixed. If people really thought it was Baba’s work, it must be good! When I made Goopy Bagha Phire Elo , I asked my father to be with us at the shooting—people would anyway say what they had to. But there was something more important. When I was shooting this film, Baba was unwell. He was not able to make films at that time. But he missed the studio atmosphere, the sheer chaos, the musty smell. I felt it would help him to be with us during the shooting. It would keep him from getting depressed.

Again there was the ‘first cut’ viewing. I had put in an interval to see his reaction. He asked me what the interval was for. I said, to see the reaction to the film. He said, “Run it on. It’s good.” For me, that was like being okayed by the censor board.

Then later he went on to make three more feature films, Ganashatru , Sakha Prasakha, Agantuk . The day before shooting for Ganashatru was to start, he fell ill. We were all worried, and I asked the doctors whether we should cancel the following day’s shooting. They advised against it and asked me to start the shooting a little late instead of early morning. An ambulance was kept ready in case of any emergency, and doctors too were in attendance. But as soon as the shooting started, Baba, magically, recovered, his blood pressure became stable. The shooting floor did something to him. His doctor was laughing: “So you are fine when you work! What was the use of keeping an ambulance ready?”

You have worked with your father quite a bit. What are your memories of your father as a taskmaster?

Only that he was not a taskmaster. He was always very relaxed, very easy-going. And anyway after a certain age fathers become friends…

‘Sonar Kella’ shooting

Can you share some shooting stories?

Stories there are galore, but the most interesting are the ones about outdoor shooting, especially in the Feluda films, particularly Sonar Kella . We shot first in Delhi, then in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, and finally Jaisalmer. Things were really tough then, there were no means of communication save landline telephones and telegrams; one made trunk calls for long-distance communication. Organising a multi-location shooting trip so far from West Bengal was not a joke. The Indian Railways really cooperated. Our production unit had a dedicated bogie. When we reached one destination, the bogie was detached from the train and kept waiting until we moved on to our next destination, when it was attached to the train that was to take us there.

Several hours before we finished shooting at a location, our production controller, Anil Chowdhury, left for the next location. By the time we reached, a bus would be waiting for us at the station to take us to the hotel, where he had already completed the bookings and even had rooms allotted for the entire unit. This was more complicated than it sounds, for a production unit is always a melee of diverse characters. He knew the unit inside out. This one does not get along with that one, or, say, this person will not share a room with that person because he snores. Well, so he would put two snorers in the same room. He could always work out the interpersonal chemistries in the unit and make it work. He was a phenomenal guy. He worked with the precision of a computer.

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

Unexpected problems always crop up during shooting. Baba needed a Colt .32 revolver in Jaisalmer for the climactic scene. When he had gone to Jaisalmer to check out location, he met a police officer who had a Colt .32 revolver. Baba was thrilled: this meant one thing less to carry. The officer was also thrilled: Satyajit Ray asking to borrow his revolver to shoot a scene! But when we reached Jaisalmer for the shooting, the officer had been transferred out, along with his revolver. Baba was nonplussed. Now what was to be done? Again it was Anil Chowdhury. He placed calls to Jodhpur and found out that an officer there had a Colt .32. He drove out to Jodhpur overnight and brought back with him the officer and his gun.

My own most striking memory of that trip was of the last day. As the shooting progressed during the trip, our schedule was little by little getting somewhat tight, small delays here and there were adding up. For the shooting of the climax in Jaisalmer fort, we had scheduled two days, but it got reduced to half a day. We had just the morning to complete the shoot and we had to leave in the afternoon to catch our train at Jodhpur in the evening to travel back home via Delhi. It was a crisis.

But Baba was completely unruffled. Looking at him, you would never make out anything was the matter. I have never seen him nervous or tensed up about anything. He was always totally cool. “It’s okay, it will get done,” he would say. That morning we went to the fort. There were various factors. The gun came a bit late. We needed some peacocks and that had to be arranged. All in all it was a difficult shoot.

Baba usually had a storyboard ready. [Ray sketched out his scene sequences in his notebook, which he called ‘kheror khata’, and his filming followed these sketches.] But that day he said: No need to look at the ‘kheror khata’, he knew exactly what to do, he had it all mapped out in his head. We had to hurry up now, he said. And then it was like a whirlwind: Baba was all over the place, here, there, everywhere, shooting a scene here, one there. The rest of us just could not keep up with the pace. The assistants were reduced to nervous wrecks. In that cold weather the unit members were drenched in sweat. In three hours flat, the shooting was over—75 shots in all! And then we were on our way. It was unbelievable. It was all perfectly done, too, editing posed no problems later on. It shows how photographic his memory was, how perfectly he remembered the sequence of scenes to be able to work at that speed.

Baba’s photographic memory carried the day. He had at one time seen countless Hollywood movies; he was addicted to them. Even after 40 years he had a clear memory of those films. A bit like Sidhu Jyatha. Sidhu Jyatha was Satyajit. Felu was also Satyajit.

If we did not finish shooting in time that day in Jaisalmer, we would miss the train, lose our dedicated bogie, it would have a domino effect on all our plans. And of course there was the question of expenses. Baba was very conscious of that aspect, very keen that the producer should get back what he was investing. Thankfully, the producers always got back much more.

Satyajit Ray often had inexplicable luck with locations. For instance, the house that he found for the Ghoshals in ‘Jai Baba Felunath’.

Yes, he was lucky with locations. That house in Benares, the terrace was beautiful, with a view of the Ganga, just what he needed, though the interior shooting was all done in Calcutta. The exterior and the terrace scenes were shot in that house.

Another time, he was casting about desperately for the right country mansion for Jalsaghar ; he was not getting it for a long time. Then he saw the house of the Nimtita zamindars [in Murshidabad], and he knew it was the right house. He came back excited and called Tarashankarbabu [Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, author of Jalshaghar ]. “I have found the right house,” Baba said. Which one, asked Tarashankar. When Baba said it was the house of the Nimtita zamindars, Tarashankarbabu was astonished: “Arrey, the Nimtita zamindar family is the one on whom I wrote this story!” Baba had this kind of strange luck with locations, almost telepathic.

Also read: Celebrating Satyajit Ray

There is another thing he could do: he could unerringly predict the weather. Perhaps it was something he developed during his years in Santiniketan, I am not sure. I remember an incident from the shooting of the film Sadgati . There was a rain scene in the end, a climactic scene. The rain made the scene very dramatic. Smita Patil and Om Puri were acting. We were camping in Raipur, and from there we went to a place called Mahasamund for the scene. Baba looked at the sky and said: “It is going to rain. Get ready for the scene.” We were a bit unsure. What if the rain stopped? We would be left waiting for when it rained again. But Baba said: “It will not stop. It will rain long enough for my scene.” Then it started raining torrentially. We shot the scene, and 10 minutes after we were done, the rain stopped!

‘Ma was always there with him’

When Satyajit Ray made a film, his family was always part of the production unit, wasn’t it? You and your mother were always deeply involved in his projects.

Talking about that, I must mention my mother first. She was always there with him in this, right from the beginning, encouraging him in every way. I really don’t think Pather Panchali would have got made without my mother. Over the years, she attended all shootings, on location and in the studio, and she was involved with all aspects of the production. She took an active interest in the films he made, helped him with casting, and in later years she helped with costumes. She was always a crucial source of inspiration and support for him.

I, too, was very involved with my father’s work. We travelled with him when he shot on location, though when I was a student I was not always able to accompany the unit. I started taking production stills quite early, and my name appeared on the title card of Seemabaddha along with Nemai Ghosh’s. I was always interested in the post-production part of film-making, especially editing. From the time of Bala , the documentary on Balasaraswati, Baba asked me to help with editing. I had been doing that anyway, but from that time I started doing it regularly.

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