Nemai Ghosh's photographs

Nemai Ghosh: Satyajit Ray’s Boswell

Print edition : November 05, 2021

Satyajit Ray with Nemai Ghosh. Photo: Satyaki Ghosh

‘The Chess Players’ (Shatranj ke Khilari). Ray, with camera and his unit members, in front of the Bara Imambara (Great Mosque) in Lucknow, 1977. Standing from left to right: Purnendu Bose, Soumendu Roy, Dilip Banerjee, Anil Ghosh. The Bara Imambara is shown on screen in silhouette, but unfortunately most of the film had to be shot in the studio in Calcutta because of too many anachronistic elements in the streets of modern Lucknow. Photo: NEMAI GHOSH/courtesy of son satyaki ghosh

‘The Golden Fortress’ (Sonar Kella). Ray, surrounded by his unit members, prepares to shoot a scene with Kamu Mukherjee (Mandar Bose) and Sailen Mukherjee (Dr Hemanga Hajra) walking together up the path to Nahargarh Fort, Rajasthan, 1974. Standing to the right of Ray is his vital cinematographer Soumendu Roy. The umbrella is to protect the camera from direct sunlight. Photo: NEMAI GHOSH/courtesy of son satyaki ghosh

‘The Elephant God’ (Joi Baba Felunath). Ray, with his unit members, lines up a trolley shot of Soumitra Chatterjee (Felu) talking with Biplab Chatterjee (Bikash) in Varanasi (Benares), 1978. From left to right: Ramesh Sen (holding kheror khata), Soumendu Roy, unknown person, Dilip Banerjee, Purnendu Bose (in hat), Ray, unknown person, Ananta Das, Anil Ghosh. Photo: Nemai Ghosh/COURTESY OF SON SATYAKI GHOSH

The Elephant God’ (Joi Baba Felunath). Ray paints the film’s Bengali title on the Darbhanga Ghat in Varanasi (Benares), 1978. The detective film’s opening shot involves, literally, a gunshot: its bang causes a flock of pigeons to scatter from the ghat, revealing the title. Photo: NEMAI GHOSH/COURTESY OF SON SATYAKI GHOSH

‘Sukumar Ray’. During the lunch hour in the recording studio in Calcutta, 1987. Photo: NEMAI GHOSH/COURTESY OF SON SATYAKI GHOSH

’Branches of the Tree’ (Sakha Prasakha). Ray directs Ajit Banerjee (Ananda Mohan) in Calcutta, 1990. Photo: NEMAI GHOSH/COURTESY OF SON SATYAKI GHOSH

‘Distant Thunder’ (Ashani Sanket). Ray, watched by Soumendu Roy (standing), lines up a shot of Sandhya Roy (Chutki) in Dangapara, 1972. Photo: NEMAI GHOSH/COURTESY OF SON SATYAKI GHOSH

‘The Chess Players’ (Shatranj ke Khilari). Ray designs Wajid Ali Shah’s crown at home, 1977. He based the design on extensive historical research. This included the sardonic comment (quoted in the film) of the British governor-general, Lord Dalhousie, concerning Wajid Ali Shah and the Great Exhibition in London in 1851: ‘The wretch at Lucknow who has sent his crown to the Exhibition would have done his people and us a good service if he had sent his head in it—and he would never have missed it. That is a cherry which will drop into our mouths some day.’ Photo: NEMAI GHOSH/COURTESY OF SON SATYAKI GHOSH

‘The Chess Players’ (Shatranj ke Khilari). Ray takes a shot of a passing palanquin and Farooq Sheikh (Aqil)—back to camera—supposedly near the house of Nawab Mir Roshan Ali, in a lane known as Shahchara Mohalla in Lucknow, 1977. As always on location, a crowd has gathered to watch the work. Photo: NEMAI GHOSH

Nemai Ghosh (1934-2020) photographed Satyajit Ray at work and scenes from his films from 1968 to 1992.

Anyone drawn to Satyajit Ray and his films owes a debt of gratitude to Nemai Ghosh (1934-2020), who photographed Ray at work and scenes from his films from 1968 right to the end of Ray’s life in 1992.

In Ray’s own words written in 1991, “For close on 25 years, Nemai Ghosh has been assiduously photographing me in action and repose—a sort of Boswell working with a camera rather than a pen. In so far as these pictures rise above mere records and assume a value as examples of the photographer’s art, they are likely to be of interest to a discerning viewer.”

The master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson—who was fascinated by Ray’s films, especially ‘The Music Room’ (Jalsaghar)—certainly recognised this. Cartier-Bresson called Ghosh the “photo-biographer” of Ray, and stated with perfect truth in his foreword to Satyajit Ray at 70, a collection of Ghosh’s photographs and worldwide tributes celebrating Ray’s seventieth birthday: “He allows us to be intimate with film-making, and to feel with great fidelity the drive, the alertness and the profundity of this giant of cinema in all his majestic stature.”

So do I, as the biographer of Ray in the 1980s. Years after Ray’s death in 1992, it was a unique privilege for me to work with Nemai on a large-format, copiously illustrated book using the finest from his tens of thousands of images, along with script extracts and vivid drawings by Ray himself. Entitled Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema, the book comes closer to the mind and heart of a great film-maker’s ‘inner eye’ than perhaps any other book on the cinema.

Also read: A Century of Ray

Ray trusted Ghosh, who worked for the love of Ray’s films, not for money; indeed, his obsession with Ray swallowed up the last rupee of his savings. So he was allowed to become a fly on the wall during all stages of the process of film-making. As Nemai himself writes of Ray in his preface to A Vision of Cinema: “Afterwards, seeing the pictures, he would frequently ask: ‘When did you take it?’ Whatever he was doing—whether writing, designing, acting, directing, operating the camera, editing, composing and recording the music, or simply meditating in the middle of noise and crowds like some sage—Manikda [Ray] was preoccupied. In his eyes, I felt I could see the whole film. I tried to catch that impression.”

For me, Nemai—who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2010—represented the best of Bengal, with his uncommon combination of talent, dedication and modesty, captured in the final words of his preface: “From the lanes of Kalighat Road in Calcutta to the Rue de Rivoli in Paris—and the appreciation of a giant like Cartier-Bresson—was a big leap for a simple man from a middle-class Bengali family. As the moon is illuminated by the light of the sun, very many people have come into the light because of Ray. It was my good luck that one day my stars shone on me too. Whatever inspiration and education I have received in my life are like pebbles I have collected from the shores of the sea called Satyajit Ray.”