A collection of scripts by Satyajit Ray and a book of pictures by the film-maker's favourite photographer provide fresh insights into his mind.
TWO recent books on Satyajit Ray, the master film-maker from Bengal who put India on the world film map with his first film, Pather Panchali, in 1955, rekindle memories of a man who was tall in more senses than one. The first, Original English Film Scripts, has a somewhat misleading title. Is it possible that the two editors may have actually meant to call this volume Original Film Scripts in English'? At any rate it would have been more accurate to have titled it so. This little caveat aside, it is a very interesting book because it gives insights into Satyajit Ray's mind, his aesthetic and political preoccupations.
There are scripts of five produced and two unproduced films. The first, titled Two, was a silent 15-minute short done for Esso World Theatre in 1964. It was about the struggle for pride between a rich boy with many toys living in a luxurious house and a poor boy living in a shanty close by who is forced to fall back on his inventiveness to keep himself entertained.
Two was a completely visual exercise; its only audio component was a haunting musical score composed by Ray and played on the univox. Ray never used this technique again. His other published screenplays, for all their suggestive qualities, are laconic in comparison. Two is the least seen but ranks among the most sensitive films made by Ray.
The 62-page script of Shatranj Ke Khilari, a late work based on a famous Urdu short story by Munshi Premchand, is an ideal balance between physical action, psychological detail and dialogue. It was the only film Ray did in Hindustani, an act of daring made possible by the collaboration of such conscientious and talented colleagues as Shama Zaidi and Javed Siddiqui, both of whom brought in considerable knowledge of the milieu and language of the Lucknow of 1857.
The 13-page introduction by the editors Sandip Ray, Ray's son and a fine film-maker in his own right, and Aditi Nath Sarkar is informative and useful. One may conjecture that the academic inputs in the 2000-word-plus observations made here on Shatranj Ke Khilari are Aditi Nath Sarkar's and the cinematic interpretations of historical facts, Sandip Ray's. They have collaborated to throw much-needed light on the film, which was misunderstood by critics and intellectuals in India, especially those from the North, at the time of its release.
Ray's understanding of how historical processes impinge upon the psyche of the vanquished community, thereby rendering it decadent, is indeed remarkable. The contradictory qualities infused in his characters, apparent on the written page, became even more eloquent on screen.
Other film scripts included are Sadgati, a 1981 production for Doordarshan, based again on a Premchand story, this time in Hindi, examining the scourge of untouchability in the third decade of 20th century India and, inevitably, its tragic consequences. Ray had been earlier accused of misinterpreting' Premchand's story in Shatranj Ke Khilari rather than illuminating the historical processes that affect the thinking and personalities of the characters. The 52-minute Sadgati sticks close to Premchand in its expression of anger and outrage against an act of unspeakable injustice.
Pikoo, a 26-minute film for FrenchTelevision, is a sad, subtle film about an upper-class boy of six with an adulterous mother visited regularly by her lover, an alienated father, and a loving grandfather dying of heart disease. The boy, Pikoo, is able to grasp what is going on around him with his child's intuition but does not have the words to articulate his feelings.
Ray reveals his customary depth and sensitivity in the script. Other than Ray, perhaps only two other directors, Vittorio di Sica and Francois Truffaut, have shown as great an understanding of a child's world and an empathy for it.
There is an outline for a screenplay that became Shakha-Proshakha, a film that had the famous French actor-star Gerard Depardieu as its co-producer. Ray's first heart attack had happened a little earlier.
It was an indoor' film because the story and the precarious health of the director demanded it. The screenplay-outline is precise in its delineation of character and action. Shakha-Proshakha was the one Ray film that dealt overtly with psychology and its bearing upon the actions of the characters featuring in it. This trait is evident even on the printed page.
The one gift that the editors bring to the reader is the script of The Alien, a science-fiction film whose production was thwarted in 1967 by Columbia Pictures at the behest of Mike Wilson, a friend of the celebrated Ceylon-based science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Wilson had come aboard as a co-producer because of his alleged connections in Hollywood.
It was alleged that the idea for The Alien was stolen by Stephen Spielberg, who made ET (Extra Terrestrial), his most celebrated film, a few years later. ET was a simple, beautiful film clearly aimed at children and it was a sensational box-office success. The story is about a cute creature from outer space who lands on the earth, befriends an equally cute little boy and his sister and, after some funny adventures, goes home. The core idea for ET may possibly have come from Satyajit Ray's The Alien because Mike Wilson circulated mimeographed copies of Ray's script after the project fell through.
One cannot infer, however, that Spielberg had read Ray's script, though it is quite possible that he may have heard people discuss the story of The Alien in Hollywood and he may have got his two most important ideas from it, that of a creature from outer space landing on the earth, and then, after some funny adventures, returning home, somewhere in the universe. There is, however, a fundamental difference in approach: Spielberg's was an engaging, even touching, yarn for kids; Ray, if the script is anything to go by, was aiming for something distinctly philosophical, without, of course, sacrificing any of the entertainment value of his story.
Here is an example of Ray's humanity as well as his imagination from the script of The Alien:Scene 80. Interior. Day. Cabin of spaceship.
The Alien sits cross-legged, in the classical manner of the Buddha, a red disc of sunlight on his face and around his head, singing the simple song about flowers and rivers and paddy fields that HABA [the poor, resilient orphan from the village of Mangalpur, West Bengal] has taught him.
Around the Alien in this gravity-less cabin of the spaceship floats HABA, in a state of blissful slumber, and the various specimens of earthly flora and fauna he has helped to collect for his friend' a frog, a firefly, a snake, a fish, a lotus, a squirrel and a bulbul bird all in a state of suspended animation.
The Alien now stops singing and stretches his hand towards an invisible control.
This is the penultimate scene in the script. The last scene is full of droll, earthly poetry. Had Ray been able to make The Alien the way he intended, it may well have surpassed all his other films.
The book is neatly designed. Rishi Barua's jacket design is elegant, as is Indrani Majumdar's for the endpapers and the title pages of the film scripts.Collection of photographs
Nemai Ghosh, the author of Manik-Da, was the maestro's long-time still photographer. It is a collection of black-and-white photographs of Ray at work and it invariably reflects his creative struggle, despite his enormous and varied artistic gifts. The photograph on the cover, taken in 1972 during the outdoor shoot of Ashani Sanket in Bolpur, of Ray seated on a camera trolley alone, cigarette in hand, immersed in thought, captures the loneliness of the creative process that the artist must engage in before he arrives at anything worthwhile.
The back cover has a photograph from two years earlier of Ray sitting on a camera battery-box, with the Arriflex 2 B camera in hand, oblivious of the small crowd behind him on Calcutta's (now Kolkata) Chittaranjan Avenue, setting up a shot for Pratidwandi. This ability to work with complete energy and concentration, regardless of the surroundings, was Ray's greatest strength.
A word about the photographer: Nemai Ghosh was an enthusiastic amateur for a very long time. His passion was theatre, and he had worked as an actor with Little Theatre, the famous Bengali Left-leaning theatre personality Utpal Dutt's group. He had a stable ten-to-five job and a family to look after.
He became a photographer quite by chance. Someone had forgotten a fixed-lens camera in a taxi, and a friend of Ghosh's offered it to him when a pending loan of Rs.240 was waived. Another friend, Jaipratap Mitra, an assistant cameraman in films, offered to help with film rolls. Ghosh started taking pictures as one possessed.
Then came the chance to attend an outdoor session of the shooting of Ray's rollicking musical Goupi Gayen Bagha Bayen at Rampurhat in 1968. The shooting had been cancelled, but the unit was rehearsing a shot. Ghosh pulled out his Canon camera and started taking pictures. In no time he had finished two rolls of B\W film. He then went post-haste to Studio Renaissance at Ballygange in Calcutta, owned by a highly regarded photographer, Bhupendra Kumar Sanyal. Taking the exposed film from Ghosh solemnly, Sanyal went into the darkroom to develop them. After the job was done Sanyal came out and told the aspiring photographer, Go ahead, you will succeed in photography.
Ghosh has been to Ray what Boswell was to Dr Johnson in another age. Ghosh's photographs of Ray at work and in more personal moments at home, over a period of 24 years, give a vivid picture of the man. In this collection, however, one gets a composite portrait of Ray the film-maker.
Ghosh's approach, as the pictures so eloquently suggest, was unobtrusive. Nothing gave him more pleasure than to photograph the film-maker he admired the most. The day he received the payment his first of Rs.7,500 from the Ray film unit, he was thrilled beyond words. Until then, he had been treated as an interloper by certain unit members despite his talent as an amateur.
One wishes that Ghosh had chosen a better translator than S.K. Ray Chaudhuri, a geologist who retired from the Cement Corporation of India. His grasp of the English language, while translating from the Bengali, is at best uncertain.
This is unfortunate, as the text accompanying the pictures is on occasion cloying, even craven, though often also interesting. It is true that Ray was an excellent photographer, apart from being a graphic artist of repute and a fine composer of musical scores for his own, and sometimes other people's, films.
It is also true that he taught Nemai Ghosh the finer points of still photography and gave many aesthetic inputs about life and art. But Ghosh's hero worship of Ray is a bit embarrassing. One is, of course, free to see it as a cultural quirk. It would be difficult to imagine a similar relationship between master and pupil in the West without being startled.