A FILM-MAKER FILMED

Print edition : June 08, 2002
Text and Photographs: T.S. SATYAN

I HAVE been an admirer and a big fan of Satyajit Ray, the legendary film-maker. His universally acclaimed Apu trilogy, made in the 1950s, had earned for him the status of a celebrity. I had seen them and also his other sensitive black-and-white films, which stood out for their naturalness, creativity, down-to-earth realism, artistry and, above all, his unalloyed humanism. They were so different from the run-of-the-mill Bombay movies, with their standardised vulgar dances and songs.

At work at his Calcutta home.-

Every time I saw a Satyajit Ray film, I was naturally overcome with an irresistible desire to meet the great man personally and to photograph him. I was also under the impression that men of his eminence eluded ordinary folks like me. Would this man prove me wrong? I asked myself.

One day in 1961, I read in the newspapers that Satyajit Ray's film Devi, featuring Sharmila Tagore and Soumitra Chatterjee, had bagged the President's gold medal at the National Film Festival. On the eve of the prize distribution ceremony at Vigyan Bhavan, I got to know of Ray's arrival in Delhi to receive the award. "We have reserved a room for him at Hotel Claridges," a friend working in the festival directorate told me.

A Photographer Remembers - II

When I went to see him, I found Satyajit Ray relaxing in a cane chair on the sunlit lawn of the hotel, smoking a cigarette and engrossed in the morning newspaper. On a teapoy beside him there was a tin of State Express 555 cigarettes, his favourite brand. I had known that he was a heavy smoker. I had also seen pictures of him smoking a pipe. I tiptoed to him with some trepidation and said good morning.

Ray looked up from his paper and greeted me with a smile. "I don't think we have met. What can I do for you, young man?" he asked in a kind voice. I told him who I was and what I was doing. I was pleasantly surprised at the warmth of his response. He gave a broad smile as he shook my hands and went on to say that he was wanting to meet me, especially after his friend M.V. Krishnaswamy had spoken to him about me earlier in Calcutta. In fact, Krishnaswamy, whom all of us called Kittu, was my dear friend and collegemate. He had worked as Director of the Films Division in Bombay. He had also produced some documentaries on his own.

A 1981 portrait made in Calcutta. Replying to a letter by the author on positive feedback that he had received on the specially-shot picture, Ray said that it "surely captures the 'outer man' most ably. Everybody likes it."-

"It's a wonderful way of getting to know you, Sir," I said.

"Not at all," he replied. "Even before Kittu mentioned you to me, I was familiar with your name. I had noticed your excellent black-and-white photo features in The Sunday Statesman and The Hindustan Standard and other papers. I like your work. Keep it up." Ray spoke in his characteristic baritone, with a BBC accent.

I was delighted to find that my pictures had caught the eye of so great a creative artist. I profusely thanked him for his good words. He quickly summoned a waiter and ordered tea and sandwiches for me. After we had talked for some 30 minutes, Ray got up saying, "I must now go downtown to meet some friends. On the way, I can gladly drop you home if you like." I thanked him for the offer and got into his car. We had hardly driven for two minutes on Aurangzeb Road when our vehicle screeched to a halt. The driver wanted to avoid hitting a bunch of cattle snoozing in the middle of the road.

A tourist car that was coming from the opposite direction also stopped abruptly. A white man in knickerbockers and a straw hat got out of the vehicle and started photographing the scene. Ray reacted with a smile when I mentioned, "The fellow must be an American tourist. The sight of our honorary brake inspectors must have fascinated him!" "Maybe," said Ray. "We have more of them in Calcutta where this fellow can be shooting all his life! But, right here, you have missed a picture. I am surprised you are without your camera!"

Looking at the rushes of Mahanagar, with film editor Dulal Datta, 1963.-

Mahanagar

On the following day I met him at Vigyan Bhavan. I photographed him receiving the gold medal from the President of India. At the reception that followed the glittering ceremony, he casually asked, "Why don't you come to Calcutta? It's a great city for pictures." I told him of my long-cherished desire not only to visit Calcutta, but also to photograph him at his home and on the sets. "Why not? You are most welcome," he said. "Keep in touch and telephone me the moment you arrive."

I spent a week in Calcutta in 1963, photographing Satyajit Ray. Those were some of the memorable days of my career. He had just then begun his work on Mahanagar (The Big City), starring Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chaterjee. The story of the film was about the reactions of a retired schoolmaster and members of his family towards the daughter-in-law going to work and, surprisingly, making a success of her career. Ray was in total control of the film. He wrote the screenplay himself, as always, sketched every scene that was the envy of any artist, and also composed the music on a piano he had hired. "I can't afford to own one!" he joked with a chuckle.

While in Calcutta I stayed at Komala Vilas, the popular South Indian vegetarian hotel on Rashbehari Avenue, close to Ray's residence on Lake Temple Road in Ballygunge.

I called on Ray soon after my arrival in the great metropolis. When I approached the main door of his first floor apartment, a sign that proclaimed 'Don't disturb' intrigued me. There was music in the air. I peered through the window to find that Satyajit Ray himself was playing on the piano. He was a picture of supreme concentration. Not wanting to disturb him, I patiently waited for the music to end, before I pressed the doorbell.

Ray opened the door and welcomed me with a joyous smile. He was wearing his usual loose, milk-white Bengali robes. I was attracted by his majestic personality and felt that I was in front of a human magnet. He resembled an imperious, enormously tall, Roman Senator. He spoke in a deep-sounding emphatic voice that instantly commanded my attention and respect.

With Madhabi Mukherjee, the heroine of Mahanagar, during the making of the film, 1963.-

Mahanagar

Placing his hand on my shoulder, he led me to his crowded drawing room, which was also his workplace, full of books, manuscripts, music tapes, gramophone records, drawings and artifacts. They seemed to mirror his many interests. Ray sat in his favourite sofa, lined with soft, black leather. I had heard that he worked for long hours sitting in that sofa, with his feet resting on a footrest. His telephone rang at frequent intervals and he answered every call himself, with his characteristic courtesy. I felt very comfortable in his presence because I found him always relaxed and affable. I felt the same way in the company of the celebrated novelist, R.K. Narayan.

After treating me to some delicious Bengali sweets, spicy snacks and tea, Satyajit Ray spoke to me about his plans for the week. He told me all about Mahanagar, which he described as an urban Pather Panchali. "I want to make a very contemporary film, portraying the socio-economic problems of the large middle class in our big cities," he said. As he was speaking to me in his trademark baritone that resembled the voice of Paul Robeson, he was also simultaneously sketching the Mahanagar scenes for his shooting script. His little black-and-white drawings were stunningly beautiful.

While he was engrossed in work, I kept clicking my camera. The mellow light of the morning streaming into the hall from the main door and windows was ideal for my available light photography. Ray himself had made many of his films in black and white using the magical splendour of sunshine and rain. Not for him the Bollywood cinema drenched in colour.

Often, when I was taking his pictures, Ray's gracious wife, Bijoya, would enter the room to make a phone call. Once I noticed Junior Ray, nine-year-old Sandip, come running to his father, holding his 8 mm home movie camera. He mentioned that the film inside it had got stuck. Satyajit Ray examined the equipment with his keen eye and then asked the boy to wait for his ace cameraman Subrata Mitra. "He will be here any moment and will set everything right for you," he assured the boy. The proud father told me that Sandip appeared talented for his age. "He seems to have an eye for good visuals." He reacted with a broad smile when I declared that his son was a chip of the old block.

It was past noon when Satyajit Ray asked me to join him for lunch. I helped myself to the vegetarian dishes on the table, but pushed aside the small vessel of curd after tasting a spoonful. "You don't seem to like it. Why? It's mishti doi, every Bengali's favourite, like mash (fish) and rasagulla," he declared. I told him that South Indians relished eating plain curd mixed with rice. "From where I come sugar is not used in making curd, though a South Indian meal is not complete without curd rice. You might have known that it is a very important and also the last item in our meal, like the vote of thanks to a meeting!" I went on to apologise for being fussy at the dining table. "Not at all," he said. "I'm sorry to have messed up your meal. I want you to come for lunch again, tomorrow."

With little son Sandeep at home, 1963.-

The next day I noticed a small mud pot on the dining table. It had a tag with my name on it. As I looked at it curiously, Ray smilingly said, "That's your plain curd. I am sure you will like it." I told him that he shouldn't have taken the trouble. "It was not trouble at all, getting it from your hotel, Komala Vilas." I was so greatly touched by his kindness and concern that I didn't know what to say or how to say it.

WHEN Satyajit Ray was halfway through Mahanagar, he was constantly exploring Calcutta to find suitable locations to match the scenes he had himself sketched earlier. He went downtown dressed in bush shirt and trousers, wearing sandals instead of shoes. I happily followed him as he walked along the streets and lanes of the city, his sharp, curious eyes going in all directions. With his six-foot-and-four bulk, he appeared to dwarf everyone around him.

I went with him to a small bank on the first floor of a building on a crowded street. "I have seen this place earlier. It's just fine for an important scene in Mahanagar," he told me. He was greeted by the bank manager and he discussed certain points with him before moving on to Dalhousie Square, where he went up many floors of a large building to reach the windswept terrace. He stood there and surveyed the bustling scene below. It was rush hour and hundreds of office workers were returning home in the mellow evening light. Buses, cars, trams and motorcycles jammed the junction. Some people who saw Ray on top of the building started waving at him excitedly and he waved back to them, smiling happily.

A day later, I photographed him shooting this scene from atop the building when I spotted Madhabi Mukherjee, who played the lead role in Mahanagar, in the crowd, crossing the street.

It was very hot and humid when we went to Calcutta's most famous adda centre, the crowded Coffee House on College Street. There were people from all strata of society - intellectuals, teachers, students, workers, young couples, journalists, artists and actors. Sitting around marble-top tables under whirring ceiling fans, they were chatting away animatedly over steaming cups of coffee. "This is an extraordinary place, one of our tourist attractions!" Satyajit Ray told me, as we walked past admiring and awe-struck people who made way for us. Some of his friends who saw Ray after a long interval came running to him. They addressed him by his pet name, Manikda. "Meet my photographer friend from Delhi," he said, while introducing me to them.

After a while, we walked along to some bookshops that were close by. I photographed Ray browsing through some foreign newspapers and periodicals. One of his friends here greeted Ray with a bear hug and offered him a cigarette. "This is your own brand," he emphasised as he lighted it for him. While the two men were happily smoking and chatting, yet another came and stood before Ray grinning from cheek to cheek, displaying all his betel-stained teeth. He never spoke a word and seemed soaked in joy just standing in front of an icon. As we were about to leave, some students came along requesting Ray to autograph their books. He happily obliged them and cracked some jokes, setting off a chorus of laughter all around.

During the next two days, I spent my time in a Tollygunge studio where Ray was shooting Mahanagar. Taking pictures of Ray at work was a thrilling experience for me. He was a picture of concentration, looking like a man possessed. His was the last word at every stage of film production - the script, locations, cutting rooms and recording studios. Every member of his unit felt privileged to accept his commands without a murmur. He would examine with a keen eye every little thing that went to make a set. He often made changes in consultation with other members of the crew. He would then go back to the camera trolley to look at the scene through the viewfinder before instructing his cameraman.

On the sets, Satyajit Ray came up with his own original ideas. He observed everything with supreme concentration - the spoken words, musical notes, gestures and nods of actors and actresses. He directed them with much affection and understanding. They, in turn, looked upon him as a father figure. He made them comfortable by patiently explaining to them their roles. "When I played Arati in Mahanagar, I felt that he was like someone whom I had known well for many years," says Madhabi Mukherjee.

During the week I was with him, I was witness to what contributed to making Satyajit Ray a genius - his aesthetic sensibility, his infinite capacity to take pains, his unfailing eye for detail and his perseverance to achieve excellence in everything he did. Very often he sprang up with an idea all his own. There was bonhomie among all members of the film unit, from the director down to the man who swept the studio floor. This bond was vital for the success of his films.

After a hectic round of shooting, Ray would quietly go to a nondescript corner of the studio for lunch. Seated on a low wooden stool, he would eat out of a lunch box sent by his wife. After relaxing for a while smoking a cigarette, he would go back to the sets to resume his work.

"Satyajit Ray did not belong to the bustling world of busy fellows who shot films as if with an automatic rifle, to make quick money by capturing the same monotonous themes in celluloid. Make no mistake, even the doyen of Indian cinema was a mortal," says Victor Banerjee, who acted in Shatranj Ke Khilari - Ray's non-Bengali film. "Anyone who knew him was more than familiar with the sight of him nervously chewing his handkerchief or ruminating anxiously while he gnawed at the stem of his Dunhill pipe."

"There was an uncanny chemistry that balanced our equation," adds Banerjee, who goes on to say that what made Satyajit Ray great was his honesty. "I have never seen a man so honest in his commitment to discover the essence, the truth, in everything that he put his hands to. He never lied or posed to his audiences. What you got was straight from the heart; from his soul, the achievement of a brilliant mind that had the ability to discover insights that required a degree of sensitivity that very few possessed. He was never a traitor to his own convictions."

Satyajit Ray was basically a simple man, a decent human being endowed with what we may call Republican virtues. On one of his visits to New Delhi, he telephoned me from his hotel room to ask if he could borrow my camera and two rolls of black-and-white film. "I have nothing much to do tomorrow morning. I would rather go somewhere to shoot some still pictures," he told me, with the enthusiasm of an amateur who had just taken up photography. I was overwhelmed at his request. My wife and I felt honoured when Satyajit Ray visited our home to pick up the camera and when he came again to return it.

THE 3rd International Film Festival was held in New Delhi in the beginning of 1966. It was the first competitive festival of its kind held in India with Satyajit Ray as Chairman of the Jury. Our common friend, M.V. Krishnaswamy, had been designated Secretary to the Jury, among whom were such giants of cinema as K. Ahmad Abbas (India), Lindsay Anderson (U.K.), Professor George Sadoul (France), Andrew Wajda (Poland), Mikhail Kalatazov (Russia) and Madam Kawakita (Japan). The respect and regard that they and Indira Gandhi accorded to him all the time was something that had to be seen to be believed. Such was Ray's grand stature and presence. His every movement, every word and gesture, revealed that he was no ordinary man. Many spoke of him as the gentleman portayed by Cardinal Newman, and the bhakta dearest to God described in the Gita.

I remember how I would meet him at his hotel every morning to go with him to see the festival films screened at Vigyan Bhavan. On some days, Ray would ask me to sit beside him to translate into English some of the dialogues in South Indian movies.

In August 1981, the Asia Society of America sponsored a celebration of India in New York. A high point of the programme was the screening of Satyajit Ray's films. At that time I was regularly freelancing for the Society's beautiful monthly, Asia magazine. One night, the magazine's editor, Joan Ogden Freseman, telephoned me to ask if I could take the next morning's flight to Calcutta to shoot a colour portrait of Satyajit Ray for the magazine's cover. "Your picture must mirror the 'inner man' in Ray," she emphasised. I told her that I would do my best and happily flew to Calcutta the next morning.

After the magazine was printed, Joan sent me a couple of copies and also some prints of Satyajit Ray's portrait that I had made. What fascinated me greatly was Joan's special letter of appreciation that came along with these. "You have most successfully brought out the 'inner man' in Satyajit Ray and this deserves our special congratulations!" she mentioned. This delighted me so much that I immediately rushed to the post office to mail Satyajit Ray a photocopy of the letter along with a copy of his portrait.

A few days later, I was glad to receive Ray's prompt, hand-written reply in which he said: "I'm not sure if the portrait brings out the 'inner man' (!) Or, in fact, if any portrait can ever do that; but it surely captures the 'outer man' most ably. Everybody likes it. It was nice meeting you after so many years."

T.S. Satyan
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