Fifty Shades of Ray

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Auteur’svision Satyajit Ray (right) with cinematographer Soumendu Roy on the sets of Ashani Sanket
Auteur’s vision Satyajit Ray (right) with cinematographer Soumendu Roy on the sets of Ashani Sanket

THE HISTORY of documentation and archiving in Indian cinema is speckled with comically horrifying stories, such as the one about the disappearance of a 1967 TV interview featuring Satyajit Ray and Marlon Brando; the historic video would likely have logged a million views on YouTube today, had Doordarshan not belied its own name. “They could not say if they had accidentally recorded over the tape or lost it,” journalist Amita Malik, who anchored the interview, drily wrote decades later. A similar fate befell another recording that haunts the dreams of cineastes, a roundtable discu ssion featuring Ray with Akira Kurosa wa, Michelangelo Antonioni and Elia Kazan.

More generally, there are astonishingly few written or pictorial records of the making of even major films. And so, when I was asked to write an essay for a catalogue accompanying the Delhi Art Gallery’s exhibition of restored Nemai Ghosh photographs — many of them taken on the sets of Ray’s films — my first reaction was that of a greedy movie buff: viewing the photos, well before their public unveiling, would mean revisiting hundreds of precious cinematic memories. But the adrenaline rush soon gave way to a more measured appreciation of Ghosh’s own art: his knack for capturing the essence of a scene in a single image, his meticulous recording of the processes surrounding the creation of some of our most beloved movies.

A striking aspect of these photos is how rarely they resemble the promotional still in which actors consciously strike poses

Ghosh’s association with Ray began during the making of the 1969 fantasy classic Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, when he showed up on the set and took a few impromptu photographs. In his worshipful book Manik-Da: Memories of Satyajit Ray, he recalls the frisson of excitement he felt when the great man saw the pictures and told him, “You have taken (the photos) exactly the way I would have, man, you have got the same angles!” Thus began a collaboration that lasted nearly a quarter-century, and given that this was the pre-digital era, the sheer variety of photos tells us something about Ghosh’s dedication, as well as about Ray’s capacity to inspire. Through them, we get a tantalising picture: Ray as observer and chronicler of the many aspects of a culture — making contemporary city films, period rural dramas and detective stories for children — and Ghosh with his camera, observing the observer.

These images, then, provide many resonant glimpses of our cinematic heritage. There are shots of the staging of the extraordinary ghost-dance sequence from Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne as well as candid photos of the film’s old magician Barfi loitering about the set. There is a view of the scene set-up of the girl bathing in the river in Ashani Sanket, an instant reminder of the haunting opening sequence of that movie with the fighter planes — “as beautiful as a flock of cranes” — passing overhead. From the set of Shatranj Ke Khilari — not one of my favourite Ray films — come some of the best photos, including a shot of the melancholy ruler Wajid Ali Shah (played by one of our most photogenic actors Amjad Khan) framed in a circle formed by the coiled tubes of a hookah. The image, as eloquent as anything in the film itself, is a fine representation of a weak man trapped by the vicissitudes of history.

Home truths Swatilekha Chatterjee and Victor Banerjee on the sets of Ghare Baire
Home truths Swatilekha Chatterjee and Victor Banerjee on the sets of Ghare Baire

Elsewhere, the great Bharatanatyam exponent Balasaraswati (about whom Ray made a documentary, Bala) practises her art on a beach, the sensitive protagonist of Pratidwandi negotiates his bustling, impersonal city, and we see vistas from Sikkim, the subject of Ray’s long-censored 1971 documentary. And there are Ray’s women: the impish, knowing Sharmila Tagore in Aranyer Din Ratri and Seemabaddha, films in which her character plays the function of shaking up complacent men; the young Simi Garewal as an inebriated tribal girl who catches the eye of a wanderer from the city; Shabana Azmi as a sullen, neglected wife. A striking aspect of these photos is how rarely they resemble the typical promotional still in which actors self-consciously strike poses to recapture the mood of a scene. Much of Ghosh’s work shows the candour that comes from a still photographer becoming an essential part of the unit, his subjects barely conscious of his presence; and this artlessness makes for an effective record of the inner workings of an art form, a reminder that careful planning and serendipity are both vital to the process of filmmaking.

SOME OF the most intriguing photos, though, are the ones of Ray himself. Viewed through Ghosh’s admiring lens, he becomes the magnetic centre of nearly every image he is in, even when flanked by such personalities as Indira Gandhi or Gerard Depardieu (the latter, a mighty Gallic presence who seems almost to be dwarfed by the Indian director). Here is the multitasking auteur keeping a sharp eye on each element of the production process: looking down in deep concentration as he listens to his musicians, adding the finishing touches to an actor’s facial make-up, hunched in the bonnet of an Ambassador car with his camera equipment. Here is the man of letters, a product of 200 years of Bengali high culture, reading on the set while perched delicately on a makeshift bench; and there is the man of the world, playing blackjack in a casino during a break in the shooting of Hirak Rajar Deshe.

Looking at all these photos, my one regret is that Ghosh did not meet Ray earlier. The heart sinks a little to think of what his eye and camera might have achieved if he had had a chance to document some of Ray’s great early work: the crumbling haveli of the zamindar in Jalsaghar, the large house in which Charulata feels restless and trapped, the ghostly mosquito nets of Devi, the lovely vistas of Varanasi where Apu’s father breathes his last. But such “what if” games are ultimately pointless — and a little ungrateful too, given the richness of what we do have. The films themselves may be fragile, their prints in constant danger of deterioration, but this treasure-trove of restored photographs is unlikely to be lost or erased anytime soon.

At the Delhi Art Gallery till 28 January

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