My documentary Creative Artists of India: Satyajit Ray was neither planned nor sponsored. But it remains one of the most enjoyable ‘happenings’ of my film career.
Early in 1963, I was in Calcutta looking for excerpts from important Bengali films for a twenty-minute documentary I was making to commemorate the golden jubilee of Indian cinema. Though well - armed with necessary letters from the Film Federation of India, the industry’s apex body, I was getting nowhere. Admittedly, a lot of films had been lost forever due to sheer negligence or sold to salvage a few rupees’ worth of silver from the inflammable nitrate stock. But even for the films that had survived, the concerned producers were giving me the run around. The one exception was the late B.N.Sircar.
A bit weary, one day I went to the New Theatres studios where Satyajit Ray was shooting Mahanagar. What a rewarding experience it turned out to be! Ray’s set was quite unlike any other. No fuss, no frills and yet quietly efficient. Whatever fire was within, calm prevailed without. The set, created by Bansi Chandragupta with imagination and accuracy, was the office where Aarti (Madhabi Mukherjee) worked as a salesgirl for knitting machines. Others in the scene included the company’s proprietor and the Anglo-Indian salesgirl Edith with whom Aarti had struck up a friendship.
As I watched Ray rehearse a scene I became aware of the ease, the quiet confidence with which he orchestrated his camera and characters. His direction was restricted to the minimum and yet he knew precisely what he wanted. I decided to include in my film a brief sequence of Ray at work. During the lunch break, when Ray kindly invited me to join him, I sought his permission to film on his set. He was magnanimous as usual.
Subroto Mitra, his cameraman, helped me to acquire an Arriflex camera, some rolls of fast emulsion stock, and the services of cameraman Dilip Mukherjee who had worked with Ritwik Ghatak. Thus equipped, we arrived on Ray’s set the next day. Since Ray was shooting with sound, there was no question of my filming him during actual ‘takes’. So we decided to shoot while he was rehearsing. Another problem to overcome was his bounced lighting, which hit our camera lens.
We followed Ray for four days inside the studio and on location, till our film stock and funds ran out. We were slightly apprehensive of the results, having shot under indifferent lighting conditions and other similar odds. Though neither my cameraman nor I had seen any cinema-verite films, the method we employed was identical. When I showed the film at Mannheim to a group of cinema-verite film-makers that included Jean Rouch, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles and others, they agreed that the style was similar, though the equipment and film stock I had used was conventional.
I offered the film to the Films Division. ‘No,’ said the big boss emphatically and then added, ‘ because Ray is still alive.’ That left me dumbfounded. Had I heard him right? Sensing my puzzlement, he said, ‘Please try and understand. If we take up your film on Ray, other film-makers would stake a similar claim.’
Back in Bombay, when I saw the ‘rushes’, they pleased me no end. It was then that I decided to make it into a short film, though giving the material coherence and continuity proved a daunting task. Later, I sent the film to Satyajit Ray for his comments. I didn’ t hear from him for a while as he was vacationing in Darjeeling. On his return to Calcutta he had a look at the material and wrote:
… I think the film looks very good indeed. The cutting seems excellent, considering the bitty nature of the material and I think a well-thought-out commentary should give it all the flow it needs and suitably link those snippets from the Trilogy at the end. I don’t want to give you any pointers, you really know how best to put it together.
Several months lapsed. When Ray came to Bombay to inaugurate a festival of silent films, I approached him with a request to do the narration, elucidating his approach to film making. Ray said in the narration:
If someone were to ask me why I make films, I wouldn’t find it easy to answer. Not because there aren’t any good and right reasons for my making them, but because there are so many. I think the truest answer would be that I make films for the love of it. I enjoy every moment of the film-making process. I write my own scenario and my own dialogue. And, I find it fascinating to do so.
Shooting, of course, is the great occasion for the marshaling of forces. You, as the director, must plan and execute the strategy, whereby man and machine will work in harmony to complement each other. This is hard work and needs any amount of patience. But the exhilaration of a shot well-planned and well-taken makes it all seem worthwhile.
Editing is exciting too, but the excitement is on an intellectual level, and it is controlled and subdued by the need for precision and tenderness in the handling of what, by the mere process of joining, begins to show signs of an independent life.
Apart from the actual creative work, film-making is exciting because it brings me closer to my country and my people. Each film contributes to process of self-education, making me conscious of the enormous diversity of life around me. I find myself trying, through my films, to trace the underlying pattern that binds this life together. This is the true stuff of the cinema - this dizzying contrast of sight and sound and milieu. And it’s a challenge for any film-maker to try and orchestrate it, and shape its various conflicting elements into a work of art.
Before I made my first film, Pather Panchali, I had only a superficial knowledge of what life in a Bengali village was like. Now I know a good deal about it. I know its soil, its season, its trees and forests and flowers; I know how the man in the field works and how the women at the well gossip; and I know the children out in the sun and rain, behaving as all children in all parts of the world do.
My own city of Calcutta, too, I know much better now that I’ve made a film about it. It isn’t quite like any other city in the world to look at. Yet, people are born here and live and make love and earn bread as they do in London and New York and Tokyo.
And, this is what amazes you most and makes you feel indebted to cinema: this discovery that although you have roots here - in Bengal , in India - you are at the same time part of a large plan, a universal pattern. This uniqueness and this universality, and the coexistence of the two, is what I mainly try to convey through my films.
Written and spoken by Ray in his rich baritone, this was heady stuff. Matching it to the visuals was both challenging and exhilarating. It was unlike any other commentary recorded, quite independent of the visuals, bringing in a purity rarely achieved in pre-planned and well-rehearsed films.
Roger Manvell, Thorald Dickenson, Lewis Jacobs and some others saw the film in Venice where I was invited to participate in the Film Historians Round Table Conference. One of them recommended it to the British film Institute where it was shown at the 8th London Film Festival. Apparently, the film was well received, as I got a letter from Charles Cooper of Contemporary films (also the distributor of some of Ray’s films) for its overseas distribution rights.
Back home, it was a different, somewhat ‘chilling’ story. I offered the film to the Films Division. ‘No,’ said the big boss emphatically and then added, ‘ because Ray is still alive.’ That left me dumbfounded. Had I heard him right? Sensing my puzzlement, he said, ‘Please try and understand. If we take up your film on Ray, other film-makers would stake a similar claim.’
‘But no one measures up to Ray’s stature,’ I replied, to no effect.
Ten years later, when Ray was already a world figure, hailed by men like Kurosawa, Huston and Antonioni, Films Division acquired my film for a paltry sum and have since made money from it several times over.