BOOK EXCERPT

Camera and action: The Soumendu Roy-Satyajit Ray teamwork that produced some of our greatest films

The celebrated cinematographer goes behind the scenes of some of Satyajit Ray’s best-known films.

Satyajit Ray worked largely with two cinematographers through a career that started with the groundbreaking Pather Panchali in 1955 and ended with Agantuk in 1992. Subrata Mitra shot many of Ray’s early masterworks, including the Apu trilogy, Jalsaghar (1958) and Charulata (1964). Soumendu Roy first worked with Ray on his documentary Rabindranath Tagore in 1961. When Mitra developed a retinal detachment disorder, Roy stepped in to shoot Teen Kanya, also in 1961. Roy went on to shoot most of Ray’s subsequent films and documentaries, including Aranyer Din Ratri (1969), the Calcutta trilogy, and Sonar Kella (1974). Roy recounts his on-set experiences on some of these films in Devapriya Sanyal’s biography Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer.

Pratidwandi

‘In Pratidwandi, Manik da came in front of the camera for the first time,’ Roy recalls with a faraway look in his eyes. ‘Of course, one couldn’t make that out because he had his back to the camera all the time, in that shot. One can only hear his voice as he speaks to Dhritiman as Siddharth at the tea shop. For one particular shot – the one in which Dhritiman and Joysree look down at a political rally in the maidan – we had to go to the Tata Centre building. That particular shot was taken by Purnendu, my assistant, as I was away shooting for Tarun Majumdar’s film Kuheli, which had begun at the same time as Pratidwandi. As soon as I was done with the filming of Kuheli, I rushed back to the shooting of Pratidwandi. While Purnendu did some of the initial bits of the film, I completed it.

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Pratidwandi (1970).

Sonar Kella

Like Joy Baba Felunath, Sonar Kella too is about the exploits of the popular Bengali sleuth Feluda created by Satyajit Ray. ‘In Sonar Kella also, it is difficult to distinguish between real locations and sets. One seemed to flow right into another,’ Roy muses. ‘The sequence in which Kamu, as Mandar Bose, hangs out of a train and jumps from one compartment to another was as thrilling for us, working behind the scene, as it was for the audience. This was a real train which Manik da had rented for the shoot, and the location was a station called Lathi in Rajasthan. It was winter I remember, when we were shooting, and it was nearly midnight when we started filming. During the rehearsal, as soon as Kamu grasped the compartment door’s handle he drew his hand away, shocked by the sheer coldness of it. It took him quite a while to get used to it. His daredevilry sent a cold shiver down our spines as we watched him perform for the camera. Alongside the railway track, on a parallel track, sitting in a railway trolley, were Manik da and I with the camera and lights. The trolley was pushed by someone from the railways. On the roof lay Purnendu with another camera, capturing an aerial view of the shot. Since Purnendu’s camera was placed right at the edge of the compartment, we got some brilliant shots of Kamu’s changing compartments. We composed the shots in such a way that Purnendu’s camera was out of our frame. That particular scene was okayed by Manik da in the first take itself.

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Sonar Kella (1974).

Seemabaddha

Shyamalendu’s aka Barun Chanda’s office – Hindustan Peters – was actually the Union Carbide office in the famous Jeevandeep building in Kolkata. ‘Barun Chanda’s flat wasn’t real either. It was a set. Manik da had got a still photo of the Tata Centre taken and blown it up, and then placed it at Chanda’s flat window as background. But for the factory scenes we had gone to the Orient Fan factory for verisimilitude. The Patna scenes, too, were shot in Patna, and the Calcutta Swimming Club scenes where the trio goes for lunch were real too,’ Roy adds with a smile. ‘We spared Chanda all the climbing though, which comes at the end of the film. You know the sequence where the lift in his building breaks down and he is seen climbing all the way to the seventh floor where he lives. We shot at a multistoreyed building in which we took photos of the staircases from various angles. It was then handed over to the editing department, which did a marvellous job of joining the various shots together to give the desired effect.’

Shatranj Ke Khilari

When it came to creating a period piece – Shatranj ke Khilari – Ray showed an immense passion for detail, which helped create yet another masterpiece. In Roy’s words, ‘Manik da first went to Bourne & Shepherd to look at photos of olden times; then he asked for the prints of the photos he liked. Then he began hunting for the costumes, jewellery and décor. A major part of the jewellery was to be supplied by old zamindari families. Some would be manufactured of course – silver ones with a coating of gold over them. Manik da got a crown made, modelled on Wajid Ali Shah’s. Some precious stuff came from elsewhere: The carpet on which Amjad sits came from an aristocratic family from north Kolkata; some of the shawls were supplied by Parimal Ray and the Kajaria family, at whose house we later shot Pikoo; the hookahs, the ink stands and the quills were supplied by Shubho Thakur. He had a tiny museum in Russell Street. Manik da spent huge sums of money on getting the costumes made. I remember Amjad’s costumes were the most expensive. Sanjeev Kumar’s, Saeed Jaffrey’s and Shabana’s as well the rest of the crew’s costumes were expensive too. Shama Zaidi who collaborated with Manik da on the dialogues of the film was a screenplay writer, costume designer, art director, theatre person, art critic, and documentary film-maker in her own right. She is also the wife of M.S. Sathyu, the maker of Garam Hawa. It was she who helped Manik da with all the minor but extremely important details in the film. She managed to get some things for the film too. Bansi da created a set in Kolkata which was fabulous, to say the least. I doubt there could have been a better set in Kolkata at any point in time. I recall many people turning up to just look at this set.’

Soumendu Roy. Image credit: HarperCollins India.
Soumendu Roy. Image credit: HarperCollins India.

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

…Ray called his unit members and told them that the lighting would have to complement the characters in the film. For the good king of Shundi, the lighting would have to be soothing and soft. For the bad king of Halla, it would have to be the opposite, with strong shadows. ‘It was always going to be difficult; for in those days, the overuse of direct lighting resulted in white colour being reflected way too much – as a result, images got blurred. And in this set, Manik da kept everything white – right from the set to the character’s costumes. It therefore tested me as a cinematographer.’..

‘The dancing of the ghosts was another sequence that was similarly demanding, not only for me but also for Satyajit Ray, as well as the choreographer, Shambhu Bhattacharyya. The dance sequence was divided into four parts, and the shooting commenced accordingly. Later, those four separate parts were joined with the help of an optical camera. On the screen, it seems as if all the four different sets of dancing were shot at the same time, but it wasn’t. And as one watches, one feels as if the dance is unfolding through a layer of water. That was achieved yet again through an optical camera.

The background in which all the dances were shot was white; some of these shots were then turned into negative using the optical camera. ‘Even the make-up was black-and-white. I remember masks being used too, for this sequence. Through those dances, Manik da expressed an immense depth of feeling. That sequence does not have an equal in world cinema either. And taking these shots was extremely difficult. While the dances were conceptualized entirely by Manik da, Shambhu Bhattacharyya breathed life into it.’

Excerpted with permission from Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer, Devapriya Sanyal, HarperCollins India.

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