It was as a seven-year-old that film maker Goutam Ghose got a preview into what director Satyajit Ray was all about. And it moved him to tears. The young Ghose wept inside the movie hall as Durga, that caring elder sister of young Apu of Ray´s trilogy, passed away in Pather Panchali.
Several years later, as Ghose himself became a director of international repute, Father Panchali continued to be his benchmark film, and its creator, his muse. So when the Satyajit Ray Archive (in 1996) approached Ghose with the proposal to make a comprehensive biographical documentary on the maestro, he took it up as an honour, but only knowing too well the challenge it posed. Ghose was handpicked by Ray´s widow, Bijoya Ray, after her son, Sandip Ray, declined to direct Ray. Bijoya Ray wouldn´t perhaps regret that choice, as the 100-minute documentary got rave reviews when shown as a special event at the Venice Film Festival in September 1999.
“I had my doubts when I was asked to do the film, and was at a loss as how to start,” recalls Ghose. “In the 60s people like James Beverage and B.D. Garg, and in the 80s Shyam Benegal had made documentaries on Ray, but no one had done anything after his death. So I was frantically looking for a spine to start the work, and be different from others. I knew that mere presentation of Ray the filmmaker would not be sufficient to capture the life and works of a person who was not just a filmmaker but a great mind as well.”
Ghose found the “spine” during the six months of research at Ray´s house. It came in the form of the director´s famous red notebook called Kheror Khatha (´Accounts´ Book) which gave a fascinating peep into the man´s multi-facete. talents. “The book contains things like the script of a film, the initial sketch of a logo, a short story, things like that. It represents his interesting doubts and sense of wonders and I think it is the best emotional link that I could find to make this documentary,” says Ghose.
Ghose believes that the rest of the world is not much aware of Ray the author of children´s books, or of Ray the commercial artist. “These are the things I have tried to bring out. In fact, my first encounter with Manik-da [as Ray was affectionately known] in person was in the office of Sandesh, the children´s magazine he inherited as editor from Sukumar Ray, his illustrious father who was a children´s writer extraordinaire penning nonsense rhymes a la Lewis Carol.”
In his film, Ghose captures the Ray persona by employing some novel techniques, where his childhood is recreated by way of some interesting footage. One that stands out is that of the child Ray with a pinhole camera bioscope —a tell-tale statement on the future director´s essential sense of wonder and curiosity. The documentary bejns with the ace director being feted t the Oscars (which he watched on TV from his hospital bed), and ends with the posthumous Bharat Ratna award ceremony (the master´s voice itself provides the background narrative, along with some comments from director-actress Aparna Sen, one of his finds).
Explains Ghose, “The Bharat Ratna was awarded to Ray after the Oscar and here I have tried to be a little tongue-in-cheek about our government.” Ghose also pans on the major ´influences´ on Ray: his family, poet Rabindranath Tagore and French filmmaker Jean Renoir, the latter with his stress on economy of expression. “Renoir had advised Ray to show bigger things through small expressive elements and the maestro had mastered that art.”
More than anything else, Ray emerges from the documentary as the last giant of Bengal Renaissance. Says Ghose, “The ethos of the essentially elitist Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century had not percolated down to the common masses like in Europe, nevertheless it spawned great minds in Bengal. The family of Satyajit Ray starting from his grandfather Upendra Kishore Ray, father Sukumar Ray and lastly himself, is the product of that great movement in Bengal.”
But what the documentary does not tell us, is about poor archival management. Ghose says he struggled to get good prints of Ray classics, and would not have succeeded if not for unsolicited help from some individuals with rare collections who had heard about the film he was making. “It took often more than a year and half for me to procure a good print of his films. If such is the case with preserving Ray masterpieces one can well understand the plight of other filmmakers´ works.”
Ray´s South Asian premiere is to be held in Bombay in February.
If multi-media has arrived in a big way, would an “interactive” CD-ROM on Satyajit Ray —the ´original´ multi-media man—be far away? The first-ever of its kind on the director-artist-composer-writer, was completed recently as its producer´s way of paying tribute.
The CD, Ray´s World, is almost an all-you-wantedto-know-about-Ray. A pick of interesting materials are here, such as a behind-the-scenes account of how Ray made his first film, Father Panchali, quick-time video footage of some of the movies, and a section called “Unmade Films”, the movies that the director planned to make, but could not, including one on the sitarist Ravi Shankar. The list of all his 36 movies have been chronologically arranged, with story synopses, credits, etc.
There are the sections on Ray the music composer, the artist and writer. Ray in his childhood comes across as one with a keen ear for music, with a bent towards the Western classical, while he experimented with the form as he evolved. The artist Ray, not many know, used to do ad layouts, cover designs, illustrations, logos, typefaces, as well as posters for his movies. As a writer, the CD-ROM captures him as a bestselling author of whodunits and sci-fi, with some memorable characters to his credit like Feluda and Professor Shonku.
For the producers, the House of RDB, one of the premier producers and distributors of motion pictures in India, it´s a maiden foray into multi-media under its new wing RDB Entertainment Pvt Ltd, but not into Ray films —RDB has produced as many as six of his films, including Charulata and Mahanagar. The company roped in some of the big names in filmmaking for putting together the CD-ROM —Sandip Ray, Goutam Ghose and Shyam Benegal. Richard Attenborough does the introduction and narration. It´s priced at INR 1450 (c USD 35)-for film archives, educational and cultural institutions — and INR 1600 for others.