Remembering Ray

Tirthankar Das
Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Ahead of Satyajit Ray’s 98th birth anniversary, noted cinematographer Soumendu Ray and veteran photographer Nemai Ghosh — both integral part of the legendary filmmaker’s team, share their stories of working with the genius

Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese filmmaker, had once said, ‘Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon’. Such was the magic of Satyajit Ray’s films. The filmmaker, who was also a screenwriter, illustrator, music composer and lyricist, broke many barriers and expressed a multitude of human emotions through his art. Tomorrow, May 2, marks his 98th birth anniversary.  

Winner of several National Film Awards and an Academy Award recipient, Satyajit Ray’s journey as a filmmaker started with Pather Panchali in 1955. With nearly 40 films to his credit, he gave the world masterpieces like Charulata, Shatranj Ke Khilari The World of Apu, Nayak, Aparajito, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Agantuk, Mahanagar, Devi, Gahre-Baire etc that speak volumes about his creative vision, and the magic and magnificence of his storytelling.  

Cinema is always a team work and although Satyajit Ray was a one-man army, his squad had bright stars at a time when Indian cinema was yet to develop. Soumendu Ray worked as his cinematographer between 1960 and 1991 and veteran photographer Nemai Ghosh took candid shots of Satyajit Ray, his shoots and the actors. 

Here, they share their experience of working with the late Satyajit Ray, fondly called Manik da. “If there is one person who taught me the language of films and everything about setting up lights and giving the perfect exposure to a shot, it was Manik da,” says the 88-year-old Ray. 

Initially, Ray worked as Satyajit Ray’s camera caretaker but in 1960 things changed. “One fine morning, I received a call from him (Satyajit Ray) when he asked me to visit his place. Upon reaching, he told me he would be shooting two films that year and wanted me to handle the camera for the documentary on Rabindranath Tagore while another movie, Teen Kanya, would be shot by Subrata Mitra, a stalwart cinematographer. Thus started my journey as a cinematographer with the great Satyajit Ray,” he says adding that later he had to shoot Teen Kanya after Mitra suffered an eye problem.

Ghosh’s journey with Satyajit Ray started after he randomly clicked photographs at a shoot. “I was never much into photography but one day I found a camera left behind by someone in a taxi. I started clicking. I was more interested in the world of theatre and that’s how I knew Rabi Ghosh (actor and comedian). I accompanied Rabi da, who was busy shooting Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne then, and I landed up on the sets with the camera,” reminisces Ghosh adding, “One day, Bansi Chandragupta, a renowned art director and production designer, came to our place and that’s when I showed him the photographs I had clicked. He took me to Manik da. When he saw the photographs, he patted me on my back and asked me to enter the sets and click photographs.” It was after this day that Ghosh started working as Satyajit Ray’s personal photographer.

It is, however, never easy to work with a genius. Satyajit Ray stressed on thorough homework and always demanded new things. “While shooting Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Manik da said he needed different dimensions of light to portray the characters. My previous experience told me that the cameraman always avoided white light but here, I had to use white light and create soft shadows. It was tough but that day I learnt something new. The film is still dear to me,” says Ray. 

Narrating another challenging situation, Ray says, “While shooting Postmaster, I was in charge of the indoor lighting. I was so invested that I forgot to eat and when a nervous me showed Manik da the raw footages, he simply said ‘Theek hain’ (it’s good) and that’s probably all I was expecting from him. Simple words from Manik da were so motivating.”

With the advent of colour films, he too shifted to the new format but his teammates were worried. During the shooting of Ashani Sanket, a film in colour, an unsure Ray was pacified by the legendary filmmaker who said, “Think that you are shooting a black and white film, and just keep the camera exposure right. We will work out the rest.”

Satyajit Ray loved simplicity and everything natural and spontaneous. “Which is why I never asked him to pose, besides, he wasn’t interested in posing, thus all his photographs were candid,” Ghosh reminisces. Ask him whether the master filmmaker was any different in real life as compared to the pictures and he quickly responds, “Manik da was a humble person and the same was captured through my lens.” 

Through his black and white still photographs, Ghosh also managed to preserve the simple, raw beauty of actresses like Sharmila Tagore, Madhabi Mukherjee, Chandana Banerjee, Kanika Mozumdar, Aparna Sen, Swatilekha Chatterjee, Karuna Banerjee, who played protagonists in Satyajit Ray’s films. 

Legends never die, they live forever through their work. Satyajit’s son Sandip, who is also a filmmaker, says, “Homework and research are the two main things I have learnt from my father. The more you stress upon these two, the less time you waste during shooting.” About Ghosh and Ray, Sandip says, “Both of them are legends in their respective fields and I have learnt a lot from them as well.”

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