"Ray Offset"

Bibekananda Ray on Satyajit Ray

Asim Som

This is about Bibekananda Ray's article 'Encounters with Satyajit Ray' published in the Autumn Number 2018 issue of Frontier (Vol 51, Nos 14-17, October 7–November 3, 2018). Based on the writer's experience and intellectual pursuit it is an extremely readable anecdotal piece, albeit with lapses at places.

Bibekananda concludes his essay with the words: "…the anecdotes above are like Don Quixote pelting at windmills but I chose to narrate these in print for writers and researchers on him and for the sake of recording history, for Satyajit Ray belongs to it".

Bibekananda is a very good friend of mine—younger in age but senior in official hierarchy. I do not support of his actions nor can agree with inferences drawn by him on some issues, discussed in the article. Initially I was hesitant to put anything in print. Ultimately I took heart to share my reaction with the readers and pen something for the sake of recording history as Bibekananda has put it.

Be that as it may, I would first put on record that even while the shoot for the movie Hirak Rajar Deshe was going on a word went round among film-buffs in Calcutta that Satyajit Ray had rapped the imposition of Emergency in some sequences.

Bibekananda has stated that after Satyajit applied for censor certificate for his film some producers came to CBFC office and remarked "that with financial help from West Bengal Government, he has mocked Jyoti Basu's controversial policy on education". Bibekananda 'saw red' and briefed Satyajit on the phone about his plan of action leading to the issuance of censor certificate. He did not, however, try to cross-check the producers' allegation. He could have made informal enquiries with some film-journalists, and with film-clubs societies and also through the studio grapevine—not at the producers' level of course. Thus Bibekananda could have collected some opinions within a couple of days. It is really unfortunate that some producers led him up the garden path.

Since Bibekananda did not care to check the veracity of the producers' allegation Satyajit had to face the members of the regional censor committee and answer to their queries at a post-censor screening meeting held at Roxy cinema premises. Bibekananda himself has stated that "none raised the issue of mocking Mr Basu's policies". When there is nothing of this sort in the movie itself how can a query on this crop up. The happening connected with the censoring of Hirak Rajar Deshe caused unnecessary trouble for a man of Satyajit's stature. Is it unexpected of him or irrational on his part to get annoyed? May-be he did not express his displeasure at a public place out of courtesy.

Screening of Hirak Rajar Deshe at Gorky Sadan and Rabindra Sadan without censor certificate became the bone of contention between CBFC on the one side and Satyajit Ray and the Information and Cultural Affairs Department of the West Bengal Government on the other. Adverse newspaper reports that such screenings were illegal caused exchange of words—not at all palatable of course—between Satyajit and Bibekananda over the phone. Besides, the State Minister showed his anger when Bibekananda called on him at Writers' Building.

Against this background some visiting producers held out the threat that they might violate the Government Act relating to censorship and screening of a film. Here also Bibekananda feared that CBFC's stature might be in jeopardy and his authority as Regional Officer might be defied leading to chaos.

It is obvious from Bibekananda's article that beginning with Satyajit application seeking censorship of Hirak Rajar Deshe, he was embroiled in controversies one after another within a very short period of his assumption of office as RO, CBFC. And the persons involved were a great film-maker and a senior State Minister. Add to this the controversies associated with two groups of producers.

In this context one may tend to believe that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry promptly stepped in on its own and transferred Bibekananda to stall escalation of problems for CBFC, Calcutta. I am however not drawing any conclusion vis-a-vis the transfer issue, but pointing only to the possible developments.

Bibekananda has described in detail his encounter with Buddhadev Bhattacharya and has not minced his words in lashing out at him. But he has avoided making any straight-forward attributive comment on the attitude and behaviour of the two groups of producers. And what they had done—one group deliberately making mischief on an occasion and the other group held threat and warned him of future action that bordered on blackmail. Why he has not divulged their identity is understandable. Their complaints and threats were all verbal, and there is perhaps nothing in writing.

Bibekananda has clearly stated that his premature transfer from CBFC was violative of deputation/tenure conditions. Summary transfers should not deemed uncommon by many government officials including Bibekananda himself. It may happen that an official is shunted from one department to another within a fortnight as a consequence of the manoeuvre of another official, who is keen to capture a particular post.

Bibekananda has put on record that years later a Bengali movie-director had told him over drink at his quarters in New Delhi that it was Satyajit Ray who lodged a complaint against him with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry that triggered his transfer from CBFC. Bibekananda has not revealed the name of the film-director—his informant in this case—nor has he mentioned the year in which such a 'revelation' was made before him.

Bibekananda, who was a member of the Indian Information Service, held quite high positions in different departments of Ministry of I&B. I wonder if he had raised with any of the Ministry Officials what the Bengali film-director told him about Satyajit's involvement in his transfer from CBFC.

Bibekananda wrote an article entitled ' Ray Offset ' in the renowned film journal Sight and Sound of the UK in 1984. Before signing off his encounters with Satyajit he observers: "I tend to think when he (Satyajit) read my piece on him in Sight & Sound he could see how I admired him and might have rued his complaint to the Ministry of I&B. A guilty conscience perhaps stood in the way of his acknowledging and replying to my letter enclosing a copy of my piece 'Ray Offset'."

A period covering several months of 1983 and 1984 was very crucial in Satyajit Ray's life. In October 1980 he suffered his first heart attack. Since then he fell ill rather frequently. And ultimately underwent by-pass heart surgery in mid-1984 at Houston, USA. He returned to Calcutta two months later. After the coronary bypass Satyajit was never his earlier self. With much difficulty and under constant medical monitoring he somehow completed Ghare Baire for release in 1984. After a lapse of over three years he made three films in quick succession under constant medical attention. The films were released between 1989 and 1991.

Satyajit's family members, close friends and family physicians, legitimately tried to keep him tension-free to the extent possible. I have reasons to believe that since late-1983 onwards neither he could nor he did lay his hands on all the mails addressed to him.

Bibekananda has meticulously presented a yearwise report of his writings on Satyajit Ray since his college days culminating in the publication of an article in the prestigious film magazine Sight and Sound. Along with this he has also given a year-wise account of the places of posting in his service career. But he has not mentioned the year in which a film-director apprised him of Satyajit's role in his transfer from CBFC, Calcutta. Nor has Bibekananda mentioned the date of issue of his letter to Satyajit enclosing an offprint of his 'Sight and Sound' article.

Summing up, I cannot help saying that since the day Bbekananda gave credence to the canard dished out by some producers regarding the content of the film Hirak Rajar Deshe his handling of Satyajit Ray affairs as Regional Officer, CBFC left something to be desired. It seems rather unusual that Bibekananda held Satyajit responsible for his ouster from CBFC only on the basis of information given by a film- director. He has not recorded anything to the effect that he got this verified with the Ministry of I&B. An accusation against a man like Satyajit Ray cannot be accepted as foolproof unless it is corroborated by one or two other sources or supported by specific evidence. It is a pity he has made a speculative assertion connecting Satyajit's 'guilty conscience', as he put it, and that too without considering his health conditions. It appears Bibekananda has not also taken into account the possible surroundings of an ailing maestro.

Bibekananda has narrated the 'admiration part' of his anecdotes with utmost precision. To me, the lengthy 'admiration part' is interesting but the brief 'accusation part' is marred by loopholes. And hence the way he has accused Satyajit—that too with the tag of a speculative sentence—is not at all convincing.

Vol. 51, No.20, Nov 18 - 24, 2018