"Ray Offset"

Encounters with Satyajit Ray

Bibekananda Ray

Satyajit Ray entered the ken of my mind while I was in eighth class in 1954. Being in a remote village in Midnapur (now East Midnapur), I have not heard of him before, nor did I see any of his illustrations. I came upon a tiny display advertisementin a weekly English newspaper from Kolkata (which my father subscribed for me to learn English) of a new Bengali movie, Pather Panchali; I shouted to my elder sister, "Didi, Pather Panchali has been made a movie by one Satyajit Ray; she liked the ad but there was no way we could watch it, as two nearest cinema-halls were eight to ten km away. Both of us had read its children's version, Aam Aantir Bhenpuin which, we came to know later, the telling sketches were by him. I watched the movie first in 1957 long after its global sensation, in a students' home, run by the R K Mission at Belgharia, from a noisy 16mm projector and on a tiny screen on which neither images nor sounds came off well; the story being of stark poverty and misery also somewhat repelled me. The first Ray movie that I saw was its sequel, Aparajito (1956), when I had come to Kolkata for higher study. Aparajitamade me weep, as its story struck a chord in me, being similar to what I experienced at that time.

From then, on until 1981, I used to watch his movies on release dates up to 1960 with an Assamese friend (Bhaben Barua) who had become a Ray fan like me. Up to 1981, I saw his subsequent movies up to Hirak Raajar Deshe in Kolkata and had the honour of certifying it as Regional Officer of the CBFC. Thereby hangs a tale which I narrate later. I watched his subsequent movies up to his last, Aagantuk (1991) while in Delhi, in the IFFis, Filmotsavas, or during visits to Kolkata, or in a hall in Daryaganj (Delite) which used to screen Bengali movies on Sunday mornings. I could no longer watch his movies on release days as in Kolkata; from such 'fanatic' watching came an urge to write about him and his movies, which has lasted to this day.

What I wrote first on him was a short article in English for a short-lived organ of the English department of Calcutta University, 'Ripples' (which girls mocked as 'Nipples') in 1962. Titled 'A Note on Satyajit Ray', it briefly discussed his movies up to Abhijaan (1962). While fellow students praised it, a senior classmate remarked that it was 'patronising', like a veteran patting on a debutant's back, saying "well-done!" Re-reading it many years later, I was happy to note some pertinent observations, like Devi (****) being his second best movie up to 1962, Aparajito being the best, the former being rather like a Greek tragedy. My second piece on him was a letter on Charulata (1964) in an English daily in Kolkata which ceased publication in 1991. While in New Delhi (1965-1968 & again from 1981 to 1996), I wrote on him and other neo-realist film-makers and their movies in an English quarterly, 'Cinema India International' edited by T M Ramachandran up to February 1996 when I went to Singapore on a four-year stint with All India Radio (News) as its Southeast Asia Correspondent. When he died on 23rd April 1992 I was in New Delhi and heard from the then I & B minister, Ajit Kumar Panja about his last journey amid people's tearful homage, comparable to Rabindranath Tagore's.

My most significant piece on him came in 1984 in a world-famous film periodical, 'Sight & Sound', London, published by the British Film Institute. It was not on his movie-making but on his other creative activities; the editor, Penelope Houston titled it 'Ray off Set' in its 1983-1984 Winter issue. It was like a 'manna from heaven', because before me only four Indians wrote in it- Ray himself, Mrinal Sen, Chidananda Dasgupta and Amita Malik. Luckily, I got the help of the DAVP to prepare a number of slides on Ray's cover-designs, sketches etc. to illustrate my article. Ms. Houston sent me a slightly edited copy and sought my permission to use it in the next number. When the issue carrying it came, I realised that readers of Sight & Sound (and other film journals of the world) knew nothing about the 'Other Ray', which the juvenile in two Bengals knew about along with his exceptional movies. I sent an offprint to 'Manikda', (as Bengalis liked to call him as) but to my surprise, he neither acknowledged it, nor replied to my accompanying letter. I shall guess the reason later in this article.

I had occasion to meet him thrice, twice in his Bishop Lefroy Road flat and once in Roxy Cinema. The first meeting was in ****, when he had just returned from Berlin, winning a prize in festival there for Ashani Sanket (****), to interview him for All India Radio (News) where I worked then. When we were ushered in, a renowned commercial photographer was snapping him with a reflector; thereafter, I held the AIR mike to him and he answered from a written questionnaire by me in a familiar baritone. That night, it was broadcast from Kolkata and Delhi. The second was in 1980 in his flat again; the then director of the DAVP, Raghunath Raina and his deputy, Bindu Batra had come to Kolkata to apprise him of the exhibition, organised in Delhi on the Silver Jubilee (25 years) of Pather Panchali with blown-up stills from the legendary movie. As Mr. Raina was lighting a fag, he stood up, came to him and offered to us his long fag (Have one of mine). Then he told us about the sizes in which exhibits of movie stills should be displayed over tea and snacks. He said, he had to go for early dinner and sleep as he had a shooting schedule, next day (of Hirak Raajaar Deshe). When we had finished, he came to the door to see us off. Coming out, on the road, Ms.Batra remarked, "What does he (Ray) think of himself? A god? "".She referred perhaps to his 'towering personality' and the rich baritone in which he spoke to us.

Soon afterward, my third meeting came in a mini theatre of Roxy Cinema (near New Market), where as the Regional Officer of the CBFC, I had organised a censor screening of his 1980 movie, Hirak Rajar Deshe. After he applied for censor certificate, some producers came to my office and remarked that with financial help from West Bengal government, he has mocked Jyoti Basu's controversial policy on education. I saw red and feared that some members of the committee may raise the same objection, which could jeopardise, at least delay, its certification and release. I rang him up, expressed my fear and requested him to be present after projection and if necessary, answer to objections by members, if any raised them, as permitted under the Act. He said, he had no 'well-wishers' (in the industry) and agreed to come. He arrived when the screening of the movie examining committee members was just over. Before screening began, Kamu Mukherjee, actor and his family friend, had come for a recee. I went down to receive him at the gate and ushered him in. I escorted him from the gate to the projection theatre and ushered into the theatre; he answered to queries by me and members very convincingly but none raised the issue of mocking Mr Basu's policies. I escorted him down too; on the stair, a girl stopped him, held out her empty snacks packet for an autograph and he gladly gave it.

My next encounter with him was somewhat unpleasant and fraught with controversy. A few days later, before the issue of the censor certificate, he gave a free show of the movie to a select audience on invitation in Gorky Sadan. Soon afterward, the then State Information & Culture Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya gave another show in the Rabindra Sadan to an invited audience; to neither of these was I invited. According to the Indian Cinematograph Act, 1951, a new movie cannot be shown commercially, or otherwise, to more than 50 people outside a cine studio or laboratory.It was clear, these shows were a violation of the Act but I kept quiet, fearing a controversy that could affect the release of the movie, already announced. Meanwhile, some visiting producers asked me, why I was ignoring the violation and in future, they too will exhibit their movies before the issue of the censor certificate. A major Bengali daily also reported the violation, ascertaining the legal point from me. Mr Ray rang me up to know if I was behind this news that upset him; I denied, saying that I had to give the legal position on his query. Days afterword, sensing a gathering storm, I wrote an official letter to an officer in the I & C department, explaining the situation and added that if the government did not regret the unintended violation, producers will defy me and release their movies without censor certificate, leading to a chaos. He placed the letter to Mr Bhattacharya who asked him to summon me to the Writers' Building. On the day, I went up, the officer took me to the minister. He flared up; his face went red and jugular vein swelled; he shouted at me, threatening reprisal. I quietly explained to him the violation; he asked for the Act which I gave him to read. His anger and defiance did not subside; I told him, if he asked me to treat Satyajit Ray above the law of the land, I would leave his chamber. I politely requested him to give me a one-line reply that his department gave the show, not knowing the legal bar, which could douse the fire in producers. A reporter friend waited for my return in my office; I told him what happened. In the afternoon tableau, it was a banner headline and caused a sensation. A few days later, the officer gave me a short reply, regretting the violation. Within a fortnight, I was served with a transfer order to AIR; Kolkata, two years before the end of the normal deputation tenure. Years later, while taking a drink in my quarters in New Delhi, a Bengali movie director told me that my transfer was due to Satyajit Ray's complaint. I tend to think, when he 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 off Set'.

Beside Satyajit Ray I am a dwarf; 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.

[The writer was Regional Officer of the CBFC in Kolkata and authored a book on India's Offbeat Cinema for Publications Division.]

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018