Almost all Indian writing on Satyajit Ray is eulogistic. Barring a few, including Chidananda Dasgupta’s The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, most writers and critics can’t hide their reverence. His stature as auteur and modernist film vanguard has no Indian parallels. But the works, informed by an urbane, Western sensibility, like any work of art, have made for riveting critiques—among others, Marie Seton’s first biography of him, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, and some of Pauline Kael’s essays on his films, including one of the 1960 film Devi.
The latest book out on Ray, by photographer Nemai Ghosh, is another unapologetic panegyric. It is a worshipper’s blind ode to his deity.
Ghosh spent around two decades with Ray, photographing him at work and professionally shooting the stills for his films. Ray recognized the theatre actor’s talent with the camera and unwittingly became his patron. Later, Ghosh became a part of the Ray household—a friend to his wife Bijoya and son Sandip. The book, Manik-Da, is a short, anecdotal account of times spent with Ray on location and at his home until his death in 1992. It also includes a memorable meeting Ghosh had with photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, then the Da Vinci of the single-lens camera, when he persuaded Cartier-Bresson to write a foreword to a book of Ray’s photographs.
Manik-Da—Memories of Satyajit Ray: HarperCollins India, 107 pages, Rs 199.
In spite of the author’s idolatrous voice, a portrait of Ray emerges. It reveals the director’s antipathy to sycophancy, and a natural gift to lead and inspire. Ghosh reminisces from the shoots of seven films which, taken together, can define Ray’s idiom: Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Aranyer Din Ratri, Pratidwandi, Ashani Sanket, Mahanagar, Seemabaddha and Ghare-Baire. He describes instances where Ray does exactly what he wants despite acknowledging other views, and without resorting to tyranny. Nobody really told Ray how to do something.
Ghosh often found him answering his own phone calls, helping his technicians, always answering the door of his house himself and reaching his filming locations much before time. “His mantra,” says Ghosh, “was ‘do-it-yourself’. He had that unusual quality of leadership. During location shootings, if the call time was at 6 in the morning, he would be ready by 5.30 and silently walk up and down the veranda outside our room.” Ghosh was a close friend of the family and recalls taking some candid shots of him and his wife together, hosting friends at their home. But Ray, known to be cagey about his personal life, requested Ghosh not to publish those photographs.
Manik-Da is also an autobiography. The fuller portrait is that of Ghosh himself, an accidental, self-taught photographer who realized his full potential because he “saw” things like the most towering Indian film-maker of that time did. Ray liked his camera angles and his understanding of natural light, and decided to nurture his talent.
Although it’s a personal account, the book also offers a sense of the age— when courageous and self-willed creativity was revered.
The portraits and working stills in the book are rare and one of the pleasures of sifting through the glossy black and white pages. Ray can be seen at his most reflective, most candid and most animated. A keep for film lovers.