Of the 36 films, including documentaries and shorts, made by Satyajit Ray in a creative career spread over a matching number of years, Sikkim has been the only one to have escaped scrutiny.
Banned by the government in 1975, the documentary film had two public screenings in Kolkata before it was withdrawn and the original negative and prints suppressed. For countless fans of cinema in general, and Ray in particular, the unavailability of Sikkim has lent to it a Holy Grail-like stature. From the long queue of people keenly lining up for a non-starter of a screening at an earlier edition of the Kolkata Film Festival, the conjecturing of critics, and the unsuccessful scramble for the Sikkim torrent in film download sites, the 58-minute documentary film has been present through its absence.
A photo taken by Sandeep Ray in Sikkim during the shooting of Satyajit Ray’s film. Courtesy: Sandeep Ray
With the Union government finally lifting the ban recently, the mist is likely to rise over Sikkim, though no date has been set for the screening so far. Having been part of the film’s production team, Ray’s film-maker son Sandip Ray is seemingly at a loss trying to explain the long ban, but he is well aware of the significance of an “unseen” Ray, one where, besides direction, the auteur is credited for the script, commentary, sound and music.
“Though it was commissioned in 1971 by the then Chogyal of Sikkim and his American wife Hope Cook for a touristy representation of the state, the film has Baba’s (Ray’s) touch all over it. It was also his only documentary film to be made on a place and was completely unscripted. We shot spontaneously and Sikkim was made at the editing table,” says Sandip, who was part of a multi-nation hunt to locate a print of the film after it became apparent that none remained in India, not even at the Gemini Colour Lab in Chennai where the film was processed. A copy of a print with a Gangtok-based foundation that inherited the late Chogyal’s possession was damaged irrevocably.
The search for a print was conducted over a decade. After encountering a wall of silence from Hope Cook (who reportedly left India for New York with a copy), a badly damaged print was traced to a Rhode Island museum by Prof. Dilip Basu, founder of the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection at the University of California Santa Cruz, US. The only known watchable print of Sikkim was finally found at London’s Contemporary Films. It subsequently went through a restoration process at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the US. Sandip remembers “nostalgically” sitting through a screening of the restored film during a Ray retrospective in Nantes, France, a few years back.
“The film is about virgin landscapes that were inaccessible back then. It has its share of flora and fauna and also shows Sikkim through various seasons. Sikkim was a monarchy then and there are scenes showing royal feasts, festivals, gambling, dancing and singing. Not much of that life exists now and Sikkim can be seen as documentation of history,” Sandip says. “At Nantes, though, we saw the censored version which was not as good as the first cut.”
Only the scissored version of Sikkim exists—the only Ray film to suffer a double censorship after the Chogyal, and especially Cook, objected to some scenes, followed by the government ban in 1975 after Sikkim became a part of India. The film, it was reported, could arouse pro-monarchy emotions in the newly included state and upset the subtle balance of power.
Others, like the long-time cinematographer of Ray films, Soumendu Roy, who also shot Sikkim, remembers that no interviews were taken of either the Chogyal or his wife, a possible ground for them to feel affronted. “If some of the bazaar and village scenes depicted poverty, it was an undeniable fact. It was also difficult to segregate the local Lepcha community from the Nepalese population as the film was expected to do,” Roy adds.
And of course, there is the contentious scene of a senior bureaucrat at a party depicted in a “not very flattering way” possibly eating noodles. That prompted Cook to exclaim “That’s wicked! That’s wicked!” during the screening of the original film as mentioned in The Inner Eye, Ray’s biography by Andrew Robinson. This scene, along with some others, account for around 90 seconds of censored footage of Sikkim.
Despite the cuts, the film is an essential watch, feels Roy. “We had done a lot of experiments with natural light and sound. The sequence inside Rumtek monastery was especially courageous in cinematic terms.” Ray himself is said to have spoken about the opening 7 minutes of the film, a silent ode to the beauty of a place and its people.