Sandip Ray, Satyajit Ray’s son narrates his father’s relationship with renowned French filmmaker Jean Renoir and how the French equation in Ray’s life took off when he finished making Pather Panchali (The Song of the Little Road)
Renowned French film director Jean Renoir arrives in Calcutta to carve out a new movie creation, his well-known, The River. The period is 1950-51. Renoir will shoot the River while cruising across the Hooghly river. A tall, aspiring film maker, with a superlative cinematic eye, learns of Renoir’s arrival from like-minded friends like art designer (later to become art director) Bansi Chandragupta. Bansi Chandragupta is scheduled to work as an assistant with Renoir together with others from the Tollygunge film industry.
The tall man, Satyajit Ray, who was later to tower as a movie great, on gathering from Chandragupta that Renoir has checked in at the city’s Great Eastern Hotel, goes across to the hotel, meets up with the Renoir and expresses his eagerness to accompany the French director during the shoot. Renoir agrees to take Ray along on The River’s shooting schedules.
Satyajit Ray’s work-life, as was to unfold in the future, would be garnished with a pronounced French connection. “Father, as is widely documented by now, was working with the city-based British advertising company, D.G. Keymer in the art department. Renoir, as it appears, was impressed conversing with father. In course of his interaction with the French movie master, father had also aired his dreams of making Pather Panchali one day. Thus, he readily embraced the idea of father keeping him company during The River’s shooting,” reflects Sandip, Satyajit Ray’s son. “Given his commitments at Keymer, father decided to largely zero in on Renoir’s weekend shooting schedules,” he adds.
“During shooting, father would occasionally help Renoir with observations on typical scenes in Bengal. In turn, Renoir would point out the texture of certain locales. Being the son of (Impressionist) master artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir was endowed with the eye of an artist. These interactions with the master French director stuck in father’s mind,” delineates Sandip. “I had learnt bits of these experiences from him (Satyajit Ray) much later.”
Sandip goes onto expand, “The French equation in father’s life took off further when he managed to finish Pather Panchali (The Song of the Little Road), despite all the financial hurdles and the movie made its way to the competitive section of the Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, the first screening of the film was late in the evening when virtually none of the jury members were present. Luckily, a journalists team of the Sequence (film) journal, led by Lindsay Anderson, the famous British film director, were there at the theatre to watch the movie. Anderson and the other Sequence correspondents pressed upon the Cannes authorities to screen such a brilliant celluloid creation for the entire jury. Consequently, Pather Panchali was screened a second time for the jury and walked away with the Best Human Document prize,” Sandip exudes.
In Pather Panchali’s wake, Satyajit Ray transcreated Aparajito (The Unvanquished), the second section of the Trilogy. Aparajito failed to rake in the earnings at the box office. This influenced Ray to decided on a ‘musical’. In the hope that it would be slightly more popular than the first two grim outings. Thus, transpired Jalsaghar (The Music Room). But, even Jalshaghar ended up being a sombre film.
“It didn’t fare too well at the box office, either. Even father realised that Jashaghar had turned out to be a very serious film for movie goers. Strangely enough, Jalshaghar attained a cult status and following in France. Father was astonished, too, by this reaction from an overseas audience,” reveals Sandip. “Amazingly, when the Video Home System (VHS) emerged, the first Satyajit Ray film transposed to and marketed in the VHS format in France was Jalshaghar. The French had followed this up with VCDs and DVDs of Jalshaghar and LPs and CDs of film’s original soundtrack. Of course, on the heels of The Music Room, father’s other film titles, including naturally the Trilogy, were rolled out in France. The Music Room, however, happened to lead the way as far as the French went. One surmises, Jalshaghar is screened, occasionally even now, in some theatres in France,” Sandip observes.
Several French tourists, according to Sandip, have travelled to Calcutta to visit, in turn, the Nimtita Palace which featured in Jalsaghar. “Around a decade or so back, a travel agency called me to say that some French tourists had arrived to get a first-hand view of the palace and if I could help them,” informs Sandip. “I told this agent to arrange the trip for these tourists. A few days later, this team of tourists dropped by at our home to share an account with me about the palace, which once belonged to the Raychaudhuri family, they had frequented and their impression. They were naturally disappointed with the somewhat run-down condition of the palace at present. But, what puzzled them the most is the absence of the music room in the palace. I apprised them that the entire jalsaghar was built on the sets. They were palpably amazed. That was the magic of Satyajit Ray, Bansi Chandragupta and Subroto Mitra, I naturally was led to tell them,” says Sandip reflectively. “So, one discovers the French link there again,” he adds.
Sandip goes on to comment that even on his trips to France his great father had sensed his popularity in that country. “France is probably the one destination where practically the entire gamut of father’s films, if not all, is available in DVD and Blue Ray format,” he observes. With the US DVD major Criterion stepping forward a few years back to pick up DVD rights for Ray’s films, the master’s range of movies is growing in America. British stores are, of course, are probably next to France in offering a wide range of the master’s movies.
“In time, father was invited by the producer of France’s Channel 3, Henri Fraise, to make a short film for the television company. Henri Fraise journeyed from France to meet father in Calcutta. Father was impressed with Fraise and chose to direct his short story Pikoo’s Diary for the channel,” reminisces Sandip. “It was titled Pikoo’s Day for the French production,” Sandip says.”
“Interestingly, when Henri Fraise came again during the shooting, he brought along the first model of the Sony Walkman cassette recorder for father as a gift naturally. Father was so enthused that he had the headphones stuck in his ears all the while when he was not shooting or involved in some engaging work in his study. He was always intensely drawn to the latest technological development. However, fearing that this passion could affect his ears, doctors advised him to restrain himself to an extent. Anyway, everything went off well and Pikoo was completed,” narrates Sandip.
As Sandip recollects, the master had begun writing Pikoo’s Diary in an international airport and finished it on the flight back from overseas. Pikoo’s plot had taken root in his mind in this overseas airport when the flight to Calcutta was delayed and Ray had grabbed the opportunity, bought himself a notebook and began penning this short story while he was waiting to board the plane. “This is more or less evident from the notepad where Pikoo surfaced. It’s completely different from father’s customary literary stationery which he normally picked up from the city’s famous Oxford Bookstore,” underscores Sandip. Sandip readily agrees that Pikoo is a deeply serious literary creation. Sandip’s towering father always wrote keeping children in his mindscape. But, Pikoo’s Diary was a sharp departure. “Father, too, naturally realised this facet and sent it for publication in the Durga Puja Special issue of the Ananda Bazar Patrika magazine which always carried writings for grown-ups and adults. It brings to the fore the extent to which father had fathomed child psychology,” Sandip observes on a serious note.
It needs to be mentioned here that Satyajit Ray was decorated with the Commander of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest honour, by French president Francois Mitterand in 1987. Informed of Ray’s poor cardiac condition, Mitterand flew all the way to Calcutta to crown the maestro with award.
Continuing to dwell on the cinematic affair with the French, Sandip expands saying that producer Tosca Du Plantier would systematically keep track of the maestro’s work and was deeply taken up by his films. “In fact, when we travelled to Cannes in 1984-85 with Ghare Baire (Home and the World), Plantier hosted a party in our honour at a sprawling apartment overlooking the ocean,” remembers Sandip. “Father couldn’t make it to Cannes this time around because of the heart attack he had suffered in 1984.
“In time, Plantier informed us he was extremely keen on a co-production with father. In fact, he had added that (famous French actor and Plantier’s friend and partner in Erato Films) Gerard Dupardieu was a huge admirer of father and his movies. Both, in fact, journeyed across to Calcutta during the shooting of Ganashatru (adapted from Ibsen’s Enemy of the People) and reiterated their intense keenness to embark on a co-production with father. Father, of course, candidly told them that he was not armed with the money-power to enter into a co-production. Plantier and Dupardieu assured father that he needn’t worry about the finances and that all arrangements would be put together at the French end. Just that the movie would be produced and released under the banner of Satyajit Ray Productions and Erato Films. Thus, ensued Shakha Proshakha (Branches of a Tree),” reveals Sandip.
It may informative and interesting to learn that Shakha Proshakha, despite being an independent screenplay along the lines of Kanchenjungha and Nayak, still sprung from a short ‘treatment’ that Ray had written years back for the Bengali literary journal, Ekkhon. After Ganashatru, father expanded on that skeletal treatment into a full-blown script.
Sandip goes on to mention that the making of Shakha Proshakha was a unique experience. French technicians, with boom microphones, were present on the sets to lap up the dialogues between the actors. “Actually, Plantier had asked father whether he would need additional assistance from French technicians. To that, father had told Plantier that a back-up in the sound department would be of great assistance because this would enable father to preserve the original dialogue track and do away with dubbing. In fact, father wrote a summary of the entire script in English for these French sound technicians to, obviously, give them a feel and insight into the movie they were working for. They were flabbergasted, probably because they had never encountered such an experience before. Incidentally, Plantier had consciously sent technical hands who were totally familiar communicating in English since they had worked with Hollywood movies earlier,” says Sandip incisively.
To iron out any hurdles that Ray and his crew could face at the production end, a French lady from Erato was also present during the shooting. To bring Plantier abreast of the musical soundtrack that he had scripted for the film, Satyajit Ray told him he would require excerpts of a clutch of Western Classical compositions. These musical extracts figured when renowned actor Soumitra Chatterjee, who played the protagonist, sits listening to these pieces in the film, as everyone, who has viewed the Shakha Proshakha, is aware. Plantier told father that a sister company of Erato Films happened to be Erato Music and his (Ray’s) Western Classical soundtrack requirements would also be farmed out by Erato. Thus, there would be no eventuality of copyright infringement.
“In the same breath, since Shakha Proshakha was a co-production with French funds involved, both artistes and crew members earned tidy pay packets. This satisfied father immensely because more often than not he had to churn out films within tight budgets. And, shooting of the film was totally smooth and without any hitches whatsoever. Everything taken together, it was one of the pleasantest of father’s movie outings,” drives home Sandip unhesitatingly.
The frame dissolves to a period when Satyajit Ray had moved to his Bishop Lefroy Road home in South Calcutta. Legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson sits in Ray’s famous study conversing with the movie auteur. Sandip doesn’t recall the exact year of Bresson’s visit to Calcutta and the Ray household. “But, it was definitely after we shifted to our Bishop Lefroy Road apartment. Both father and Bresson harboured a deep admiration for each other. Father turned a devout fan of Cartier-Bresson’s photography after chancing upon his images in the Verve magazine. This was likely during his D.J. Keymer days. He would always share this love for Bresson’s work with his famed cameraman Subroto Mitra and that he would like the frames of the Trilogy to reflect touches of Henri Cartier-Bresson shots,” says Sandip with candidness. “Father had also written the foreword for Cartier-Bresson’s photographic essay on India.”
The end titles of Satyajit Ray-France tour de force appear: Jean Renoir and The River, Jalshaghar, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Henri Fraise and Pikoo’s Day, Legion of Honour, Tosca du Plantier-Gerard Dupardieu and Shakha Proshakha…… The scene fades. All we are left with is a deep longing for that unsurpassed masterly act by a rare Indian film maker.
Ashoke Nag is a veteran writer on art and culture with a special interest in legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
All images from Satyajit Ray Society.