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Through the lens: Satyajit Ray's genius

Brinda Dasgupta, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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A recent exhibition, ''Satyajit Ray: From Script to Screen'' in Kolkata by ace photographer Nemai Ghosh captures the many moods of the maestro.

It is never easy to pay tribute to a genius. There will always be that feeling of being overshadowed, and overpowered, by a personality so great that even the tribute would seem inconsequential and inadequate. However, sometimes there are those rare instances which manage to do justice to a legacy. Ace photographer Nemai Ghosh's recent exhibition at Rabindranath Tagore Centre (Indian Council of Cultural Relations, Kolkata) was a fitting tribute to the genius of Satyajit Ray.

The exhibition ''Satyajit Ray: From Script To Screen'' explores the world of the master director through the medium of photography - whether it be putting finishing touches to actor Soumitra Chatterjee's hair for a scene, or recording music at a Gangtok marketplace. Today, Ghosh is often referred to as ''Ray's photographer'', and after a look at the 101 photographs on display at Nandalal Bose Gallery (RTC), it is evident that this reputation is well-deserved.

Ghosh's long relationship with Ray started in 1967, when actor Robi Ghosh, a Ray favourite, invited the aspiring photographer to a rehearsal of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha). That marked the first meeting, a collaboration of sorts that was to continue for many decades afterwards. Recalls Ghosh, ''I had taken along my camera, and at the rehearsal, I happened to click some pictures. Later, I got those developed, and took them along to Ray. He appreciated my effort and photographic eye. From then on, I was allowed the freedom to click him at work.'' Little wonder then that today Ghosh has a vast collection of about 95,000 negatives, all centering around the filmmaker.

Legendary filmmaker Kurosawa had once said ''Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon''. Indeed, films like JALSAGHAR (the music Room), MAHANAGAR (The Big City), PATHER PANCHALI (song of the Little Road), and CHARULATA (The Lonely Wife) are classics, their messages as relevant now than before. Thus, such an exhibition is a subtle reminder that classics are timeless, and that a true genius transcends the age he lives in.

The exhibition, a joint collaboration of the ICCR with National Gallery of Modern Art (Delhi), gives the viewer a glimpse into the multi-faceted personality of Satyajit Ray. His genius surfaces in each photograph - whether he is instructing actors (varying from Utpal Dutt to Sharmila Tagore), or recording the sounds of a thunderstorm in Kathmandu for use in his film, or even conducting a Santhal dance sequence for AGANTUK (The Stranger).



We see the director at work - briefing actors Kushal Chakraborty, Ajoy Banerjee, and Shailen Mukherjee for a scene in SONAR KELLA (The Fortress) set in the desert fort at Jaisalmer. We see his attention to detail on the sets - arranging chess pieces for SHATRANJ KE KHILADI (The Chess Players) which starred Sanjeev Kumar, Sir Richard Attenborough, Shabana Azmi, etc. We see him with thespian Utpal Dutt, deep in discussion, on the sets of JANA ARANYA (The Middleman). We glimpse the formidable talent of Ray as a musician, overseeing the different stages in scoring, recording, and rehearsing the final take of a scene in the musical HIRAK RAJAR DESHE (Kingdom of Diamonds). We see Ray the artist, putting his vision to paper in the form of a sketch. And finally, we witness Ray the amazing filmmaker, behind the camera, shooting a scene with Soumitra Chatterjee.

What strikes one, however, is the sheer motion in all the photographs. Ghosh's camera captures the ever-dynamic energy of the maestro. In one photograph, he is gesticulating, in discussion with Sir Richard Attenborough, on the sets of SHATRANJ KE KHILADI. In another, he is moving his hands to demonstrate a scene to actors Dipankar Dey and Ranjit Mullick for SHAKHA PRASHAKHA (Branches of the Tree). In yet another, he has stepped right into the waters of a river to explain a scene to Bangladesh actress Babita in ASHANI SANKET (Distant Thunder). One of the most brilliant photos of the collection, however, is that of Ray - his 6'4'' frame crammed into the trunk of a car, shooting a scene in motion.

Certain photographs do capture Ray at his thoughtful best. There is one of Ray in his study, looking introspective - as if he is exploring a world of creativity. There is another of him standing, arms folded across his chest, leaning casually against a wall, looking upwards to study a prospective location.

The photographs showing Satyajit Ray behind the scenes is a major factor contributing to our understanding of him. Ghosh captures Ray at such moments in time, moments that we can witness today in the framing of the photographs. In fact, there are not just photographs of Ray himself, but of his drawings and sketches. The outline of the costume of the Bhooter Raja (king of the ghosts) in Goopy Gyne ... stands out for its details, and Ghosh's photographic eye has captured it perfectly.

Just a brief look at the photographs will give a viewer the idea that the exhibition speaks of a long interaction, between the photographer and his subject. Says Ghosh, ''While theatre was my first love, I was overcome by the sheer charisma of Ray. These photographs are the result of many years of following him with a camera.'' In fact, Ray himself is credited to have said, ''For close to 25 years, Nemai Ghosh has been assiduously photographing me in action and repose - a sort of (James) Boswell working with a camera rather than a pen. Insofar as these pictures rise above mere records and assume a value as examples of a photographer's art, they are likely to be of interest to a discerning viewer.''

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