Opinion

The Household On Bishop Lefroy Road

The auteur’s cast and crew made up an ­extended ­family of sorts that nurtured ­creative ­collaborations

The Household On Bishop Lefroy Road
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Part of the magic of Satyajit Ray’s productions was in the sense of an extended family that cast and crew were drawn into, often necessitated by the microscopic budgets they worked within. It led to lifelong friendships and creative collaborations, with the possibil­ity of learning on the job, and often discovering hidden talents. The best known among the many hangers-on is undoubtedly Kamu Mukherjee, who joined Ray’s team as a gaffer, impressed everyone on set with his myriad talents at entertaining with tricks and treats, and ended up playing some of the most memorable comic and villainous roles in Ray’s films—from the advertising professional trying to hustle his wife in Nayak, to the “globe-trotting” kidnapper Mandar Bose in Sonar Kella and the drunk knife-thrower in Joy Baba Felunath. What a magical time it must have been—those Sundays at the Ray home on Bishop Lefroy Road, with actor Soumitra Chatterjee, art director Bansi Chandragupta, still photographer Nemai Ghosh and many others discussing Ray’s next project over lunch prepared by his wife Bijoya.

Cinematography

Subrata Mitra, Soumendu Roy, Barun Raha

Sometime in 1951, a 30-year-old graphic ­designer with deep interest in world cinema met a 20-year-old production assistant with a cheap still camera slung around his neck on the sets of Jean Renoir’s The River, somewhere along the Hooghly near Calcutta. It led to one of world cinema’s most fabled partnerships and put newly independent India on the global cinema map. Cineaste Satyajit Ray had, by then, founded Calcutta Film Society with his friends, and begun to form distinctive ideas about film-making, which included ­preparing the storyboard for a film based on a book he had illustrated for his one-time ­employer, Signet Press. In Subrata Mitra, he found a kindred soul, whose aesthetic choices in still photography matched his own disdain for what passed as cinematography in the Indian film industry. By 1952, armed with a hand-cranked Bolex 16 mm film camera and about 10 minutes of film stock that Ray had ­arranged by pawning his gramophone records and his wife’s jewellery, they arrived in Boral, a sleepy village on Calcutta’s outskirts, to begin shooting for Pather Panchali. The footage ­became a showreel that helped Ray raise funds for the film, which was eventually ­finished in 1954 and went on to win the Best Human Document at Cannes in 1956.

The partnership flourished over Ray’s first 10 films and gifted the world “bounce lighting”. More importantly, Mitra’s use of understated natural lighting and evocative framing laid the foundation for much of Ray’s ­success. By the early 1960s, though, cracks began to appear in the friendship—often ­attributed to creative differences and ego clashes—leading Ray to use Mitra’s assistant Soumendu Roy in some of his films, until, after the peak of Charulata and Nayak, they broke up for good. Soumendu took over, but by then Ray had begun handling the camera often, leaving Soumendu to focus on the lighting. To his credit, the unobtrusive und­erstudy brought verve to Ray’s storytelling with his handheld camerawork, especially in the Calcutta trilogy, and made Ray’s transition to colour films seamless. After a partnership that lasted 21 films spanning features, shorts and documentaries, Soumendu’s ­understudy Barun Raha took over for the master’s final three films. Beginning with a rather flat lightscape in Ganashatru, Raha kept improving over the next two films, as a medically incapacitated Ray was restricted to scripts focused on indoors.

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Editing

Dulal Datta

The only person to have worked on each and every Ray film happens to be the least known of his fabled team—editor Dulal Datta—ano­ther autodidact who learnt his craft by assisting Bengali film industry’s most sought after editor of the era, Ardhendu Chatterjee. It was Chatterjee who recommended Datta to Ray as the latter was winding up principal shooting for Pather Panchali. Datta quickly grasped that Ray was different from other directors in the industry—that the finicky taskmaster was going to breathe down his neck at every stage of the laborious editing process. So the one-film-old Datta let the auteur dictate the flow of the narrative, as he focused on fine-tuning its rhythm. Doing sound editing on a few films along the way helped him sharpen his craft, adding drama to the narrative and building anticipation in the audience with his cutting and splicing. Recall the sequence towards the end of Jalsaghar, where the old zamindar senses his world collapsing around him, or the numerous dialogue exchanges in Ray’s Calcutta films. In more than one occasion in these films, you get to see only the reaction shot as the person outside the frame speaks, cutting away to the speaker as soon as he stops speaking and the listener begins to respond—it is as if the story is being told entirely through the reactions of the listener.

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Earlier, in Nayak, Datta sets the stage early by cutting away to a shot of the train changing tracks, from the close-up of Uttam Kumar, as he shakes his head after washing his face while looking into the mirror on the wall of the ­latrine in the Rajdhani Express. Over the next couple of hours in the film, we get to see the inner turmoil of the protagonist as he turns from a theatre actor to a matinee idol. The credit for much of Ray’s economy in story­telling certainly goes to Datta, who, as Ray ­himself recalled, would often edit several ­versions of particular sequences, each one bringing emphasis on a slightly different ­emotion, for Ray to make the final choice.

Art Direction

Bansi Chandragupta

In 1947, as India awoke to freedom, a group of young men met at a room in the Metropolitan Building near Esplanade in Calcutta. They went on to found the Calcutta Film Society, India’s pioneering club for screening arthouse films. A young Kashmiri, who had recently come over to Calcutta to study art at the ­insistence of Rabindranath Tagore’s nephew Subho, and lived in a flat in the building, joined the group. Soon, he struck up a friendship with the tallest member of the group, Ray. It led to a long, productive partnership spanning 20 films, and introduced the field of art direction to Indian cinema. By this time, Bansi Chandragupta had already started drifting away from painting. He worked his way through a few films, till he got a chance to ­assist Eugène Lourié on the sets of Renoir’s The River. It opened up a world of realistic set design, where verisimilitude became the ­guiding principle. So, if Subrata Mitra ­invented bounce lighting in Aparajito to recreate the diffused light found in the interiors on a cloudy day, he did it not in the Benares house where shooting of Apu’s early youth began, but in a set Chandragupta had recreated in Calcutta. Working with tight budgets, quirky demands and often outdoor settings, he would build the world Ray populated with his stories and characters. Like the other stalwarts who gathered around Ray, Chandragupta too worked and excelled in a few films outside of Ray’s, but it was their syncopation as a team on the sets of Ray’s films where he left his ­biggest imprint, especially in their last work together—Shatranj ke Khiladi, for which he extensively studied Islamic miniatures and colonial painters of the period to recreate the decadent splendour of the Nawabs, something that was by then already well-established in Europe, but unknown in India.

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Producer

—Anil Choudhury, RD Bansal

Anil Choudhury was Ray’s Man Friday—the friend who stayed in the background, ­performing many roles, from handling the production unit to scrounging for funds. Theirs was another relationship that lasted a lifetime, though, with the arrival of R.D. Bansal as producer on board from Mahanagar onwards, Choudhury could focus on his ­primary job—scouting and booking equipment and locations, arranging for travel, stay and creature comforts of the cast and crew, and arranging anything else the small team on tight budget needed. Bansal, in comparison, was the typical Agra businessman who arrived in Calcutta to try his luck and fell in love with the city and its leftfield people, ending up as the producer for several of Ray’s later films.

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Costumes, Diction, Set Design

(uncredited) Bijoya Ray

Born into the family of Chittaranjan Das, Bijoya Ray (Das) became friends with her first cousin Satyajit, four years her junior, when her family relocated to Calcutta after her father’s death. As they grew up, a slow-burning romance developed that was consummated in 1949. A gifted singer, she had by then acted in a couple of Bengali films. The next few years was spent in managing house and child as the husband emb­arked upon an uncertain adventure as a filmmaker.

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Always the pillar behind Ray, the sounding board against whom the auteur bounced off his scripts and ideas, she slowly began to get involved in his productions as their son Sandip was growing up. It also led to frictions with many of Ray’s team members—not the least Bansi Chandragupta, in whose work she slowly began to “interfere”, leading to fallout. She moved seamlessly into the gaping hole left by the art director, along with filling in with dubbing vocals, teaching diction to actors, costume design and myriad other odd jobs that nowadays are considered specialisations.  

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