Friday, February 01, 2013

50 shades of Ray (and other glimpses of a cinematic heritage)

[An essay I did for the Delhi Art Gallery’s splendidly produced catalogue to accompany the Nemai Ghosh photographic exhibition]

Writing about Chris Marker’s short film La Jetee – a post-apocalyptic story made up almost entirely of still pictures – the critic David Thomson observed that this may be our perfect commentary on "the special way in which photographic images work with time to make the explosive equation of moving film”. In the film’s most spellbinding scene, lasting only a few seconds, the pictures on the screen “move” – the way they do in most regular movies – and a woman, hitherto seen only in photographs, comes alive before us. The result is a startling contrast between still images and images that, in Thomson's phrase, “work with time” – especially apt to a story that is about both time travel and the haunting, illusory nature of memory.

Motion pictures are, of course, a series of photos run together so fast that we can discover a narrative in them. And yet, when we think of our favourite movie scenes, we often think of specific shots frozen in time – shots that might be “unreliable” because they are idealised constructs of our brain, but which can capture something truthful and essential about a film. Similarly, a good photograph of a movie scene (or of a scene being filmed) can enshrine a moment for all time. It can reveal a good deal about what that movie means to its culture and about the circumstances in which it was made. At times it might even enable us to “play” a slightly different version of the scene in our head.

In the early days of filmmaking, the photographer loitering about the set was not always a welcome presence – actors were not usually happy about having to recreate a scene after the shot had already been taken. (The invention of the sound blimp, which allowed the still camera to do its work silently, placated many nerves.) But today, everyone agrees about the vital role played by a good still photographer, and Nemai Ghosh has been among the most dedicated and scrupulous of them all. His output would have been admirable in any place and time, but it acquires a special resonance in the context of a country that has never cared enough about its cinematic legacy. The story of preservation in Indian cinema has been a depressing one involving countless miles of deteriorating or lost film stock and an astonishing lack of written or pictorial records, even when it comes to major films. But Ghosh’s photographs are a wide-ranging documentation of movie memories, with a special focus on the work of India’s most widely celebrated filmmaker.

His association with Satyajit Ray – a life-changing one, by his own account – began during the shooting of Ray’s 1968 fantasy classic Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which is among the best-loved of all Indian films. A chord was struck very early on. In his worshipful book Manik-Da: Memories of Satyajit Ray, Ghosh recalls the frisson of excitement he felt when the photographs he had taken were first presented to Ray, and when the great man looked up and said “You have done it exactly the way I would have, man, you have got the same angles!” Thus began a collaboration that lasted nearly a quarter-century (towards the end of which period Ray would write that Ghosh had been for him “a sort of Boswell working with a camera rather than a pen”).

A case can be made that the photographer missed out on some of the director’s best work. Not many film buffs would argue that Ray’s post-1968 output equalled the sum of what he had done up to that time: an oeuvre that included the three films of the Apu Trilogy as well as Jalsaghar, Devi, Mahanagar, Teen Kanya, Kanchenjanga, Nayak and arguably his most formally accomplished film Charulata. The heart sinks a little to think of what Nemai Ghosh’s eye and camera might have achieved if he had had a chance to shoot the magnificently crumbling haveli of the zamindar in Jalsaghar; the large house in which Charulata feels restless and unfulfilled; the ghostly mosquito nets that are such a constant, haunting presence in Devi; the lovely vistas of Varanasi where Apu’s father Hari breathes his last in Aparajito; or even the nightmare scenes (the telephone, the skeletal hands and currency notes) of Nayak. Imagine some of the location shots he might have captured for Ray’s lovely short film “Samapti” (a segment of Teen Kanya), in which a city-educated lad (Soumitro Chatterjee) becomes gradually drawn to, and also a little repulsed by, a feral girl-child (played by the young Aparna Dasgupta, later Aparna Sen) in his village. Imagine the mists of Kanchenjanga as seen through Ghosh’s frame.

But such “what ifs” are exercises in pointlessness – and besides, the very fact that we can rue these things is a testament to the value of what actually did emerge from the collaboration. Consider the films Ray made between 1968 and 1991, and the range of themes, moods and time periods they cover. There is Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and its much later sequel Hirak Rajar Deshe, two of our cinema’s towering achievements in whimsical, timeless fantasy. As companion pieces to these “light” movies, there are the detective Feluda films, Sonar Kella (based on one of Ray’s breeziest, most pleasing stories and shot on location in Rajasthan) and Joy Baba Felunath. On a grittier note, there is the Calcutta trilogy of Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya (and a key film that can be seen as a precursor to them, Aranyer Dinratri, about four men trying to escape city life by heading off into the forest for an excursion).  Then there is the period drama Shatranj ke Khiladi, Ray’s only feature-length Hindi film, based on Premchand’s story about nobles and Englishmen on the eve of the 1857 war of independence. The Government-produced Sadgati, a somewhat pedantic (by the director’s standards) examination of untouchability. Ghare Baire, an elegant adaptation of Tagore’s story about the personal and the political. And the comparatively lesser works of the final years – Ganashatru, Shakha Prashakha – which have their own merits but in which one also senses an artist stricken by poor health and beginning to wind down.

Every one of these films is represented – usually at incredible length – in Ghosh’s photography. “Incredible” because this was the pre-digital era and reels of actual film were being used up in the taking of these photographs; their number and variety tell us something about Ghosh’s personal dedication to his art, and about Ray’s capacity to inspire. And because many of the films are so iconic, these photographs provide us with some defining glimpses of our cinematic heritage. Through them, we get a tantalising picture: Ray as observer and chronicler of the many aspects of a culture, and Ghosh with his camera, observing the observer.

As the eye turns greedily from one picture to the next, a host of memories and associations come alive. Here is the filming of Ashani Sanket with the girl bathing in the river, an instant reminder of the haunting opening sequence of that movie with the fighter planes – “as beautiful as a flock of cranes” – passing overhead. Here, from the same film, is Soumitro as the young Brahmin in the bullock-cart, his director looking urbane and dapper next to him – the shot is an amusing reminder that some of the earliest Western critics who saw Ray’s work made the mistake of assuming that he was from an indigent, uneducated background himself and that the Apu Trilogy, with a young village boy making his way in the world, was an autobiographical story!

Here, from Shatranj ke Khiladi, are two noblemen as wastrels, looking on indolently as “interesting times” pass them by. An extraordinary photograph from this series has Wajid Ali Shah framed in a circle formed by the coiled tubes of a hookah; the image is a beautiful representation of a weak ruler trapped by history, and Amjad Khan – one of our most photogenic actors ever – is as tragically imperious here as he was terrifyingly imperious in his most famous role as Sholay’s Gabbar Singh.

Far removed in space and time from 1857 Lucknow, the great Bharat Natyam exponent Bala Saraswati (about whom Ray made a documentary, Bala) practises her art on a beach. And here is a more famous cinematic dance – precious shots of the staging of the extraordinary ghost-dance sequence from Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, with the bright white background contrasting with sharp dark costumes for an otherworldly effect. These stills should send a frisson of excitement through anyone who recalls the atmospheric sequence, as should the candid photos of the film’s unforgettable old magician Barfi (imagine a goofier version of Tolkien’s Saruman, high on mishti doi) on the set.

Here too is a feel for real places: the protagonist of Pratidwandi captured against the background of his bustling – often impersonal – city. And vistas from Sikkim, the subject of Ray’s long-censored 1971 documentary. “We traversed the entire length and breadth of Sikkim, shooting at various places,” Ghosh noted in his book, “From schools to slums to palaces – nothing was left uncaptured on camera.”


“Humanist” is a word often used – to the point of cliché – to describe Ray’s work; it usually denotes that there are few bad people in his films, that ill-fortune flows not from the actions of a villainous “type” but from circumstances acting alongside the whims of personality. But the word is also a reminder of the director’s interest in the possibilities of the human face. He was an illustrator long before he became a filmmaker, and his drawings and paintings show an intuitive understanding of people’s behaviours, gestures and inner states – some of which Ghosh must have picked up over the years. Even in Ray movies that have stylistic flourishes, the first images one usually thinks of are faces in a variety of moods. The dreamy-eyed inwardness of the young Siddhartha in Pratidwandi; the look of unabashed delight on Goopy’s face when he realises that the king of ghosts really
has given him the boon of a magical voice; Soumitro’s expressive visage in a range of contexts, from period rural drama to urbane Feluda adventure; Amjad Khan’s sensuous, melancholy gaze as Wajid Ali Shah contemplates oblivion. And the women: the impish, knowing smiles of Sharmila Tagore in Aranyer Dinratri and Seemabaddha; Shabana Azmi as the sullen wife in Shatranj ke Khiladi; the young Simi Garewal in one of her most atypical roles, as an inebriated tribal girl who catches the eye of a wanderer from the city.

Ghosh catches all these moods and countless others, but a striking aspect of his photos is how rarely they resemble the conventional ideal of a promotional still – something that has a long tradition in mainstream cinema in the West, with attempts being made to encapsulate the basic idea of a scene in one image and actors striking representative poses for the cameraman’s benefit. Much of Ghosh’s work, to the contrary, is characterised by the intimacy that can only occur when the still photographer has become an essential part of the unit – an unseen presence, silently observing and recording, with his subjects barely even conscious of his presence. There is an artlessness in these compositions that makes them an enormously effective record of the inner workings of an art form. (The exceptions are usually tied to the subject matter: so grand is the mise-en-scene of Shatranj ke Khiladi, for example, that many stills from that film inevitably look posed and self-consciously soaked in meaning.)

If Ghosh’s admiration for Ray, the tall (in every sense) Renaissance Man, can be seen on each page of Manik-Da, it is also clearly visible in his photos of the director. You can see it in the way Ray becomes the central, magnetic presence in nearly every frame, even when flanked by people like Akira Kurosawa and Indira Gandhi. You can see it in how the Gallic actor Gerard Depardieu – one of the most striking film personalities of his generation – seems almost to be dwarfed by Ray on the sets of Ganashatru. Without ever coming across as a minatory figure, Ray looms over actors and crew, a breathing redefinition of the term “larger than life”. We often see him behind the camera – though he did detailed storyboards for most of his films, he was also a very hands-on director on the actual set (not for him the Hitchcockian dictum “I never need to look into a camera”). An amusing photograph shows Soumitro and his director seated on adjacent sofas, making a “V” sign simultaneously though neither is looking at the other; a suggestion of the near-telepathic relationship that develops through long artistic collaboration?

Then there is Ray standing near a busy street, pipe in mouth, an expression of intense concentration on his face, while his beloved city’s trams pass in the background. Here he is taking his own photos of the women and children of Sikkim; with two other shining lights of world cinema, Kurosawa and Michelangelo Antonioni, at the Taj Mahal; sitting on a ledge along a slope from a Rajasthani fort, eating lunch with the crew of Sonar Kella.

Different moods coalesce in many of these pictures. He looks affectionate but also a little distracted as a child actor throws his arms around him and kisses him on the cheek. Standing on set, a microphone in hand, he seems benevolent and impatient at the same time, a kindly uncle set to turn into a martinet if his crew keeps him waiting for much longer. He hunches in the bonnet of an Ambassador car with his camera equipment and he stands pensively beneath a chandelier during a shoot (and manages to look equally dignified in both situations). Here is the man of letters, the product of 200 years of Bengali high culture, reading on the set while perched delicately on a makeshift bench; and there is the man of the world, playing blackjack in a casino during a break in the shooting of Hirak Rajar Deshe.

And everywhere, there is evidence of the multi-tasking auteur keeping a sharp eye on every element of the production process: looking down in deep concentration as he listens to his music performers; adding the finishing touches to an actor’s facial makeup. One lovely shot has Ray reading with two pairs of violins in perfect symmetry next to him; like the awed people who had the privilege of working for him or observing him at work, the instruments seem almost to be standing at attention, awaiting further developments.


Viewing these images, one gleans the full meaning of Ghosh’s words “My experiences were but small pebbles that I picked up from the shores of a mighty ocean called Satyajit Ray.” Yet these words might also make one wonder: was the photographer a one-man Boswell, finding true creative inspiration only when touched by his idol’s presence? On the evidence we have, the answer is no. Many of the other film-related photographs he took – from Bengali and Hindi cinema – are just as stirring, in a number of ways.

They span both the mainstream and the non-mainstream, frequently giving us insight into what those categories really mean and whether they should be placed in neat opposition as they so often are. Thus, on the one hand, there are stills from such films as Gautam Ghose’s serious-minded Paar, about a villager trying to cross a river in spate with his pregnant wife and a herd of pigs. (That plot, along with the fact that the leads are Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah – who won a best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for this role – tells you everything you need to know about what sort of film it is.) But at the other end of the spectrum, there is Amitabh Bachchan in one of his most unabashedly commercial roles, as “John Jani Janardhan” in Manmohan Desai’s extravagant Naseeb, caught in a climactic song sequence with the glamorous Hema Malini. And somewhere between these extremes is an international production casting a loving gaze at Indian poverty more than 15 years before Slumdog Millionaire: Roland Jaffe’s City of Joy with Patrick Swayze and Om Puri. Other highlights from this series include stills from the Rekha-starrer Utsav, directed by Girish Karnad, the very young Anil Kapoor with an outlandishly swank car in a film you probably haven’t heard of, M S Sathyu’s Kahan Kahan se Guzar Gaya, and rare pictures of a corpulent, middle-aged Shashi Kapoor as Feluda in Sandip Ray’s TV series – a sad reminder, perhaps, of the compromises required in making a commercial project.

It is the juxtapositions and contrasts that make these photographs so interesting. How tempting it is, for example, to set the Bachchan of Naseeb against the Bachchan of nearly a decade earlier – a 1973 photograph of Amitabh with Jaya Bhaduri, before they were married and when she was the bigger star: a time before superstardom and its attendant threats, before the cares of domesticity, children and political pressures. The photograph makes it possible to postulate an alternate future for the superstar-in-waiting – a future where this lanky, awkward-looking young man made a brief career playing intense second leads (as he once really did in films like Parwana and Gehri Chaal), and eventually faded away. In this other universe, Bachchan might not even have looked out of place as the young marketing manager in Ray’s Seemabaddha!

Photographs can confirm the dominant images we carry in our minds, but the best of them also erase labels by capturing people in unusual moods or contexts. Consider the shot of a badminton match involving that most macho of north Indian actors, Dharmendra, with that most coquettish of Bengali actresses, Moushumi Chatterjee. The image – which one feels tempted to label “Di and Paaji” – is from the set of a film titled Dawedaar, so obscure that despite being made in 1982 and having a high-profile cast, there is practically no reference to it online. By this time Dharmendra was well past his sell-by date and mostly doing macho roles in assembly-line films, but looking at this picture one is reminded of the reticent bhadralok characters he played in such 1960s films as Anupama and Bandini (made by those other prominent Bengali directors, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Bimal Roy).

Here and elsewhere, Ghosh’s photographs of movie stars are testaments to wide-ranging careers and other possibilities for the history of Indian cinema. There is the heady glamour of commercial cinema, but there are also
unobtrusive, stripped-down contexts. Here is Shatrughan Sinha, wearing sunglasses and outfitted in the style of the flamboyant Hindi-movie hero of the early 1980s, but he is flanked by – of all people – Ray and Soumitro, and one almost fancies that the director is giving him a patronising look, as if to bring him down to earth. To view Utpal Dutt as the king in Hirak Rajar Deshe is to see an artiste evincing a very different personality from that of the comical-old-man roles he was playing in Hindi cinema at exactly the same time.

For the eclectic movie-buff, the experience of viewing these images is a strongly affecting one: the divides between different “types” of cinema (commercial and art, loud and unobtrusive) begin to fall away and one sees these films, their directors and actors as part of a single continuum – with subtle shifts along the line coming to define entire careers and influencing entire generations of movie-watchers. And Ghosh was around to capture so much of this. In much the same way that Ray’s cinema illuminated so many worlds (both internal and external), these photographs give us a breathtakingly kaleidoscopic, complex view of Indian cinema and its many personalities.


Here are two photos of the catalogue. (That “SR” in the second image represents Ray’s scrawl of approval on a series of photos.) 

[An earlier post on the Nemai Ghosh exhibition - with more photos - is here]


  1. superb pics. feel like watching Ray's films again seeing these.

  2. Beautifully written. An apt companion to the photographs.

    Is this catalogue available for sale? The DAG link doesn't seem to be working.

  3. Diptakirti: yes, the catalogue is available for sale at the DAG. It's priced at something like Rs 6000 (I think), but it's beautifully produced, with the photos generously sprinkled through the book, so you might just find it worth the price.

  4. Thanks for posting the lovely, charming photos here. May I ask if you know what the photo of the woman looking through the car window is about? Is that from 'Aranyer Din Ratri'?
    That is such a lovely picture of Sharmila Tagore with the sunglasses!

  5. Cullum Tod: yes, that pic is of Sharmila and Rabi Ghosh during the Aranyer Din Ratri shoot. Btw, you can see many of the other pics from the exhibition here.