The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes(1970) is one of Billy Wilder‘s least known works. It is one of the ‘revealed’ Holmes stories, and is not part of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon. The film takes a satirical look at the Holmes-Watson equation, and, as the name suggests, touches upon the private life of the genius sleuth – who was decidedly misogynist. But the name is also misleading in one respect – it does not mention even once, the reason of Holmes’ contempt of women – that femme fatale named Irene Adler.
In his almost 50 year long career, Billy Wilder had made acclaimed Film Noirs (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard), Rom Coms (The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot), War films (Five Graves to Cairo, Stalag 17), Satire (The Apartment, One, Two, Three), even a Courtroom Drama (Witness for The Prosecution). A prolific and extremely versatile film maker, Wilder is perhaps best known for his Noirs and Romantic Comedies (talk about versatility!) Even in such a diverse career, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes somehow stands out – not that it’s one of his masterpieces – far from it. As a matter of fact, as Wikipedia mentions, it was originally intended to be a roadshow attraction, with limited release in bigger cities. Why it stands out is that the film takes a well established myth, breaks it down to the basics, laughs at it, yet somehow retains the aura and dignity of the original work.
The film opens with the shot of a box in a bank vault with John H. Watson, M.D. engraved on it. It is intended to be opened only half-a-century after Watson’s death. They supposedly contain stories which he, ‘for reasons of discretion’, has withhold from the public. With that, Watson’s voice-over takes us to the beginning of one such ‘untold’ adventure. The very first conversation of the duo is one of the high points of the film, where Holmes accuses Watson of fabricating and romanticizing his exploits, and exaggerated his skills and abilities. After a hilarious encounter at a Russian Ballet, where the Ballerina propositions Holmes and he refuses suggesting (get this) that he and Watson are romantically involved (!), we meet a mysterious woman who’s suffering from amnesia, and is looking for her missing husband. Thus begins another Sherlock Holmes adventure, only this time gift-wrapped by Wilder, with his customary wit and dry humour thrown in.Mycroft makes an appearance too. Lestrade is sorely missed though.
August 03, 2010. Landmark, Andheri. There he was, in his full glory, beard and all, looking almost a saint. The Messiah of New Age film making. The man who wrote Satya (1998), Shool (1999), Kaun (1999), and directed Paanch (2003), Black Friday (2004), No Smoking (2007), Dev D (2009) and Gulaal (2009). Anurag Kashyap. In person. Flesh and blood. Standing merely a few feet away from me, browsing through the seemingly endless array of DVDs at Landmark. I went numb, blood rushing to my face and all that sort of thing. I mean, how often do you get to meet, in person, someone who you’ve admired, inspired by, and been deeply in awe of?
To me, right up there with Satyajit Ray, Naseeruddin Shah and the Big B himself, Anurag has always been an inspiration. A small town underdog who comes to Mumbai to become a film maker, and in time becomes one of the most respected auteurs of his generation! Whoever has read his blog posts and writings and rantings will understand what I mean when I say to a lot of us, he is nearly Howard Roark. Ayn Rand’s ideals of Objectivism and Individualism somehow seem to converge in his thoughts & writings (In Defence of the ‘I’, Who the fuck I think I am?). Today, his films premier at Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, his protege Vikramaditya Motwane (who’s an excellent film maker in his own right) rubs shoulders with none other than Jean Luc Godard himself at Cannes, and in 2009 he was part of the Jury at Venice Film Festival. To think that when he came to the city, he practically lived on the streets and did group theater for a meager pay.. but all this while, that unnamed thing, call it passion, call it ‘fire in the belly’ – he kept it alive. This evening, at Landmark, Infinity Mall, I saw a glimpse of that fire. It’s still alive. And kicking.
Having explained all the nervousness, numbness and sweating palms, let me tell you that I did finally somehow limp up to him and say, “Sir, I am a great admirer of yours, and right now, I am speechless – don’t know what to say” or something to that effect. He smiled those zillion watts (see pic above) and shook hands. The next thing I know, we were discussing That Girl in Yellow Boots, his newest baby. I’ve seen some of the clips, and they pack quite a lot of punch. He also spoke about the Doga standstill. He said he has a script on Bahadur(Indrajal Comics, remember?) – imagine! But as ususal, the high and the mighty (read losers) are just not interested. And he also spoke about Paanch – he seems to have kept it behind him and moved on – such a pity… I mean, torrents etc. are all fine, but don’t the people have a right to get to watch it in theaters?
The man just loves books… he kept picking stuff from shelfs and recommending them to me saying ‘check this out, it’s simply awesome’, ‘ don’t you read some great stuff, or what?’ He has a special affinity for pulp fiction and crime (Read Bloody Murderers of Cult, highly recommended to anyone even remotely interested in Crime Fiction) , and he handed me two gems: Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie, and a highly acclaimed Graphic Novel called 100 Bullets. I’ll treasure them. And this evening too.
It was truly an honour and a privilege. I thank you, sir, Mr. Kashyap…
For the rest of us, check this out – one of the best Rock numbers ever done for a hindi film:
Above is a shot from Chashme Buddoor (1981). I draw your attention to the guy in the middle – yes, the one with all the bandages on him. Inevitably evokes laughter, doesn’t he? What if I were to tell you this person passed away yesterday?
Ravi Baswani died yesterday, July 27, 2010. He was returning from scouting locations in Nanital for his directorial debut film. When I read of his demise in the papers, my first reaction was more of shock than sorrow. For those of us who grew in the 80s and 90s, his was one of the faces that essentially represented fun, laughter and everything else that comprised ‘comedy’ for us. To associate that face with the morbid idea of death is inconceivable. Only the other day, I’d spotted him in a soft drink ad, co-starring South heartthrob Asin Thottumkal!
So many memories came rushing back. In the early 80s, Baswani was a regular in an immensely entertaining DD Serial named Idhar Udhar, sharing screen space with the likes of Ratna Pathak-Shah and Supriya Pathak. He also starred in a popular adolescent romance-themed series on Sony entitled Just Mohabbat. But of course, the two pillars of Indian entertainment history everyone remembers him for are Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) and Chashme Buddoor. One could go delirious with laughter at his wafer-thin features and queer gait in Chashme..In Jaane Bhi Do, his unforgettable turn as Bhimsen with the inverted Gada is funny even the zillionth time you watch it! Ravi Baswani also represented the innocence of those times… an era ends with his passing on. Sad.
But then, had he been here now, he’d probably shoo all that serious talk with a wave of his hand and say, “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro…”!
No, this isn’t the Akshay Kumar starrer Priyadarshan behemoth. This is the Basu Chatterjee directed true-to-its-name sweet and sour 1978 cult classic.
Supposedly inspired from the Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball starrer Yours, Mine and Ours (1968), Khatta Meetha is the story of Homi Mistry and his four sons ,and Nargis Sethna and her three children. Both Homi and Nargis are alone, in the twilight of their lives, but still burdened by their growing, irresponsible children, who know no better than to completely depend on their respective parent, thereby making their lives miserable. At the insistence of a common friend, the two of them decide to remarry. Each other. And that’s when the fun begins.
Khatta Meetha belongs to a series of ‘feel good’ films on the now-almost-extinct Indian middle class, their hopes and aspirations, by the two stalwarts – Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee. It also represented a rare attempt of depicting the Parsee community, in the league of films like Percy (1989), Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980), Pestonjee (1988), and the more recent Being Cyrus (2005) and Little Zizou (2008).
Ashok Kumar, that institution of Hindi Cinema, sparkles in his extremely restrained but equally powerful performance as Homi Mistry. A high point of his role in the film is the face off with his son’s Father-in-law (Pradeep Kumar, who else) towards the end. His real life daughter, Preeti Ganguly gave the performance of a life time as Freni, Nargis’ neurotic daughter, who has serious relationship issues. Theater veteran Pearl Padamsee debuts as Nargis with this film.
Another strength of the film is its music. It’s so amazing that the music director (Rajesh Roshan) here is the same guy who did stuff like Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai (2000) and Koyla (1997). Here’s a gem from the film:
Today, July 20, happens to be Naseeruddin Shah’s birthday. Arguably the first ‘thinking man’s actor’ in the country, Naseer turns 60 today. Along with Amol Palekar, Farooq Sheikh and Om Puri, he was the face of the ‘New Wave’ in Indian cinema of the 70s-80s. Memorable roles include right from his debut in Nishant (1975), to his dazzling performance as the blind teacher in Sparsh (1979), unforgettable, endearing acts in Bazaar (1982), Mandi (1983), Katha (1983), Umrao Jaan (1981), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980), Masoom (1983), Paar (1984), Ijaazat (1986)…the list goes on and on. Thank you Mr. Shah for those gems.
…And happy birthday!
Christopher Nolan’s newest offering, Inception has been able to supersede the benchmark set by his earlier The Dark Knight, and then some more. More than any other film of his, Inception is a successor to Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige. Exploring the dark recesses of the mind has always been an obsession for Nolan. In his very first film (Following), we met a thief named Cobb whose purported objective of stealing was to make his victims realize the value of their possessions. He was hiding a few dark secrets. Twelve years and five films later, we come across another Cobb in Nolan’s work – a thief again – only this one steals dreams! This Cobb too, has some secrets of his own. He is hired by a Japanese tycoon, Saito, for infiltrating his enemy’s dreams, and plant a thought – the process referred to here as “inception”. Thus begins one of the most fascinating journeys into the human psyche ever filmed, since Alex Proyas’ Dark City. It’s a shrinks’ fantasy: dreams with elaborate architecture (strong references to Dark City and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), mazes, projections, and most interesting of all, several layers – each with its unique set of architecture and look and feel.
Through much of his work, Christopher Nolan has always challenged the viewer – open endings, ambiguous character motivations, and that ubiquitous tool in all his films (barring Insomnia and Dark Knight) of non-linear chronology – all have this annoying impact of confounding and perplexing the viewer, and thereby the film lingers…Inception succeeds in this immensely – like the protagonist, it effortlessly traverses between dreams, reality, and the gray area in-between; I think it’s in that category of films where with every repeat viewing, a new interpretation emerges. One thing’s for sure….you can’t go home with ALL the answers!
Leonardo DiCaprio’s been proving time and again that he has come a long long way since his Titanic days (a film he’s still identified with, at least in India) – and in Inception, he shows us why the likes of Martin Scorsese have passed the baton of Robert Deniro to him. The rest of the cast do a great job as well – special mention can be made of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard.
Ray devised an innovative way to work around Apu’s stiffness and awkward gait. Like much of his journey into making the film, this also is a lesson for wannabe filmmakers:
I had learnt a lesson. All my preparations over the years… all these had finally produced was this one shot of which it was difficult to imagine anything more lifeless and futile. I must say, though, that it didn’t take me long to decide that the thing could be rectified. I had simply had no idea that it was so difficult to make a single action like a boy’s walk appear convincing to the eye. What I now did was to provide mechanical aids to the boy. I planted Anil, Bansi and Ashish behind clumps of kaash in various positions at varying distances from each other. They were asked to call out ‘Subir’ (Apu’s real name) at certain intervals and Subir was to react to each call by turning his head in the direction it came from, though never stopping his walk. Then I put twigs on the path at irregular intervals for him to step across.
The trick had its desired effect, and the shot was okayed. After shooting some more, they had sufficient funds left to shoot the following two weekends. But, as luck would have it, when Ray and his team went back the next Sunday, he was shocked to find that all the kaash flowers were gone, the fields were full of ‘uninspiring brownish grass’. Inquiring with a local revealed that a herd of cattle had come to graze and had cleaned it all off! For a short while, Ray considered dropping the scene with the flowers – but the unflinching genius in him refused to compromise. Hence, it was decided to suspend shooting for the time being and concentrate on rest of the casting and locations.
The village that was picked to represent Nishchindipur (the village in the novel), was a few miles from Calcutta, a place called Boral. Part of the village looked like a small town and did not serve the purpose. But the flora and fauna of the place made it suitable for the film. The team zeroed in one house that was similar to that in the book – it was a run-down, dilapidated old place that needed renovation. Ray met the owner, a certain Mr. Ghoshal, who stayed in Calcutta, and rented the house for Rs. 50 a month, on condition that they renovate the house and make it usable.
Art director Bansi Chandragupta swung into action and started constructing what was the most elaborate on-location set at that point of time in India. His experience of working with Jean Renoir in The River was of immense help. Bansi says,
I made additions like exterior walls, doors, a kitchen… In reconstructing, we rejected all former methods and materials of set-building here. During work on The River, there had been a lot of experiment with materials to gain interesting textural effects… As the property must look old and used, I made use of plaster and brick. The reconstruction work was mainly done by plastering over bamboo mats. The use of plaster was something entirely new in Indian film production. It was chosen because plaster makes a very flexible material.
Meanwhile, Ray was on the lookout for someone who could play the old Aunt, Indir. He came across some old actresses, but they, although in the right age group, were too senile to respond to his direction. And then he heard of Chunibala Devi. Chunibala was well in her eighties, a theatre actress of repute from an era when acting on stage by women was considered low brow and improper, almost akin to prostitution in some cases. As it turned out, even at eighty-plus, Chunibala was in ‘full possession of her senses’. She was hired for Rs. 20 per day (she had asked for 10).
All this while, financing for the film was a constant worry. With nowhere to turn to, Ray & Co. decided to approach Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal. Dr. Roy was a stalwart and a giant in the Indian political arena of the time. He was an ace physician as well, who had the honour of having Mahatma Gandhi as his patient. Satyajit’s mother had a friend who was close to Dr. Roy. In a few days, he was called to the Chief Minister’s office. Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, on hearing Satyajit Ray’s narration of the story, decided that the film had to be financed under the “Community Development Project” of the Government of West Bengal. Ray nodded in silence.
The money was to be given by way of installments. With the first one being paid, the crew returned to shooting with renewed vigour and excitement. Countless memorable incidents occurred during shooting in this period. On one such occasion, Ray actually ‘needed’ somewhat heavy rainfall to happen, as he was shooting Durga’s dance ion the rain. Obviously, perfectionist as he was, he looked forward to ‘real’ rain rather than resorting to mechanical alternatives. Problem was, the rainy season in Bengal had passed.
…the real rainy season was over. It meant that we had to go daily to the location with the children, praying for an off-season downpour… It took us three days to take the shots of the natural phenomena which took place in the vicinity in which we sat and waited. Shots of water lilies, dragonflies dancing over the foliage in a pond, banana leaves and lotus leaves swaying in a breeze, all these eventually found a place in scenes which were not in the book nor in my script… Eventually, it did rain heavily for over an hour in the middle of autumn in October. The scene was in the can and had come out very well.
In 1954, Monroe Wheeler from the New York Museum of Modern Art arrived in Calcutta. On seeing parts of the film, Monroe wanted it to be a part of an exhibition he was planning the following year. With little time left, it was a desperate race to complete the film on schedule.
In the following months, master director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre) came to India, scouting locations for his film on Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”. A certain Mr. Gupta of JWT who was handling the PR, mentioned to Huston about this curious film being made by a commercial artist. Huston wished to see the film. On seeing the footage, he was genuinely impressed at the originality of voice. Huston offered whatever help he could offer, in any shape or form.
Meanwhile, shooting continued at a frantic pace. Ray turned his attention to background music – as composer, the first person he could think of was Sitar Maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. Ravi Shankar arrived from Delhi for two days, of which he could afford only one day for composing the soundtrack. A screening was arranged in the afternoon – it took full eleven hours to complete the recordings!
Shooting of the film and the music taken care of, the only major aspect yet to be done was the editing. The final sound mixing and editing took ten days:
I had always believed that a third of a man’s life is given to sleep, if eight hours sleep was considered the optimum. The final editing of Pather Panchali, followed by the mixing of the sound track, took ten days and nights in which I didn’t sleep at all, while my editor Dulal Dutta fell asleep for half an hour, lying on the floor of the cutting room, flat on his back, with yards of cuttings strewn all around him. As I attempted to wake him up with a faint nudge, he moaned, “No more, not any more please.” But he did wake up with a Herculean effort and resumed working. The other members of the crew including my assistants and assistants to the editor, would take short snoozes lying on the floor, or on a table or in a couple of armless chairs placed side by side.
The first print of Pather Panchali came out late night. The next morning, without even a final look at the print, it was rushed to the Pan Am office to be shipped to the US.
Ray, it is said, fell asleep while talking to the receptionist at the Pan Am Office.
[This series of articles have heavily drawn from Satyajit Ray’s “My Years with Apu” and “Satyajit Ray: Portrait of a Director” By Marie Seton]
It’s a well known fact that Ray was a master film maker who was revered, practically worshipped, in the west – especially Hollywood (list of his admirers include Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, James Ivory, Elia Kazan, Danny Boyle, Wes Anderson…). What’s little known is the fact that this man (arguably) had a hand in the making of one of the most popular Sci-fi epics ever- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial ! Ray had conceived this idea about a friendly alien befriending a young boy, when he wrote the short story Bankubabur Bondhu. Later, when he described the story to Arthur C. Clarke on a visit to London, he was impressed and mentioned it to his producer friend Mike Wilson. One thing led to another and very soon, Columbia Pictures were on board, co-producing a major film on the story, now termed “The Alien”, starring Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando! But as fate would have it, Ray found the Hollywood marketplace a tad too expensive for his tastes, and finally dropped the idea. Come 1982, and ET was released all over the world with much fanfare. Ray and many others were shocked to observe the not-too-subtle similarities between E.T. and Ray’s original script! Ray says about this,
E.T. would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.
Okay, back to our post now: after much battles and many setbacks with funds for his film, Ray decided to concentrate on casting and come back to the finances later. He was determined to not to employ professional actors, a la Bicycle Thieves. For the part of the mother, he had in mind a friend’s wife, Karuna Bannerje,who was very much an urbane socialite, but Ray saw it in her to be able to play Sarbajaya, the mother. For the boy Apu’s part, Ray kept looking in vain (including putting ads in the paper when one gentleman brought his daughter with her hair cut short), until his wife one day came across the young Subir Bannerjee playing next door with his brother. Apu had been found. Similarly Durga (the daughter) was discovered in the form of Uma Dasgupta, in front of her school. Let the master take over here:
We made enquiries and it turned out that the girl’s father was an ex-footballer. He had heard of my reputation as a book designer and desired to see me at his house on a Sunday morning. I turned up, chatted with the parents, had a cup of tea and selected their youngest daughter Uma Dasgupta on the spot to play Durga, when and if the film was made. I had taken my Leica with me and took her up to the roof to take some pictures. Since she seemed to be a bit demure, and Durga was a tomboy, I asked her to make faces for the camera. She obliged me with a total lack of inhibition.
So the primary cast was in place. But finances were still an issue. Ray decided to raise the money by getting a loan against his insurance policy – he got Rs. 7000. That, in addition to some help from friends, came up to Rs. 17000. With that amount Ray and team decided to start rolling. The sequence they decided to shoot first was that of the children seeing the train for the first time, which he had pictured in a field of white Kans grass (Kash Flowers in Bengali). They detected such a place, and set out for the location one fine morning.
The first shot was to have that of Apu looking for his sister. Soon as Ray uttered ‘action’, this is what happened:
What this produced was a stiff zombie-like walk from Apu which had no relationship with the kind of walk called for. I had told him that he was to walk, stop, turn his head this way and that, start looking for his sister and then walk again. This had no effect on the walk that now took place to greet my eyes and which the camera photographed using expensive raw stock. ‘Say “cut” if you are not happy,’ urged Bansi. I did so with considerable force’
Satyajit Ray, as a rule, visited the movies every Saturday afternoon. In this he was accompanied by a handful of like-minded ‘film-buffs’ he met and befriended. One of them was Bansi Chandragupta, who was destined to be Ray’s Art Director [a relationship that went on to collaborate on the most remarkable of Ray’s works upto Pratidwandi/The Adversary (1970), after which they parted ways, only to be re-united once, for Shatranj Ke Khilari/The Chess Players(1977); in addition to Ray’s cinema, Bansi also worked on such pathbreaking films as Kalyug (dir Shyam Benegal),Chakra (dir Rabindra Dharmaraj), Umrao Jaan (dir Muzaffar Ali), Tarang (dir Kumar Shahani), 36 Chowringhee Lane(dir Aparna Sen), 27 Down (dir Awtar Krishna Kaul)]. He was a Kashmiri painter who shared Ray’s passion for films and the concern about rampant mediocrity in Indian film-making. Another prominent name in the crowd was that ofChidananda Dasgupta. He was from Hazaribagh, where none of the theaters showed foreign films. He was yet to see Chaplin. He went on to become one of the renowned Bengali intellectuals, social commentator, film-critic, author & film maker. One of his greatest contributions to Indian cinema goes by the name of Aparna Sen, his daughter. These cinema fanatics and a few more who shared the passion, founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1948. They held regular private 16 mm screenings in their houses – the very first run being that of Sergei Eisenstein’s Classic Battleship Potemkin, with a print borrowed from the British Film Institute
In 1950, when Ray came back to India, an International Film Fest, first of its kind in the country was held. Films likeAkira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, de Sica’s Miracle in Milan and Roberto Rosselini’s Open City were screened.
At the end of the festival, Ray was even more resolute to embark on a career in film making.
For Pather Panchali, Ray never had a fully developed script/screenplay. The structure that he had in mind closely corresponded to the abridged version of the story. To facilitate adaptation, he did away with a lot of characters and made some not-so-insignificant changes to the basic storyline as part of his treatment. The way Ray visualised it, Pather Panchali was to have a different look than the run-of-the-mill Indian film. This made him do something that was to characterize the scripts of all his films – he drew detailed, elaborate sketches that would lay down the story in sequence: The Storyboard.
Ray realised he had to get the filming rights of the novel now. To his shock, Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee, the author of Pather Panchali passed away almost immediately after Ray’s return to the country. He met the widow of the deceased author. Mrs. Rama Bannerjee was an ardent admirer of Ray’s illustrious father and grandfather, and wasted no time in giving him a go-ahead. Once the rights were taken care of, the next problem Ray had to face was immeasurably more difficult and trickier: to look for a producer. This is what happened on his first attempt:
The first person I approached was Mr. B.N. Sirkar, a sort of Bengali Louis B. Mayer, a true producer in the Hollywood sense. He owned a studio and a lab, New Theatres, and had on his payroll most of the leading actors and directors of Bengali cinema. Mr. Sirkar’s halycon days were past, but he was still a man to be reckoned with. I went to see him in his office with my sketchbook. A perfect gentleman, Mr. Sirkar received me cordially, gave full attention to what I had to say, then he said he was extremely sorry, but he had just launched a big production and wasn’t in a position to help me in any way. Then he clapped my shoulders affectionaterly and asked me to come back after six months – the next time, of course, he would try to help me.
Next Ray approached almost all the ‘top producers’ of the Bengali film industry. Powerful as his presence was, everyone admitted that it was wonderful the way he narrated it, but being an ‘inexperienced director’, he would not realize ‘even fifty percent of the idea’.
One of the producers approached was ‘one Mr. Bhattacharya’ (as Ray likes to refer to him) of Kalpana Movies. He listened to Ray, had a look at the sketches and said he was ineterested. He asked for ten days time so that he could make his mind. Ray gleefully obliged. In three days, Bibhutibhushan’s brother in law Chandidas Chatterji informed him that ‘one Mr. Bhattacharya’ from Kalpana Movies had met Mrs. Bannerjee ‘to negotiate for the film rights of Pather Panchali to be directed by veteran director Debaki Bose. Mrs. Bannerjee, of course, rejected the offer and made it clear that she would not consider any alternatives other than Satyajit Ray. So ‘one Mr. Bhattacharya’ was thus discarded.
This was followed by another interview with….no, let’s have it from The Master Himself:
This second disappointment was followed by a third one when a diabetic producer came to my house to listen to my treatment and interrupted my recital three times to visit the toilet. He liked the treatment but lacked the sense to sponsor something that was so drastically offbeat.
Among this gloom, the only silver lining was that he already had the most passionate unit/crew in place: Bansi Chandragupta as Art Director (who had already worked on Renoir’s The River), Subrata Mitra, who had, by Renoir’s permission and Ray’s mentoring, observed Claude Renoir’s camera work on The River, as Cameraman, Dulal Duttaas Editor, Shanti Chatterji as Assistant, and Anil Choudhury as Production Manager.
This post is born out of Manjeet’s article wherein he dwells in brief on obstacles faced by the legendary Satyajit Ray in completing Pather Panchali. Well, how this excellent story by Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee made its way onto the celluloid is an engrossing, fascinating tale in itself. Here goes….
As most of us know, Ray started off as an Advertising professional. In June, 1943, he joined D.J. Keymer & Co. as a Junior Visualiser at a salary of Rs.65 plus a Dearness Allowance of Rs.15. He found a mentor in one D.K. Gupta, a manager with the agency. DK, (as most in the agency affectionately called Mr. Gupta) apart from his regular day job of advertising, was really interested in book production, which made him set up a publishing concern of his own, and he called it Signet Press
Now, Ray was an artist in his own right even back then, being an alumnus of Santiniketan, where he learned painting/sketching under the tutelage of icons like Binode Behari Mukherjee and Nandalal Bose. Given his flair for designing, DK soon roped him in to design the cover jackets to the books published by Signet Press.
In 1944, DK resolved to bring out an abridged version of Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee’s acclaimed classic “Pather Panchali”, targeted towards young readers. It was termed Aam Atir Bhepu, roughly translated as ‘the mango seed bugle’. In Ray’s own words:
I had not read the original novel. In fact, in my preoccupation with music and films, my reading was largely restricted to books on these two subjects and to light English fiction. To be quite frank, I was even unfamiliar with the bulk of Tagore’s writings. DK discovered this lacuna and castigated me. Then he gave me the original book of Pather Panchali to read, because, he warned me, ‘you will have to illustrate the abridged version!’
Ray was filled with admiration for the book at his very first reading. He believed it to be ‘a masterpiece and a sort of encyclopedia of life in rural Bengal’. He went on to read the abridged version, which covered about a third of the original novel. DK, an ex-editor of a Bengali film magazine for some years prior to his advertising career, commented that this abridged book would make a very good film. Ray paid little attention to the idea and went on with the illustrations, but that was when the seeds for “The Song of The Little Road” were sown.
One of the most significant event in the would-be film maestro’s life happened in 1949, when he met up Jean Renoir. Renoir was in Calcutta to look for actors and locations for his film The River . A classified ad in The Statesman saying that Renoir had put up in the Great Eastern Hotel and would be interviewing for actors in his new film attracted his attention. Ray rushed to the hotel, met Renoir and introduced himself as one of his ardent admirers (Ray especially liked Renoir’s The Southerner). They got talking and Renoir was astonished that an Indian was so conversant about his works. One thing led to another and Renoir asked Ray if he was interested in making films and Ray ‘found himself’ replying in the affirmative. Ray says:
‘Have you found a subject?’-he asked. I gave him a brief outline of Pather Panchali, the idea of making a film of which had in the meantime taken hold of me. As I drove through the countryside with Renoir, it had been occupying my mind – not the entire novel, but the abridged version, which seemed to correspond more to a film script. Renoir encouraged me. I had taken him to see a few Bengali films and he had requested me not to borrow from American films. ‘You can turn aside from the Hollywood world.’
Renoir went back to Hollywood, leaving behind Ray, now quite resolved to make a film of his own. Ray started writing scripts ‘just for the fun of it’. He would take a short story/novel that had been announced as being under production, write a script on it and then compare it with the final treatment when the film came out. At this point he decided to make a film on Tagore’s Home and the World, which fell through pretty soon due to some differences of opinion, and thank god for it, because years later in 1984, he would make The Home and the World, which, as acknowledged by him, was a much better and matured work.
Renoir came back to Calcutta in 1950 to shoot The River and Ray’s friend Bansi Chandragupta was roped in as Art Director for the same, while another friend, Harisadhan Das Gupta was taken in as Assistant Director. Ray got to read the script this time. Meanwhile, he had been promoted as Art Director in D.J. Keymer, and the company sent him to London and Europe for six months. Ray was beside himself with delight. Now he could see films that had not come to India. Ray saw ninety-nine films in four and a half months, (a record by the standards of the craziest cine-fanatic even today….any takers?) and a few more in Paris (Phew!)!
As Ray told Marie Seton, “I was just lapping up films! I saw half a dozen Italian films, including Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette). It was a tremendous experience. But I was disappointed with Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro). It was no more than hack melodrama.” For similar reasons, he disliked La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life). But Bicycle Thieves had impacted him immeasurably. In his own words:
The real impact came, however, from Bicycle Thieves. Opportunely I had found a wonderful film, moving beyond words, but wonder of wonders, de Sica was doing just the things I wanted to do in my own film and succeeding beyond measure. Who said you couldn’t use non-actors? Who said you couldn’t shoot in the rains? Who said you had to use make-up? And who said sickness was a criteria? I had heard that Bicycle Thieves had been shot with poor quality negative stock, as better material was unavailable in postwar Italy. And yet the flow of the narrative was so smooth, the editing so dextrous that the quality of the stock didn’t matter at all. In fact, perhaps the grainyness enhanced the picture of poverty de Sica so sensitively painted.
On the way back home, on board the Chusan, Ray completed his treatment of Pather Panchali
……to be concluded. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this: Ray Archives
P.S. I have drawn heavily from My Years with Apu: A Memoir by The Master himself, and Portrait of A Director: Satyajit Ray by Marie Seton