I was reading Satyajit Ray's ‘The Mystery of Nayan,' and was pleased when detective Feluda and his entourage arrived in Madras. It is so gratifying to read a story in which the action is set in one's hometown.
Then I drew my breath sharply in surprise. Ray wrote, “It had been decided that we'd go to the Snake Park today. An American called Whitaker had created it and, by all accounts, it was certainly worth a visit.”
Encountering one's partner in a work of fiction written by no less than Satyajit Ray has to rate as super cool.
As a young film student, I had idolised Ray. Naturally. I studied his shots and storyboards, his use of music and art direction. But his Feluda adventure series had long been inaccessible as he wrote in Bengali. Recently, our auditor-friend Vishwanathan handed me a two-volume anthology ‘The Complete Adventures of Feluda' published in English. He had no idea Rom was featured in one of the stories.
A couple of pages later, I read, “We didn't spend very long in the Snake Park, but even a short visit showed us what a unique place it was. It seemed incredible that a single individual had planned the whole thing. I saw every species of snake that I had read about, and many that I didn't know existed. The Park itself was beautifully designed, so walking in it was a pleasure.”
My initial excitement gave way to disappointment. Neither Rom nor Snake Park played a defining role in the chain of dramatic events in the story. Surely Ray could have found many ways of getting either Feluda or the villain, a magician, in a jam with the numerous reptilian residents of the Park.
I asked Rom about Ray's visit. “It was in the early 1980s I think. His fascination for snakes was obvious. As I showed him around, he kept saying what beautiful and graceful animals they were. He said he wanted to make a film with snakes and I said I'd be happy to help him. But nothing ever came of it.”
Satyajit Ray had worked with a snake nearly three decades earlier in his most famous film, ‘Pather Panchali.' Towards the end of the movie, a black snake crawls into the hut of the main character, the young Apu. The shot held foreboding menace, and then when Ray cut to the tragedy-stricken family leaving in a bullock cart, it was clear none of them would return.
A few years prior to making his masterpiece, Ray assisted the French filmmaker Jean Renoir in the film ‘The River'. In it, a little English boy growing up in Bengal tries to “charm” cobras by playing a flute and dies of snakebite. When the movie was released in 1951, Rom's family, half way across the world, was about to embark on a voyage to India. Though only seven years old, Rom was already catching snakes, and now his parents intended to set him loose in the Land of Snakes. His grandparents and aunts became extremely anxious on seeing their worst nightmare confirmed on screen. Eventually they grew accustomed to Rom's offbeat profession.
Although he had set up reptile conservation organisations, by the late 1980s Rom was earning a living from filmmaking. In the early 1990s, he teamed up with filmmakers Carol and Richard Foster to produce a film. That was the first wildlife documentary I worked on. During the interminable shoot, Richard revealed that he had played the boy who died of cobra bite in Renoir's movie. The story had come full circle.
Had I written a fictional screenplay of the influence this cast of personalities – Ray, Renoir, Richard, and Rom (even their names begin with R) – had on each other, my scriptwriting prof would have considered it bad form. I can hear him say, “The story has to follow an internal logic. Avoid resorting to so many coincidences.” But who is to tell life that?