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‘Ray could work miracles with limited resources’

Somendu Roy. Photo: Bhaswaran Bhattacharya  

Cinematographer Somendu Roy is now 83. Age might have restricted his movement but his memory has not rusted, especially when the subject is Satyajit Ray; on this, his enthusiasm has no limits. “Manik da is always fresh in my mind. I cannot believe that he is no longer with us. As long as I remain alive, I will feel his presence in my mind,” says Roy. Excerpts from an interview.

Sixty long years have passed before your eyes since Pather Panchali was released. You must be in the grip of nostalgia.

Yes, I am. So many moments surge in my mind. Barely 22 then, my initial responsibility was to set the camera in position. Besides, I handled the Mitchell camera for masking. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to work with all-time greats like Banshi Chandragupta, Subrata Mitra and, of course, Manik da himself. It was like a breath of fresh air — a departure from the process of stereotyped filmmaking.

One incident will perhaps reveal how we had to struggle to make Pather Panchali. Manik da chose a location near a railway track at Palsit in Burdwan district, West Bengal, to shoot the sequence of two children — Apu and Durga — running through the meadow, which was full of Kaash (catkins) in autumn, to watch a train chugging away, spewing a tangle of smoke. To reach the location, we had to cut across a railway track. But by the time we were near the spot, the gate to the level-crossing had closed to let a train pass. Had we let it go, we would have had to wait for long for the next train, which would have meant shooting in insufficient normal light.

So, to save time and use the available normal daylight, one of us in the group carried the Mitchell camera, as heavy as a boulder, on his shoulder while I hurriedly carried the 24 volts battery on my head across the level-crossing. Finally, we took the shot. Remember, those days we couldn’t even dream of a battery-operated portable camera for shooting.

While in the novel Indir Thakrun breathed her last on the steps of Natmandir, in the film, however, the death happened amidst a bamboo grove. Why?

Manik da perhaps wanted the shot to be taken in an ambience that defined gloom and eerie silence to heighten the macabre of death before the eyes of two children who had no previous experience of how one dies gasping for air.

How did you shoot the sequence of Apu and Durga saving their bodies from the lashing rain by taking shelter under a tree? I heard you had to wait for days together for the sky to pour…

Yes, that’s another story. As you know, when Pather Panchali was being shot, Manik da was working for an advertising agency in Kolkata. So when the shot was taken he couldn’t be present at the location. He left instructions with Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer, on where the camera would be set and other relevant technical details regarding camera movement, etc. Uma Dasgupta (Sen), who played Durga, was mature enough to follow the instructions but Subir Bannerjee, a.k.a. Apu, who was younger than her, would need extra attention. Ultimately, the shot was taken and the rest, as you know, was history. We really enjoyed taking the shot.

How did Satyajit train those two children for the shot of their roaming across the field before they caught sight of the train? Their movement was so natural, as if two children were really lifted from the pages of the story by Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay.

It was perhaps possible only because of Satyajit Ray. He could study children’s behaviour so flawlessly you know… he could become their friend very easily and thus bring out the best in them. You must have noticed how the boy was calling out to Durga whom he had lost sight of; he moved a few steps ahead and then stopped for a short while, jumped over some ditches; looked around the field and then continued his search for his sister.

Manik da asked us — Anil da, Bhanu (Ghosh) da, Banshi da, Ashish — to stand behind the clumps of Kaash at different positions at varying distances from each other. Subir (Apu) reacted to each call, turning his head in the direction it echoed from without stopping his movement. On screen, the boy appeared to be looking for his sister, as if in real life. But all that happened — the ‘reel’ and the real life became all the same — was due to Manik da’s brilliance as a maker of the film.

How was the sequence of Durga on her death-bed shot, a magnificent example of panning of the camera, especially when light was so inadequate?

Yes, this was brilliant photography by Subrata Mitra under the direction of Satyajit Ray. I don’t think it would be possible for anyone other than the duo to take the shot which made viewers burst into tears. Manik da wanted to capture the mood to establish the imminence of the death of the little girl. The ailing Durga is on her bed, awaiting death with all its ferocity. The camera panned from outside to focus on Durga’s face, but poor light stood in the way of a perfect shot. Suddenly, we found the Master had a searchlight used by the police. As we turned on the searchlight, it solved the problem and the shot could be taken perfectly. See, that was the greatness of Satyajit Ray. He could work miracles with whatever limited resources he had.

Can you please elucidate further on Ray’s treatment for the sequence of Durga’s death…

Those shots were taken at Technician’s Studio. As far as I remember, Manik da had taken several shots like that of raging nature, raindrops finding their way through a straw thatched roof, a lamp being blown out by gusty wind… all these were woven together to create the ultimate effect.

Before you joined Ray’s unit, you were present on the set of The River by Renoir as an observer, so you had some exposure to film-making and had some fundamental knowledge of lighting arrangements…

Whatever little I had learnt from my previous experience changed as soon as I joined the Master. Initially, I knew that bright sunlight was necessary for outdoor shooting, but while working for Panchali, we shot in rain and storm even when the sky was overcast. To my utter surprise each sequence was shot magnificently. Look, those days there was no film institute to learn basics of film-making, so whatever I learnt was from those three stalwarts — Satyajit Ray, Banshi Chandragupta and Subrata Mitra.

We’ve heard that Chunibala did not get up even after the shot of Indir’s death was taken, leaving Satyajit nervous… And when everyone was taken aback, she got up at last to ask whether the shot had been taken or not.

Yes, we got a taste of her class as an actor that day. Even Manik da was mesmerised by her dedication. I cannot help but remember yet another incident. Manik da, always being sensitive towards his artists’ sentiment, decided to use a dummy instead of Chunibala herself, who was to be shown being carried in the funeral procession. The lady, however, remarked, “Roy Mosai, my days are numbered, it would not be a bad idea to take the last ride on your shoulder…”

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 7:31:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/partha-mukherjee-interviews-somendu-roy/article7664899.ece

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