Sunday, April 14, 2024

Meeting with director Jean Renoir

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French director Renoir came to Calcutta to locate the shooting of his film The River

French director Renoir came to Calcutta to locate the shooting of his film The River. Satyajit walked into the hotel where Renoir was staying and wanted to have a meeting. Meeting Hall, he soon became Renoir’s traveling companion on weekends in search of locations on the outskirts of Calcutta.

Seeing his enthusiasm and knowledge of cinema, Renoir asked him if he was thinking of becoming a filmmaker! To his surprise, Satyajit said yes and gave Renoir a brief outline of Pather Panchali, which he had recently painted.

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A few days later Satyajit married Vijaya in Bombay. After this, he performed the marriage ceremony in the Brahmo Samaj in Calcutta. Vijaya enjoyed his taste in films and music.

Renoir later returned to Calcutta once again to shoot the film. Renoir hired Ray’s friend Banshi Chandra Gupta as art director and Harisadan Das Gupta as assistant.

Satyajith also wanted to be a part of the unit, but he was then an art director at an advertising agency, D.J. He had to move to London to work at Keymer and the company’s head office.

‘Bicycle Thieves’ is a realistic movie, Roy’s belief was strong:
A business trip to London in 1950 was a turning point in Satyajit’s life. Roy took his wife to London by ship, a journey that took 16 days. He had a notebook with him, in which he kept some notes on the making of the film on Pather Panchali. He wanted the film to be shot on a real location, with new faces but no make-up. This reaction was negative from his friends. Shooting with unknown actors was considered a completely improbable idea. During his six-month stay abroad, Satyajit watched over a hundred films, including Vittorio De Sicca’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’. His conviction reaffirmed that it was possible to make realistic movies with an almost entirely amateur cast and shooting on real locations. On the way back to India by ship, he drew up or drew a diagram of all the strategies for constructing the road panchali.

A view of Panchali on the way

Path Panchali construction started:
He started searching for a producer in 1950, after returning home. With no filmmaking experience, Satyajit hired a group of young men to work as technicians. Cinematographer was Subrata Mitra; He was a steady photographer and had to oblige to take assignments. Anil Chowdhury became the production controller, Banshi Chandra Gupta became the art director.

Looking for financial backers, he approached Pather Panchali author Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee’s widow for the film rights. who knew Roy’s father and admired Roy’s work on his own films; Moreover, he gave verbal assurance. Despite better financial offers, Satyajit remained steadfast in his faith in Ray.

He had a small note-book, filled with sketches, dialogues, to explain ideas for films and to potential producers. This script was accompanied by another sketchbook that depicted key dramatic moments of the film. Producers greeted them with curiosity. Many of them were impressed to know everything, but none came forward to make the film. Later, Satyajit donated the script and sketches to the Cinematheque Francais in Paris.

At that time most films were made in studios so many advised against shooting on outdoor locations. Many said that rain sequences cannot be shot in real rain and require a well-equipped studio. At the first opportunity, Roy rushed to experiment with a 16mm camera in the monsoon rains.

Almost two years spent searching for a producer in vain. Meanwhile, an uncertain Roy began assembling the cast and scouting locations.

1952, Kash flower scene eaten by cattle:
Unable to find a producer, Satyajit decided that he would make a few sequences of Pather Panchali to make it believable that what he envisioned was true and possible. Realizing that he was not getting financial support, he took a loan against his insurance policy and borrowed money from a few relatives and friends. He decided to shoot only on Sunday due to work.

He set out to take the first shot on 27 October 1952. The scene was the famous ‘discovery of the train of Apu and his sister Durga in the fields of Kash Phule’. “A day’s work with the camera and the actors taught me more than reading a dozen books,” Ray later wrote.

When they return to shoot the following Sunday, they are horrified to discover that the flowers have been eaten by a herd of cattle. He had to be patient for the next season waiting for Kash Phul to complete the scene.

Casting and Location:
Meanwhile, efforts to find a backer and work on other production requirements and casting continued.

The cast was a mix of professional actors and a few with no prior acting experience. Only Subir Banerjee, who played Apu, Karuna Banerjee, who played Apu’s mother, and the other minor villagers, had no prior acting experience. The rest either acted in films or theatre.

Chunibala Devi, an 80-year-old retired theater actress, was cast to play the role of Indir Thakur. Boral, a small village on the outskirts of Kolkata, was the main shooting location.

Believing in realistic cinema:
During this time Bimal Roy created Do Bigha Zamin (two bigha land) in India; The film had few songs, mostly shot in outdoor locations. It was about the struggle of a peasant family. The film was in the tradition of neo-realist cinema with naturalistic acting (although using professional actors including Balraj Sahni who pioneered naturalistic acting in mainstream Indian films). The film won the Prix Internationale at the Cannes Festival, 1954 in France. Do Bigha Zameen and Kurosawa’s Rashomon in Japan reinforced Satyajit Roy’s belief in the kind of films he wanted to make.

Pather Panchali would be shot in sequence as Satyajith realized that he would learn as he went along with the actors. I had to discover for myself, “How to capture the stillness of the evening in a Bengali village when the wind drops and turns the ponds into sheets of glass, the shalukis and shawl leaves linger, and the smoke of the hearth settles. A chorus of crickets interspersed with brilliant walks over the landscape and conch shells from distant houses that mingled as the light fell, until all could see the stars in the sky and the stars twinkling in the bushes.”

Finally a producer agreed, in 1953:
He found producer Anna Dutt, who provided some funding with the promise of more after seeing the results and releasing his latest film. Satyajith took a month’s unpaid leave from his company to shoot a few more sequences.

Shooting continued in the village. Roy recalls this period as a great learning experience. He felt that the film was being made well. It didn’t take long for the funds to run out. The producer’s last film was a box-office disaster so he was unable to pay any more. However, since the shoot was already arranged, Roy’s wife Vijaya’s jewelery was deposited and the money was borrowed and the shoot continued for a few more days.

Roy returned to his company. The footage was later edited down to about 4000 feet. Roy approached several producers with the edited footage and was rejected by all. Roy’s production manager Anil Chowdhury for the help of the Chief Minister of West Bengal. B.C. Advised to go to Roy. The government agreed to finance it. Ray’s only child Sandeep was born on September 8, 1953.

After a break of about a year, shooting resumed in early 1954. Money will come in installments from the government. Before each installment, accounts had to be submitted and cleared by the government. It often took up to a month. Later, Satyajit described it as a miracle that during the making of the film, “ (1) Apu’s voice didn’t change, (2) Durga didn’t seem to grow up, because of the years of delay. (3) Indira Thackeray did not die, who was more than 80 years old.” In the fall of 1954, Monroe Wheeler, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), came to Calcutta to gather some Indian highlights for an exhibition. At one chance meeting, Satyajit showed him some stills of Panchali Path. Wheeler offered to hold the world premiere of Pather Panchali at MOMA. After about six months, he came back to India in search of a location for ‘The man who will be King’. Monroe asked Wheeler Roy to check on the film’s progress.

Satyajit Pandit Ravi Shankar, the famous sitar player, was requested to compose music for the film. Ravi Shankar, due to his tight schedule, managed to watch about half of the film and recorded the songs in about eleven hours of non-stop sessions. “It was a marathon session; we were tired but it left us happy. Because most of the music sounded wonderful”, Satyajit wrote years later in ‘My Years with Apu’. Due to time constraints, Ravi Shankar could not provide music for a few sequences. Subrata Mitra, Roy’s cinematographer, composed the music for the sweet seller as he went to sell his sweets. Mitra also played the sitar for a sequence. Roy and his editor worked ten consecutive days and nights in the final stages of post-production to meet the deadline at MOMA. Even before the first print of Pather Panchali was sent out, the entire Pather Panchali Self was published with joy and excitement at night. There was neither time nor money for subtitles. A few weeks after the scheduled screening at MOMA, a letter arrived in MOMA format to Roy, describing at length how well the film had been received by audiences.

Victory of Panchali on Satyajit Ray’s path:
A few months later, on August 26, 1955, Sambare Pather Panchali was finally released in Kolkata. Using his advertising experience, Roy designed five billboards with a full size 8ftx20ft. It features Apu and Durga running across a vast landscape of dark monsoon clouds and the only legend of Panchali on the way. The film did moderately well in the first two weeks. But by the third week, the film’s popularity peaked, cinema houses were packed. The cinema house, however, was booked for only six weeks. After that, the box office was successful for two months.

Satyajit and his team were honored on numerous occasions. Dr. B.C. Roy, who had seen the film earlier, organized a screening for Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was visiting Calcutta. Nehru was inspired by the film and ensured that Pather Panchali entered the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.

The screening took place in Cannes, France, on one of the overnight festival holidays. As a result, most of the jury members did not appear. At the insistence of a few film critics and Ray’s friends, Lindsay Anderson and Andre Bazin, another screening was held with all the jurors. The film immediately won the Special Jury Award for “Best Human Documentary”. Pather Panchali won more than a dozen awards at film festivals at home and abroad, including Best Actress for Chunnibala for her portrayal of Indi Thakur in Manila.

All these recognitions inspired him to make movies more deeply. He decided to quit advertising and pursue filmmaking as a full-time career. Thus began his long and illustrious filmmaking career. His first film Pather Panchali established Satyajit Ray as a world-class director.
Ray’s impressive creation gave away one film per year from 1956-1981.

The success of Pather Panchali gave Satyajit complete control over his subsequent films; Among his numerous works – as a writer, director, casting director, composer. Two sequels (Aparajito, 1956; Apur Sansar, 1959) based on the novel Pather Panchali completed the acclaimed ‘The Apu Trilogy’.

Aparajito, the second film, is about its young hero’s journey towards freedom from mother’s protection and love. The film won the Golden Lion at Venice.

What followed was a long career as a world-class filmmaker. Until 1984, he produced one full-length film each year.

His later films included – Parash Pathar 1958, Jalsagar 1958, Devi 1969, Tin Kanya 1961, Kanchenjunga 1962, Charulata 1962, Ekaki Stri 1964, Pratidbandi 1970, Shataranj Ki Khilari 1977, and Gharhe-Baire 1984.

Literary Life of Satyajit Ray:
From 1961 to 1992, Roy established himself as a writer of non-fiction, stories and novels. In 1961, Satyajit revived Sandesh, a children’s magazine founded by his grandfather, to which he had contributed illustrations and stories throughout his life.

Satyajit wrote numerous short stories, essays and novels in Bengali.

He made an important contribution to children’s literature in Bengal. Most of his fiction is written for teenage children. His detective stories and novels were especially popular with them. His stories were unconventional and entertaining.

A filmmaking career of nearly forty years, in the midst of a busy schedule of one film a year, was interrupted by his frail health in the mid-1980s. Roy’s return to screen adaptation was 1984’s Garhe-Bayre, based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore. During the shoot, he suffered two heart attacks and his son Sandeep Roy completed the project from his detailed instructions.

Illness kept Satyajit Ray away from active filmmaking for nearly four years. In 1989, he began filmmaking with Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as the basis for his Mass Enemy. This was followed with Shakha Prashakha 1990 and Agantuk 1991.

This series of three films was his last. Many film critics and film historians consider these films a marked departure from his earlier work.

In 1992, he accepted the Academy’s ‘Lifetime Achievement Oscar’ from his sickbed in Calcutta in a special live satellite-televised event and received India’s ultimate honour, the Bharat Ratna.

Satyajit Roy passed away on April 23, 1992.

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