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Simply Satyajit, in 60 colour frames

With a face that looked like it was chiselled out of granite, Satyajit Ray was a photographer’s delight. Nemai Ghosh, who was a Boswell to Ray, albeit replacing the pen with the camera, had been taking photographs of the great auteur for decades. Ghosh’s current exhibition at Nandan provides rare glimpses of Ray at work, on location, on the sets, in his study and in a sound studio from the early 70s right up to his last days.

There are 60 photographs on display and all of them are in colour, some a little too brilliant. Ghosh had given up on the colour photographs of Ray for they had been taken aeons ago, and he expected the negatives to fade with age.

But encouraged by the quality of certain retrievals Ghosh had seen, he decided to give his Ray colour shots a try.

The first portrait he experimented with was the rare one of Ray “biting his tongue” — a typically Indian gesture that has no equivalent in the occident, and hence, untranslatable. Unless one had seen this photograph, one would never have thought Ray was capable of it, for he did not look a man one could trifle with. But Ray, we hear, was shooting and was demonstrating that gesture to actor Kamu Mukherjee.

Inspired by the result of this retrieval, Ghosh dug up all his old negatives and blew up the photographs. The exhibition begins with a photograph of Ray drawing the design of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s crown for The Chess Players, followed by his visualisation of Bimala’s dress in The Home and the World. Sharmila Tagore wears a batik sari in Company Limited, that used to be the rage in the 70s. If his protagonists belonged to upper class Calcutta of those times, they always turned out to be city slickers in the best sense of the term. As photographs, these are remarkable for what they record. For example, Smita Patil clicking Ray at the shoot of Deliverance.

The exhibition is a gallery of Ray portraits that catches him in various moods and documents how his visage changed with age, the muscles becoming flaccid with each progressive year. While shooting Sikkim in 1969-70, a film that has never been screened in India, Ray’s craggy face is framed with a bright red scarf wrapped around his head. Bansi Chandragupta stands next to him amidst the mist.

Then, years later, we see him on the sets of An Enemy of the People. Here he is a lonely old man, his facial muscles hanging loose. By the way, the exhibition could easily be exploited by the tobacco lobby, for here it has the best-known director of India puffing away with the elan of the Marlboro man, blissfully unaware of the anti-smoking lobby that would later force Hollywood to project a politically-correct image.

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