There is an old house near Lansdowne Market that I often pass. On some days I don't think about this house, I avoid looking at it. On other days I do look at it and then I'm filled with a certain anger and despair. The man who lived in the house died over a decade ago and the place has become increasingly dilapidated since then; but this is a common story in this city and hardly a reason for any dramatic feelings. The reason I feel the spike of fury is because the disintegration of the house reminds me of the shockingly quick fraying of the great, innovative work its occupant produced and also of the principles by which he did his work.
Life constantly deals us funny cards and sometimes the strangest ones are dealt to us after we are gone. There is a long list of writers or artists who rule with such pomp during their lives only to have their value shredded by a later time wearing very different critic's spectacles. On the other hand, there is the example of someone like Vincent Van Gogh, a man who struggled at so many levels thoughout his life and who could not have possibly imagined the 'brand' he would become, or the obscene amounts his canvasses would one day fetch. Then there are artists who, without any hubris, know that their place in history is assured, that their work will be recognized and savoured by generations to come. Then there are ones who would desperately like this to happen but just know that it won't. And then again there are the ones who genuinely don't care, who don't give a damn what happens to their work or their name after their passing. In Calcutta's short history we have examples of all of the above, plus some other types.
In the field of cinema, if you'd asked someone, anyone, during the 1980s, whose work would most likely survive deep into the future, the simple answer would have been 'Satyajit Ray'. If you'd asked the opposite question, as to whose work would shortly be scattered into the winds of obscurity, there would have been quite a few contenders, but the leading one would have been Ritwik Ghatak. That Ray's was one of the most major contributions to serious Bengali and Indian cinema was never in doubt. That Ghatak's films, far fewer in number, (but also great) didn't deserve to mix into dust was also not being debated. From anyone halfway in touch with the reality of Calcutta's art cinema, the answers would have been coloured by their knowledge of the two personalities. SR was thorough to the point of OCD mania and there was no doubt he would leave everything related to his great creative output in meticulously good order. RG, by then already dead, had been the opposite: immersed in a sea of alcohol, chaotic, mercurial, a brawler at so many different levels, with the most spectacular graph of self-damage and, consequently, a world champion of self-abnegation, especially in terms of fripperies like posterity.
There were many of us film-makers who loved Ghatak's work, who often found it a stronger source of inspiration than Ray's films, but, just as we'd had to accept Ghatak's early death, we were also resigned to the early demise of his original negatives, to the likelihood of the four or five great RG films soon becoming a badly scratched chimerical memory. Imagine our relief, then, when we heard that Ghatak's main work had been carefully restored in a lab in what was then still East Berlin. Imagine our joy, at the fag end of the 1980s, when we saw clean new prints of Subarnarekha or Titash.
When Manik babu (Ray) died in 1992, not as early as RG, but too early nevertheless, those of us not in his inner circle had no inkling that the preservation of the SR films was in any kind of jeopardy. We assumed it had all been taken care of, and, should one or two of the 10 or 12 most important ones need some repair work there was bound to be a scrum of Western institutions vying to fund the restoration. A year or so later, I was in London, finishing one of my films in a lab in Soho, when I heard about the fire in another film lab nearby. Shortly afterwards, we heard that a large part of the Apu trilogy negatives were burnt in that fire - they had been transiting through London, on their way to being restored in California. It was the kind of tragic news you put away at the very back of your mind so's you can pretend you haven't heard it.
In the mid-1950s, two young Calcutta men, closely helped by a few other people, invented a small new universe. The taller of the two men was a bit older and the leader of this project (or expedition into the unknown) but the second man was a founding partner, eventually an almost-equal colleague. The project was, of course, Pather Panchali, and Ray apparently first asked someone slightly senior to him, Sunil Janah, to do the cinematography for the film, in which the other novice partner, one Subrata Mitra, would assist. Janah was unwilling to come down from his higher, far more respectable, calling of photographer to become a mere 'cameraman' for the novice Manik. There was no choice but for Subrata Mitra to take on the job. Mitra was completely untrained in cinematography; he was 21 when work began on Pather Panchali, and around 25 when it was finished. Imagine, if you will, two maddeningly obsessive perfectionists, hugely and relentlessly energetic, driving everyone around them crazy. Imagine, if you can, the lack of experience, the paucity of resources, the long gaps between the filming schedules, the scraping together of bits of money, keeping the amateur cast together, the huge battle of the post-production, all managed under the sneering of the great Bangali yodhhas of Tollygunge and Bombay. With the second film, Aparajito, imagine the now fully confident Mitra, still working with limited resources, replicating the ricochet of light in Indian interiors by the simple, brilliant, dint of hanging white bedsheets outside the windows to 'bounce' and corral sunlight. The aesthetics of the immediately previous generations are all visible in the trilogy, both in Ray's storyboards and Mitra's actual shots, the Tagores and the whole Shantiniketan posse of Nandalal, Benode Behari and Co., Janah's 1940s socialist black and white documentary ethic, the rawness of the Italian neo-realists, and yet, a radically new, modern Indian visual language is being born.
By 1967 it's over, one of the greatest creative partnerships of world cinema. Ray is 46 and Mitra is only 37 when they part company, sadly to the detriment of both. Before becoming a tetchy semi-recluse, Mitra would shoot a few films for other directors, but nothing that comes close to what he achieves with Ray. The great SR would make many more films, operating the camera himself a lot, but never again would he get that image quality, that incredible alchemy of story, character and cinematography, that he did with Mitra.
The recent news, of the Apu trilogy being refurbished using a variety of original source material and the latest digital technology, and the huge effort that included the frame by frame recuperation of bits of the negatives burnt in London, is a story that actually brings tears to the eyes. The trailers on the net look simply fantastic, unbelievable. The full richness of the black and white photography is there to be compared to the earlier iterations of the old prints. It almost feels like those of us born after a certain threshold year have never actually seen the films properly, but always some kagemusha of them, some look-alike impostors of the originals. Suddenly, the stories of Subrata Mitra's volcanic frustration about duplicate prints and dim projection lamps all come into sharp focus. "None of you have actually seen what we really made!" is one quote from Subratababu repeated by many who interacted with him in his last years. The picture that emerged was of an altogether too finicky, too khitkhitey-buro- bangali complaining, protesting too much. Now one desperately wants to locate the man in the labyrinthine laboratory in the sky and tender an apology.
The thing is, there is no end in sight to the apologizing we need to do. It's one thing that the sparkling trailers for the restored trilogy project only the names of Ray and Ravi Shankar; it's a scandal, but unsurprising, that in all the write ups and interviews about this amazing restoration there is not one single mention of Subrata Mitra (unsurprising because that is how the Western creative establishments treat the brownies, imagine Gordon Willis, Sven Nykvist or Raoul Coutard having their name excised from any discussion of their main, great work); it's outrageous, yes, and yet par for the course, sure, but the question we must ask ourselves is a different one.
The thing is, we in Bengal need both Ray and Ghatak to survive, and Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen, and one-film phenomena like Barin Saha. And whether the Western cinematheques recognize them or not, we also need to remember and honour the amazing so-called 'technicians', the master-artists who, with the directors, formed the teams that created our great cinema, the Mitras, the Dilip Mukherjees, the Baby Islams, the K.K. Mahajans, the Bansi Chandraguptas, the Dulal Duttas. Every time I look at Subrata Mitra's crumbling house on Lansdowne Road I'm reminded that this city, with all its peacocking intellectual self-regard, has managed just to name the SRFTI and the small road where he lived after Satyajit Ray and nothing more. For all the Loknayak Metro stations and Uttam Nagars we haven't named even a photo-booth after Subrata Mitra, we haven't commemorated Ritwik Ghatak with even a chullu kiosk or a bangla liquor shop.