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Pather Panchali to Ghare Baire: Soumendu Roy from the floors of Satyajit Ray classics

There was something to learn in every film, said the cinematographer of 15 of Ray’s feature films. Find out all about the learnings, in Part Two of a tribute to Soumendu Roy

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri Calcutta Published 09.10.23, 11:42 AM
Soumendu Roy with Satyajit Ray and Suhasini Mulay on location.

Soumendu Roy with Satyajit Ray and Suhasini Mulay on location.

Soumendu Roy had just joined Technicians’ Studio when Satyajit Ray began shooting Pather Panchali again after production had come to a stop due to lack of funds. Ray hired a Mitchell camera from the studio to shoot. Dinen Gupta, along with ‘camera coolie’ Agnu, accompanied the Pather Panchali team as caretaker of the camera. Roy requested Gupta to allow him to attend the shoot to learn aspects of outdoor shooting. Necessary permission was obtained from Anil Choudhury, Ray’s production controller, and in time, as Gupta went off as cameraman on another film, Roy took charge as the caretaker of the Mitchell camera.

“The Mitchell is a very difficult camera to handle and I was amazed to see how Subrata Mitra met the challenges since, let alone operating it, he had never even seen it before,” recalled Roy. “For the train scene, everybody had to run alongside the train. While Agnu ran with the camera, I lugged the 12-volt battery on top of my head.”

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While the experience of being in the same unit as Ray, Bansi Chandragupta and Mitra was a life-altering one, what Roy cherished most was the bonhomie that marked interactions between the members of the unit. One of the most enlightening aspects of the shoot was how everyone was treated equally. In other shoots that he attended, Roy had noticed a difference between the food served to actors and that which was given to technicians. In Ray’s unit, the boy who served tea ate the same food as Ray did.

Here comes the rain: Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar

Of the many learnings that Roy had on the shoot, he remembered the rain sequence in which young Apu and Durga get wet. Instead of depending on rain machines, Ray created history by shooting on a cloudy, rainy day — in low light and actual rain. The unit waited for the rain for three days. On the fourth day, the much-awaited rains came. Ray had explained the shot to everyone and ordered “action and camera roll”. The camera, however, refused. The film had jammed. A new film would have to be loaded, a procedure that would take time.

“We had been waiting for the rains for three days. It was to be a splendid shot. And now this!” Roy recalled. Thankfully, it continued to rain and Satyajit Ray and his team created one of the iconic sequences of world cinema.

Rain, or its absence, continued to plague the unit in other films too. In Apur Sansar, the unit kept waiting for the rains to shoot the sequence where Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) would soak his clothes in the rain to wash them. Tired of waiting for the rains, Soumitra Chatterjee disappeared to watch a film with his girlfriend, Deepa. When it finally began to rain, Roy was dispatched to fetch the actor from the movie theatre.

Roy would be constantly amazed with Ray’s innovative ways in shooting in black and white. He had noticed that other filmmakers would give their actors light-coloured clothes as the glare from white apparel often spoiled the shot. If Ray wanted white, it had to be white – only that he would soak the white clothes in tea to combat the glare.

Between 1954 and 1960, Roy worked as an assistant to Subrata Mitra on all Ray films barring Jalsaghar, which he could not be part of as he was shooting another film at Aurora Studios at the time. In 1960, he turned independent cinematographer with Ray’s documentary Rabindranath Tagore, and the anthology Teen Kanya for a monthly salary of Rs 350. At the time of the Tagore documentary, Subrata Mitra was diagnosed with retinal detachment and could not shoot. Ray turned to Soumendu Roy. The understanding was that Mitra would return for Teen Kanya once he recovered. However, with Mitra not recovering in time, Roy stepped in as cinematographer for Teen Kanya too. Eventually, Roy would shoot 15 of Ray’s 28 feature films, four out of the five documentary films and all three films Ray made for television.

Ray wading into the river to shoot Tagore documentary

The Rabindranath Tagore shoot was an arduous one, with Ray later writing to well-known Sri Lankan filmmaker Lester Peries that “it was a back-breaking chore that took almost as much time as working on two or three feature films”. Roy recounted that with the Pakistani government refusing permission to shoot parts of the film in East Pakistan, Ray decided on Nimtita (where Jalsaghar and Devi had been shot), the village through which the Ganga flowed.

For the sequence in which Tagore is seen riding the bajra to the accompaniment of the song ‘Hriday mandrila damaru guruguru’ required heavy showers and none was forthcoming for days since it was September. However, like with Pather Panchali, the rains obliged and there was a sudden torrential downpour.

Roy recalled Satyajit Ray wading into the mighty river to shoot the sequence. Roy was not able to shoot these sequences because it required standing in the water which was nearly neck-high for him. Ray, being much taller, had no apparent difficulty, with Roy’s assistant Purnendu Bose and others covering the camera with plastic sheets and holding on to it, and also to Ray, while he took some brilliant shots.

The slushy road in Samapti

The first Ray feature for which Soumendu Roy came on board as cinematographer was Teen Kanya. Monihara was an especially unforgettable experience. Unlike Postmaster and Samapti, the other two films in the triptych, Monihara called for indoor shooting.

As Roy recalled, “This is a story where the supernatural predominates and I had to create a lot of the desired atmosphere through lighting. Manik-da wanted an eerie moonlight effect which I achieved by getting smoke reflected on artificial light.” For Samapti, Ray wanted slush on the road on which Amulya (Soumitra Chatterjee) was supposed to come calling for Mrinmoyee (Aparna Sen). The unit was stumped as it was the month of September and rains looked unlikely. The locals got water bearers to pour water on the road but the strong sun soaked it dry. But, like in the case of Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar, the rain gods smiled again and it started raining heavily from the night before the shoot. Though the resultant slush made it extremely difficult for Roy’s camera unit, Ray was delirious with joy. It continued to rain the next day too, enabling the team to shoot the sequence where Amulya and Mrinmoyee’s mother are looking for her in the rain.

Pahari Sanyal and Chhabi Biswas

Before his next independent project with Ray, Abhijan, Roy assisted Subrata Mitra in Kanchenjungha, Ray and Mitra’s first colour film. By now, Roy was a full-fledged cameraman with other filmmakers and that created a bit of a problem. However, Roy did not want to miss out on the opportunity and asked Ray if he could accompany Mitra. Ray was categorical: “Come if you want to, but since you are already a cinematographer on other films, and here you will be in the capacity of an assistant, your name will not appear in the main title credits.” That was too little a price to pay for the experience and Roy tagged along.

Kanchenjungha gave Roy the opportunity to observe two acting greats, Chhabi Biswas and Pahari Sanyal, closely. He remembers a scene at the beginning of the film when the two have a conversation near the staircase. A French couple staying at the hotel had been roped in for a bit part. “Pahari-da was fluent in French, could read and write. Chhabi-da would rib him constantly, ‘Look, Pero, we take it for granted that you know French, but we don’t know any better and can never know if what you are talking is French. But better not try that with the couple or else they might find out that you are just showing off to us.’ They had a beautiful relationship. Pahari-da was moody and was rather particular about matters sartorial. I remember he used a fine quality of perfume and insisted on calling it ittar. He used to get furious when we pronounced it ‘ator’.”

Chhabi Biswas, on the other hand, had a serious bearing but used to crack jokes a lot. On one occasion, Roy landed up at the actor’s home in Bansdroni with Anil Chatterjee and Dilip Mukherjee. The youngsters were planning a cricket match – Chhabi Biswas Eleven versus Satyajit Ray Eleven. When he heard about it, the first thing he said was: “You know I wear only dhuti and panjabi. How can I play cricket in that? It’s easy for Manik babu since he wears shirt and pant.” As the youngsters cajoled him, he eventually agreed but warned them he would come in his trademark attire.

On the day of the match, the gathered players watched the actor’s Hillman drive up. When he stepped out of the car, no one could recognise him dressed as he was in white flannel shirt and trousers, a striped blazer and a panama hat! As they gaped at him, the actor said, “Well, boys, what are you looking at? I am Chhabi Biswas.” Roy also remembered Chhabi Biswas being a master at drawing pictures on plates and making beautiful dolls.

Tulsi Chakraborty and Kamu Mukherjee

Working with Satyajit Ray also gave Roy the opportunity of working with people like Tulsi Chakraborty and Kamu Mukherjee. He recalled a poignant conversation with the former. When Parash Pathar was being shot, Ray had arranged for a car to pick Chakraborty up from his home and back. One day, the actor turned to Roy and said, “In the twilight of my career I get to travel in a car. I have always had to travel by bus or tram. After Parash Pathar I will have to do the same again.” Though a salaried actor of New Theatres, Chakraborty died penniless.

Kamu Mukherjee was by all accounts the livewire of the unit. Over the years he had become an indispensable part of Satyajit Ray’s unit both as an actor and as the general go-to guy for all the unit’s requirements. He first acted in Charulata as Bhupati’s friend, then as the ad agency guy in Nayak, Mandar Bose in Sonar Kella and as the knife thrower in Joy Baba Felunath.

In Hirak Rajar Deshe and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, he can be seen in a number of roles. In the former, he is memorable as the sentry who fell without bending his knees. In Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Roy recalled as many as eight roles, including that of a flute player, a soldier gorging on sweets, a courtier of the king of Halla. As Roy recalled, Kamu Mukherjee was very adept at managing unruly crowds. “After we would fence off a particular area, Kamu would move to the back of the crowd and start juggling or showing his magic tricks… and soon enough the crowd would forget our shooting and turn to focus on him.”

Low-light photography and ‘scene-stealer’ Robi Ghosh in Abhijan

After Teen Kanya, Roy’s next feature with Satyajit Ray was Abhijan. It was a challenging shoot given that the cinematographer attempted what is called low-light photography in the number of night scenes the film had. Narsingh’s (the taxi driver protagonist played by Soumitra Chatterjee) car’s headlights were often used as the source light along with petromax and torch light in the absence of generators and artificial lights.

“I remember Manik-da telling me that he wanted a perspective shot – Narsingh driving his Chrysler at night, the road seen in the glare of the night and then Narsingh coming upon Gulabi (Waheeda Rehman) and Sukhanram (Charuprakash Ghosh).” Roy knew that it wasn’t possible to film the entire sequence with merely the car’s headlights. Halogen lights were not available in those days. It was a worker at Technicians’ Studio, Bhabaranjan, who suggested using what is called a landing light that operated on a 24-volt battery. They tried it and it turned out well.

“We got a box made for it, placed it between the two headlights of the Chrysler and tied the battery to the carrier of the car. In another shot where Narsingh runs after another character, Joseph, I ran after Soumitra to make it a POV shot while my assistant ran after me with the battery. Thankfully, unlike a Mitchell, the Arriflex was a silent camera and not heavy.”

In Abhijan, Roy was privy to actor Robi Ghosh’s instinctive approach. “For the shot in which Robi-da brings tea for Narsingh, there was a huge buffalo that sat bang in the middle. During the rehearsals, Robi-da went around it. However, during the final take, Robi-da jumped over it. All of us thought Manik-da would cancel it – Robi-da was scared too.” Ray, however, loved the improvisation and exclaimed, ‘Excellent, excellent’.

In another shot, Soumitra Chatterjee and Waheeda Rehman were in the foreground chatting while in the background Robi Ghosh was engaged in sundry activities. To lend a sense of verisimilitude to the sequence, the actor decided he would play at driving a monkey away. “Robi-da used a collapsible plastic snake, the kind children play with. I am sure Manik-da hadn’t instructed him on any of these, but as soon as the shot was done, he burst out laughing, ‘Excellent shot! Robi is a real scene stealer’.”

Ashani Sanket: ‘Imagine what would have happened if you had not taken the shot!’

Soumendu Roy’s exceptional experiences with Satyajit Ray continued with films like Chiriyakhana (in which Ray gave matinee star Uttam Kumar a real snake to handle; and for which Bansi Chandragupta had created the entire colony on set), Aranyer Din Ratri, and the Calcutta trilogy. In the first of these, Pratidwandi, Ray even appeared in front of the camera in a sequence (with Dhritiman Chaterji), albeit with his back to the camera.

One of Roy’s abiding memories was shooting Ashani Sanket. For a sequence, Ray wanted to capture the heroine Babita in a close-up at twilight. Roy was hesitant as the light was low and he was not getting a reading on the exposure meter. Film speed and technology weren’t advanced enough and this was also Roy’s first independent feature in colour.

When the cinematographer expressed his reservations to Ray, he was told, ‘If there’s no reading, the film is going to be underexposed. But I want the effect. You go ahead and shoot.’ Roy shot the sequence and rushed the film to Gemini lab in Chennai, requesting a report and a rush print. Soon after, the report from the lab came back, saying the shot was good. When the rush print arrived, Roy heaved a sigh of relief. It was just what the director had wanted. When Ray watched the print, he turned to Roy: ‘Well, imagine what would have happened if you had not taken the shot!’ Roy remembered: “It was an experience that stood me in good stead all my life. It was when I came to know about a film’s latitude. Subrata-babu used the term often, but I could never make sense of it till that day. I also learnt that one needs to challenge the known and one’s own self in the quest for excellence.”

Shooting Shundi vs Halla in Goopy Gyne was a challenge

Certain memories associated with Goopy Gyne, Sonar Kella and Ghare Baire remained etched in Roy’s mind. Goopy Gyne was a challenge given the lighting requirements. Ray wanted the lighting to complement the characters – for the good king of Shundi, it had to be soothing and soft; for the king of Halla, the opposite, with strong shadows. “It was always going to be difficult. In those days because of the overuse of direct lighting, the whites used to reflect too much and images got blurred.”

Roy fell back on what Subrata Mitra had pioneered in Aparajito – bounce lighting. “I had huge boards painted in white and bounced the light off them to achieve the effects Manik-da wanted.”

The Bhuter Raja or Dance of the Ghosts sequence was another demanding one for the director, the cinematographer and the choreographer, Shambhu Bhattacharya. “The sequence was divided into four parts and shot separately which were later joined with the help of an optical camera. As you watch, you get the feeling that the dance is unfolding through a layer of water. That was yet again achieved through an optical camera. The background to all the dances was white, some of which were turned into negative using the optical camera. A dais covered in a black curtain was set up in a huge set in Indrapuri Studios, and it took four to five days to complete filming the sequence.”

There was also the matter of Santosh Dutta’s double role. “Nowadays with the computer and special effects, it is child’s play. In those days, it was possible to shoot double roles only with a Mitchell. The camera had a feature which allowed half the lens to be masked and the other half to be exposed. When I shot the sequences involving the raja of Shundi, I masked half the lens and exposed the other half. With the unexposed bit, I shot the sequences with the raja of Halla. It was not technically perfect. And because the particular shot was in colour we discovered our error. However, with later prints being in black and white, no one could point out the error.”

The train sequence in Sonar Kella

One of the most thrilling experiences of his career as a cinematographer came in the train sequence in Sonar Kella. “Manik-da had rented a real train for the shoot. It was midnight on a cold winter day when we began filming the sequence. During the rehearsals when Kamu grasped the compartment door’s handle, he drew back his hand, shocked by the sheer coldness. Alongside the railway track, on a parallel track, Manik-da and I sat on a trolley with the camera and the lights. Someone from the railways was pushing the trolley. My assistant Purnendu was positioned on the roof of the train, with another camera placed at the edge of the compartment which gave us the brilliant shots of Kamu changing compartments.”

Incredibly, the sequence was okayed in one take. Another shot in Sonar Kella that challenged Roy was the one involving Barman hypnotising Mukul. “I had to shoot with only a pen torch as the source light. I used a fill light of low intensity to combat the harsh glare of the torchlight.” The shot is a marvel, contributing immensely to the film’s momentum and look.

The moonlight streaming in for Ghare Baire

Ghare Baire was the last film in which Soumendu Roy worked with Satyajit Ray. He remembered one particularly challenging scene. Bimala (Swatilekha Sengupta) and Nikhilesh (Victor Banerjee) are in bed, talking. Moonlight is streaming in through an open window, while at the head of the bed there is a kerosene lamp burning. “I had to create both effects simultaneously. While half of Bimala’s face was to be lit up by the kerosene lamp, Nikhilesh was to be bathed in moonlight, which would spill over onto the bed and the other half of Bimala’s face. Today, with so many grades of cellophane paper available, such a shot would pose no issues. Lighting posed another problem… I used less of blue in the shot… It came out just right.”

‘Manik-da experimented a lot and… pushed boundaries’

Talking about his mentor, Satyajit Ray, Roy said, “Manik-da was not rigid. He experimented a lot and there was something to learn in every film. That was his nature – to push boundaries. He achieved results we couldn’t even think of. Whatever I learnt from him I put back in my films with other filmmakers. These lessons have stayed with me all my life.”

For someone who began his cinematic journey with Satyajit Ray, it was only in the fitness of things that when his son Sandip Ray debuted as a filmmaker with Phatik Chand (yes, with Kamu as juggler) in 1983, it was Soumendu Roy who was in charge of the cinematography.

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri edited and published (with Harper Collins) Soumendu Roy’s only authorised biography, Through the Lens of a Cinematographer

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