Through the lens

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By Photographer Nemai Ghosh on tracking Satyajit Ray for two decades Arijit Bhattacharya What is your message for Nemai Ghosh? Tell
  • Published 18.05.11

He is lauded for his photography work on painting and theatre but Nemai Ghosh is known more as Satyajit Ray’s lensman, a tag he loves. After the two books, Satyajit Ray at 70 and Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema, Ghosh launched his memoir, Manik-da: Memories of Satyajit Ray, recently. The 77-year-old photographer takes a trip down memory lane with t2.

How did you get into still photography?

Some of my friends were associated with Ray’s unit, some with New Theatres in the camera or art departments. I was into theatre acting then.... I was about to leave for rehearsals one day when a friend of mine walked in with a still camera that someone had left behind in a taxi. It was a fixed lens Cannonette QL 16. He had paid Rs 10 to the taxidriver and got hold of it. My friends pushed me to get the camera for myself. They said they would get cut-piece films for me. They taught me the basics and I started to work on it.

How did your association with Ray begin?

I had gone on an outing to Rampurhat, almost immediately after this, to try my hand at outdoor photography. Manikda (Ray) was shooting for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne there. Since I had friends in his unit, I could get two rolls of candid shots from the shooting. After returning to Calcutta I showed the pictures around — the fact that I had taken photos of Satyajit Ray was obviously a big thing! Banshi Chandragupta (Ray’s art director) was a friend of mine. After going through the stills, he called me over to the NT1 studio where Ray’s unit was shooting.

Banshida showed the pictures to Manikda, while I stood a little away from them. Manikda asked, “Who has taken these?” Banshida pointed at me. Manikda then turned around and said, “Apni toh moshai amar angle mere diyechhen!” Somehow, he found my compositions were very similar to what he would have done. That was how it all started. Years passed... I never realised when I had become a part of his unit, his family.

You were with Ray for over two decades. Were you present during all his shoots?

Each one of them, from Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne to his last film Agantuk. Also, the documentaries. He never had a still photographer for his earlier films. During Aranyer Din Ratri, he told me, “Nemai, I often forget to take stills. Keep taking them.” That was the first time I realised that I had a responsibility. It was only from Ghare Baire that I started receiving payment.

Is there any one favourite photograph?

It is very difficult to pick. I have taken more than 90,000 photographs of Manikda over the years. Most of my favourites were compiled in the book, Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema, which was a collaborative project between Andrew Robinson and me. It was very close to our hearts.... But there’s this photograph from the shoot of Ashani Sanket. The sequence where Babita is raped in the woods... she falls behind the rest of the group and is attacked. So as the others rushed to her, Manikda started running behind them with the camera. I too started running alongside. That’s when I took that still. But there are other memorable ones.

How was it working with Ray?

He was the grammar of filmmaking. That is one of the reasons why I could never adjust with any other team... not even with Sandip, though he has shades of his father in him.

When he came in for the shoot in the morning, Manikda would lay down his notes on the table, open for everyone to see. I would go through it along with the unit because I needed to plan where I would take working stills and where I would take his pictures. We had a great rapport. He was very flexible. His unit was so involved in every way. Everyone worked like clockwork, from the man behind the trolley to the boy carrying water.

Of all the trips you’ve been on with Ray, which is the most memorable?

The first that comes to mind is the Ashani Sanket shoot in Birbhum. The Bolpur Tourist Lodge had just been inaugurated and we were the first lodgers there. One day, we had the call time at six in the morning. At 5.30am, Manikda was all set; he was pacing the balcony. “Manikda is ready,” someone said, and I remember how the entire unit was up and about in a flash! It was as if a fire alarm had been sounded.

You have also worked with various other filmmakers...

I have worked with Ritwik Ghatak in Jukti Takko Aar Gappo, Mrinal Sen in Interview and Calcutta 71, and Goutam Ghose in Paar and Antarjali Jatra. I have also worked with M.S. Sathyu, Roland Joffe in City of Joy, and Mira Nair in The Namesake on special request for four days. But please do not ask me to compare them. Discipline, sincerity and honesty are qualities I had imbibed from Manikda, which helped me throughout my career. I must say that the basis for these qualities was laid down during my early years with Utpal Dutt in the Little Theatre Group. That helped when I started working with Manikda.

How did the book, Manik-da: Memories of Satyajit Ray, happen?

It actually happened quite suddenly, in 2000. A French-Belgian group was here to make a documentary on me. Kanchana Mukhopadhyay, who was working with them as an interpreter, came up with the idea of a book. A compilation of 50 photos and 50 articles was published, first in Bengali and then in French. When Harper Collins approached me later for a book, I showed them the earlier version and they wanted to do it in English. They added the foreword by Sharmila Tagore, which is not there in the French and Bengali versions.

What else are you planning?

I am planning to do a book on the personal lives of Satyajit Ray and Michelangelo Antonioni. I got the opportunity to meet Antonioni while working on the book, Satyajit Ray at 70, in 1991. Then I met him again in 1994. We maintained correspondence. I even went to Italy for his 94th birthday celebrations.... Both Antonioni and Manikda were painters, apart from being master filmmakers. A compilation of their personal lives would be very exciting.... I am also working on a book on Benode Behari Mukherjee, on whom Manikda had made a documentary.... But others need to pitch in with their efforts. It is not possible to do so much on my own.