Satyajit Ray came very close to losing one eye in an accident during the shoot of his film “Sonar Kella” in Rajasthan, according to the director’s favourite hero Soumitra Chatterjee in a recently-launched memoir.
During the shoot of a scene in a car on a highway, Soumitra (who plays the role of famous detective Felu Mittir character created by Ray), along with Santosh Dutta (who plays the role of Jatayu) and Siddhartha Chattopadhyay (in the role of Topshe, assistant to the detective), were seated in the rear of the car.
Ray was in the front seat next to the driver, operating the camera himself “with, so far as I recollect, Purnendu (the director’s cameraman Purnendu Bose) by his side”, says the actor in the book “The Master and I” published by Delhi-based publisher Supernova. “With everything ready for a take, Manik da (as Ray was known to people very close to him) had just taken his eye away from the camera when a drunk truck driver collided with the rear of our car,” says Soumitra adding “If it had happened a few seconds earlier, Manik da would have lost an eye”.
The Dadasaheb Phalke award-winning actor recalled the incident as another instance how Ray cared for the people of his unit. After the incident, “the entire unit came running up to find out if he (Ray) was all right. But Manik da ignored what might have happened to him and checked on each of us individually,” says Soumitra.
The actor goes on to say that “throughout all the films we made together and every incident that took place, I had noticed that Manik da was always humane”.
The book by Soumitra Chatterjee, who has featured in 14 films by Ray between 1959 and 1990 including “Apur Sansar”, “Devi”, “Charulata”, “Aranayer Din Ratri”, “Ashani Sanket”, “Sonar Kella”, “Joy Baba Felunath”, “Hirok Rajar Deshey”, “Ghare Baire”, “Agantuk” and “Ganashatru”, contains a number of interesting anecdotes and information about the 35-year close association the actor and the director had both off and on the sets and locales of shooting.
Soumitra tells us that Manik da had a “superhuman memory” and one feels much the same way while reading “The Master and I” in which the actor digs deep in time to relive with precision his many hours spent with Ray. Among the other interesting information in the book are that “Abhijan” was initially to have been directed by Bijoy Chatterjee with the script written by Ray and that Uttam Kumar was to have played the role which was ultimately played by Soumitra.
Soumitra had wanted to play the role of Goopi in Ray’s “Goopi Gayen Bagha Bayen” but the director politely turned it down saying he wanted someone with a more rustic look and Tapen Chattejree suited that.
Soumitra’s book gives the readers an insight into Ray’s method of work as a director: like Ray used to write his scripts in English at the time (of Apur Sansar), typed in a foolscap paper and how Soumitra noticed a “change in Manik da’s directional style from ‘Kapurush’ onwards” by beginning to operate the camera himself.
Soumitra was left astounded by Ray’s camerawork in capturing the famous memory game shot in “Arannyer Din Ratri” when he panned the camera 360 degrees “depending on approximations”. “Manik da operated the camera using only his experience and guesswork, holding each face in the frame till the person had completed their dialogue and then panning to the next face…I was astonished to see that each of the faces had been captured perfectly in every frame of that 360-degree shot”, says Soumitra.
One of the most important parts of the book is Soumitra’s question to Ray and the director’s answer in the wee hours during a train journey from Howrah to Muri for the shoot of “Apur Sansar”. Soumitra asked Ray that why chose to make films despite his “myriad talents—drawing, writing, music”. Ray’s reply was “Once when I was a student at Santiniketan, we were taken to different parts of India to draw and paint. We even managed to visit the caves at Ajanta and Ellora. I realized that all these extraordinary works of art and literature had been created in India already. It seemed to me that there was no opportunity to anymore to climb the pinnacle of excellence in these fields. …That is why I am a film-maker”.
Soumitra also dispels widespread perception that Ray never allowed his actors the freedom or that he did not believe in box office success of films although for him his own “perspective of box office is somewhat different from the accepted view”. The actor says that in his case at least he had freedom to act in Ray’s films. “All my life, I was able to act with considerable freedom—and to my heart’s content—in Manik da’s films”, he says.