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Shadow Play

Portrait of a Cinematographer opens with footage from the three short films of Teen Kanya, each different from the other in lighting and fr...


January 8, 2006

For every Francois Truffaut, there’s a Nestor Almendros. For every Ingmar Bergman, a Sven Nykvist. For every Bernardo Bertolucci, a Vittorio Storaro. For a Satyajit Ray, a Subrata Mitra.

And a Soumendu Roy, the third angle in the director-cinematographer relationship that conventionally has room for only two. Despite 11 more Ray films to his credit than Mitra, the limelight has determinedly evaded Roy. While the master, at 73, is at ease with the imbalance—believing that collaboration with two of India’s greatest film technicians was his biggest reward—there are others who believe the equation needs to be corrected.

‘‘Cinematographers, by and large, don’t get their due recognition,’’ points out Papia Roy, whose recent 30-minute documentary on Roy, Portrait of a Cinematographer, was screened at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa this year. ‘‘By working with directors as varied as Ray, Tapan Sinha and

MS Sathyu, Roy was exposed to different film-making styles. My film is a tribute to the self-taught adventurous creativity of Indian cinematographers.’’

In Roy’s mind, there is no doubt that the balance of acclaim is correctly tilted towards the Ray-Mitra combination. ‘‘After all, they were the men behind Pather Panchali, which went on to revolutionise Indian cinema,’’ he says.

The self-effacing Roy, who was a rookie on the sets of Pather Panchali, also assisted Mitra on most of Ray’s subsequent films. ‘‘Seeing my willingness to learn, they—and art director Bansi Chandragupta—encouraged me,’’ says Roy. ‘‘But it was in 1961, after Mitra developed a major eye problem, that Manikda (Ray) asked me to shoot Teen Kanya, based on three of Tagore’s short stories. Earlier, he had asked me to handle the camera for his documentary Rabindranath Tagore. The two films were to mark the poet’s birth centenary.’’

Always keen on realistic treatment in cinema—Pather Panchali’s iconic status owes a great deal to the diffused bounce lighting thought up by Mitra—Roy got his chance in Teen Kanya. ‘‘I put in all that I’d learnt as a helper with the trolley and later as a caretaker of the Mitchell camera.’’

Portrait of a Cinematographer opens with footage from the three short films of Teen Kanya, each different from the other in lighting and framing. The narrative then touches on Ray’s Abhijan, where Roy fixed a 24-volt spotlight—then used only in airports—to make up for the inadequate light cast by the headlights of the Chrysler that is central to the film.

Even as Roy was coming into his own, Ray decided to wield the camera himself for his 1964 classic Charulata. Many thought this reduced the talented cinematographer to a mere ‘‘lighting man’’. But Papia Roy’s documentary does not touch either this controversy or the much talked about rift between Ray and Mitra, which made Mitra leave the Ray camp permanently after Nayak (1966).

‘‘Mitra probably did not like the idea of not being able to operate the camera. Manikda told me that operating the camera was ideal for him because he could concentrate on the characters in his frame without any distractions,’’ recalls Roy.

He used the opportunity to focus on other areas of cinematography, like lighting up a scene—something he could not do while operating the camera. The hard work paid off in films like Aranyer Din Ratri (1969), still remembered for the sensuousness that imbues the scene where the widowed Jaya tries to seduce Sanjoy. ‘‘I wanted to retain the details of the jewellery she was wearing, so I had to use a footlight. But the treatment is realistic—the source light is the table lamp, it lights up the whole scene.’’

But both the documentary and Roy himself skim over his final split with Ray, which came after Roy had worked on 21 of his films, including 15 features. In an article titled Satyajit’s Sansar in Himal magazine, author and academic Partha Chatterjee noted that Roy left after Ghare Baire (1984), ‘‘unable to take curt orders from Sandip Ray, the director’s son’’ who had by then begun assisting his father.

Roy disagrees. ‘‘There was no dissent,’’ he says. ‘‘While I worked with Ray, other directors considered me a snobbish and fussy cinematographer. Around 1984, I signed four Tamil films and left because I was busy with other work.’’

Coming from a man whose four National Awards (for Asani Sanket, Sonar Kella, Shatranj ke Khiladi and Suchitra Mitra) are firmly locked up, and only two photographs—an autographed blow-up of Ray and sitarist Ravi Shankar, and one of a very young Roy with Ray—point to a distinguished career, there’s no arguing the claim. On rare occasions, a celebrity prefers the shadows.

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