I was very young when my father made Pather Panchali but I still remember seeing the film being shot in a place called Boral on the outskirts of South Calcutta. I really had no idea what film-making was all about except that there were a lot of machines around. To me it was like one big picnic where we travelled together and ate together with the entire unit members. It was not just me who accompanied my father, but my mother and grandmother as well. In all this, I realised one thing: that my father was the main person. Everyone was paying him the most attention, listening to everything he said. But what sticks out more in my memory is a train chugging away in the distance, its steam engine billowing black smoke.
After Pather Panchali was released his photographs were suddenly all over in the papers. I wondered why. Later I came to know that he had received international recognition for the movie. There used to be an unending stream of visitors to our place and I was intrigued and amused to find so many white-skinned people calling on him. He must be quite an important person I thought. But that did not change him as far as we were concerned. He was a family man, my father. Of course, there were always people around him discussing a number of things which, as a child, I did not comprehend fully, but every night at the dinner table, it was just baba, ma and mother, occasionally joined by a very close relative or two. We spoke of the day’s events and every possible topic under the sun—an adda which went on and on. We talked about the latest film releases, books and of course, music—western classical mainly which was a passion with my father, perhaps only next to films.
These dinner table discussions went on for years till he took ill. As I grew older, baba began to establish himself as a film-maker of repute. After Pather Panchali he made Aparajita. Apur Sansar was made later to complete what later became known as Apu’s Trilogy based on Bhibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhaya’s novel. As a school going child it became clear to me that he was different from other fathers in the work that he did. But he retained the sensitivity any father would have for his son. For instance, he planned his shootings, especially the outdoor ones, in such a way that these coincided with my holidays—be they be summer, pujas or winter. I get this feeling he wanted me to be around, to understand the process of film-making. Subconsciously he wanted me to be a film-maker too.
He had more than his fair share of uncertainties and hardships. But not for once did he lose his cool or nerve. Watching him closely at work this was more than evident. I knew there were many things which might have irritated him, for film-making is fraught with built-in tensions and even if he might have been seething inside, he chose not to express it. Tensions did mount with the pressure of budgetary constraints and release dates, but he remained extremely level-headed. This was a remarkable trait which I will always remember.
Film-making provides you with a different kind of fun and I remember life with baba as fun. Our holidays were to routine places like Puri in winter and Darjeeling in summer but location hunting took us all over. After we identified a place, there was not much travelling because shooting kept us confined and restricted. So I enjoyed the recces quite a lot. We went to the deserts of Rajasthan—to Jaisalmer location hunting for Sonar Kella much before it was opened to tourists. When we went there for the first time a railway line was just being laid and there were no hotels either.
There used to be an unending stream of visitors to our place and I was intrigued and amused to find so many white-skinned people calling on him. He must be quite an important person I thought.
Back in the city life was pretty much normal. He did not bother with my studies—it was ma who helped me with my day-to-day schooling. I do remember, occasionally, going to him for some clarification when ma was not around. Even though he did not physically help me I learnt a lot from him. What I enjoyed most was the editing part of film-making which I was lucky enough to witness him doing. The sheer joy of a picture coming alive on the screen for the first time fascinates me even today. I enjoy post-production work more than the work on the sets.
Apart from film-making baba became a successful writer in Bengali. His short stories, especially the Feluda series of detective novellas, became instant best sellers. His sci-fi stories too were very popular. He did not read out bedtime stories to me when I was a child, but he read a lot himself. It would be difficult to pinpoint any particular detective character that he admired, but yes, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot were his all-time favourites although he did read pulp. American writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and of course, Georges Simenon, the French author were the other authors he enjoyed tremendously. When he completed a screenplay he would read it out in front of his entire unit members and that included me! His short stories were first read out to ma before they went for printing.
He was a strict disciplinarian and an extremely disciplined man himself. His weakness, however, was food. He loved to eat. Nothing very fancy—simple Bengali cuisine though he was not particularly fond of fish unless it was ilish maach cooked in mustard paste. He loved things like luchi and alur dam. He also loved and ate a great deal of meat, red meat. He had to give up his meat along with a number of other foodstuffs after his heart attack which depressed him. He also relished continental fare at the Skyroom where we went once or twice a month. A treat for me no doubt!
Perhaps because I was the only child he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. He therefore involved me in all aspects of film-making. Surprisingly when I made my own film he did not interfere till I showed him the first cut.
He was a man who wanted to do everything; he even operated the camera! After his heart attack he was asked to slow down. He had to. Camera operating is strenuous. So he left that to me.
His last three films Ganashatru, Shakha Proshakha and Agantuk did not have any outdoor shooting. Before these he did Ghaire Baire. He made thirty feature films and had he lived, health permitting, he would have made more. A creative person, he would have continued writing, filming, designing, composing…
Had he lived he would have been eighty this coming May. It is hard to believe nearly a decade has passed since he died. Though I feel his presence in every nook of this house on Bishop Lefroy Road, what I miss most is not being able to show him the first cut of my films. This hurts.
Remembering Satyajit Ray, the man, my father, with so many facets to his talents, in a few words is tough. Yes, seventy was no age for him to go.
This article was first published in the February 2001 issue