Doesn't this shot from Aparajito (1956) look exactly as if Apu's parents, Sarbajaya and Harihar, are in the open courtyard of an old Banarasi house, with light pouring in from the sky above? Here, in Satyajit Ray's words, is what it actually is:
"The shooting in Banaras consisted of all the scenes that supposedly took place there, except for Harihar's house, which Bansi was to build in a studio." [PS: Art director Bansi Chandragupta had to build the house in a studio because the monsoon in Banaras was threatening to spoil their shoot.] "These houses, especially those in the Bengali neighbourhood, usually fall into a pattern. As you enter you find yourself in a curved courtyard, which is surrounded by rooms. The source of light is the sky above the courtyard."
"Subrata (cinematographer Subrata Mitra) had planned to reproduce the overhead shadowless lighting effect by stretching a sheet of white cloth above the studio-built courtyard and bouncing the light back from it. It worked so beautifully that it was impossible to tell that the shooting was done in the studio. This system of 'bounced lighting' was used ten years later by Bergman’s cameraman Sven Nykvist, who claimed in American Cinematographer that he was its originator!"
It is impossible to love Ray's films without also paying tribute to the wizardry of the technician-poets who worked with him. Subrata Mitra (1930-2001) was arguably the foremost among these. He began shooting forPather Panchali with Ray at the age of 21, having never shot a moving image before! All he had when he started was some experience of still photography, the knowledge he picked up watching Renoir shoot his film The River in West Bengal, and Ray's encouragement: "If you know still photography – and you do – shooting a movie on location is only a step away!"
Ray had not hit the nail on the head this time, and Mitra used to remember how he would stay awake at nights worrying about the next day's shots. Both Ray and Mitra loved the use of natural light, which made their contemporary professionals laugh at them when Pather Panchali was being made – and which elevated their frames to art.
Subrata Mitra shot ten films for Ray, from Pather Panchali (1955) to Nayak (1966). Many believe that this was also the period of Ray's best films. It is said that by the time they shot Charulata (1964), Mitra was finding it difficult to deal with Ray's desire to exert control over the cinematographic aspect of their films. He did not work with Ray again, after Nayak.
Coming back to Aparajito, the outdoor shooting in Banaras wasn't all that easy either because of how crowded Benaras was and because "Boys from the nearby Banaras Hindu University arrived in houseboats to watch the shooting from the river. Fortunately, they were probably disappointed by the very subdued nature of our work, as by the fact that there were no actresses in our cast. So their enthusiasm evaporated and we were able to include the river in our shots."
First published by Musui Art Foundation.
Juhi Saklani is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and cinema lover.