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The Director Who Couldn’t Say ‘Action’-by Juhi Saklani

Bansi said: “Satyajit didn’t know what to say during the making of Pather Panchali.”

Satyajit chipped in: “Bansi would whisper to me: Say ‘start sound!’ ”

“He couldn’t say ‘Action!’ ” Bansi chuckled.

“I thought I’d scare my actors! I was never able to say ‘Cut!’ until my third film. I didn't know how!”

– Art director Bansi Chandragupta and Satyajit Ray relating their early experiences to Marie Seton (Portrait of a Director).

When Satyajit Ray started making Pather Panchali, he had no experience of having actually worked on a film in any capacity whatsoever. He was an art director with an ad agency who had been devoted to cinema for years:

"While I sat at my office desk sketching out campaigns for tea and biscuits, my mind buzzed with the thoughts of the films I had been seeing. I never ceased to regret that while I had stood in the scorching summer sun in the wilds of Santiniketan sketching simul and palash in full bloom, Citizen Kane had come and gone, playing for just three days in the newest and biggest cinema in Calcutta.”

[Satyajit Ray]

He had seen all the films he could access, he had read and written as much as he could on the subject, and he had formed a film club with friends. He had had discussions with Jean Renoir who was shooting The River in Bengal – but he couldn’t really watch Renoir shoot because of his day job. It was fellow cinephile Bansi Chandragupta who had joined as part of Renoir’s crew and could therefore instruct the first-time director in the terminology of ‘action’ and ‘cut’.

In 1950, his agency sent him to work in their London office, a trip he followed up by visiting Paris, Venice, Lucerne and Salzburg. In the six months he and Bijoya Ray spent abroad, they saw 99 films! This was the trip in which he famously saw Bicycle Thief and became convinced that he was on the right track in his thoughts about making Pather Panchali.

“…de Sica was doing just the things I wanted to do in my own film and succeeding beyond measure. Who said you couldn’t use non-actors? Who said you couldn’t shoot in the rains? Who said you had to use make-up? And who said slickness was a criteria?” Every time he had mentioned such ideas to people working in films in Calcutta, he had been laughed at. Now he was filled with confidence.

But he still didn't know the practicalities of filmmaking.

The very first day of shooting Apu in a kaash field had not worked at all, as the child actor was very stiff. Ray says in ‘My Days with Apu':

“All my preparations over the years, the transcribing by hand of notes on cutting takes while watching a film, the arduous reading of Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Rotha, Spottiswoode, my open disdain for the home-grown product, all these had finally produced was this one shot of which it was difficult to imagine anything more lifeless and futile.”

Another example he gives (in Our Films, Their Films) is of a shot of the young Durga as she watches Apu. Ray had planned a medium close-up with a normal lens showing her form waist upwards (“in my unswerving allegiance to Cartier-Bresson, I had never worked with a long lens”).

But a cameraman friend suggested a different lens and Durga’s face appeared beautifully to Ray, “backlit by the sun and framed by the swaying, shimmering–reeds she had parted with her hands. It was irresistible.” He thanked the friend and took the shot.

“A few days later, in the cutting room, I was horrified to discover that the scene simply did not call for such an emphatic close-up. For all its beauty, or perhaps because of it, the shot stood out in blatant isolation from its companions, and thereby spoilt the scene.” He pledged to not take advice from anyone who was not familiar with the totality of his vision for the film.

“And these are not the only lessons I learnt on that fateful first day. On every full day that I have worked on a film in the 20 years since I left my advertising job, some glimmer of light has revealed some small hidden mystery of the infinitely complex process that if film making”.

First published by Musui Art Foundation

Juhi Saklani is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and cinema lover.

[Image: Bansi Chandragupta. Courtesy: Musui Art Foundation]

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