Movies on the Wall,  Past on the Wall

Understanding Ray: Realism in Beveridge’s documentary on Satyajit Ray

[I have been following Satyajit Ray’s work for quite some time now. I must admit that appreciating various facets of Ray’s work has not been easy, because as a Bengali one has to clear a cloud of romanticism that has been culturally established around Ray. Once you dig deep, the clouds disappear, and you see genuine creativity at work. Ray died on April 23, 1992.  I’m publishing this post to commemorate the 27th anniversary of his death.]

This week I had the opportunity to watch James Beveridge’s documentary shot in the late 1960s on Ray (The Creative Person: Satyajit Ray ). This was when Ray was working on a detective thriller Chiriakhana (The Zoo) and a musical for children Goopy Gain Bagha Bain (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha). The documentary was part of a series produced by National Educational Television on creative persons, their influences and their impact on others. While primarily on Ray, the film includes interviews of several artists who had collaborated with him at different stages in his career. It  features a rare Karuna Banerjee (she was Sarbajaya in Ray’s Pather Panchali) interview, and an unassuming Subrata Mitra (cinematographer in several Ray’s films) talking about working with Ray.

There have been several documentaries on Ray. The one by Shyam Bengal, for example, which won National Award for Best Biographical Film in 1982, casts a veritable halo around Ray. Throughout the movie, Ray is constantly in front of the camera analysing and reflecting on his work. Benegal’s deification of Ray is part of a hagiographic tradition in India commonly seen in regular eulogies on cinema personalities. Benegal’s documentary lacks the objectivity that you expect from documentary filmmakers during a period in film history when  ideas like “cinema verite” and “direct cinema” were making new waves.

What distinguishes Beveridge’s documentary from others is its unquestionable humanistic appeal. James Beveridge was a Canadian director who had a wide (and rather international) experience in documentary film making. When in India in the 1950s, Beveridge had produced training films for Burmah Shell Oil Company.  Beveridge made many documentaries on Indian artists. Apart from his Ray documentary, my favourite is the one on sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan. In 2006, her daughter Nina Beveridge made a film (The Idealist: James Beveridge, Film Guru) about her father’s obsession with India.

Beveridge’s documentary is more about Ray’s film making technique than a mere string of personal interviews. To know a human being, you need to know the techniques of his/her creativity. Humanistic tradition does not accept the theory of born geniuses. A genius is a genius because like a gardener tends a garden, a genius cultivates his passions, obsessions and talents.  Beveridge chooses to talk to Ray’s collaborators because it is important to know how Ray networked with others. Collaboration, humanism teaches us, intensifies one’s creative process.

Ray could harness talents. He knew every department of film making so well that his control over movie making  techniques was profoundly strong. We find him talking to Subrata Mitra about light in front of the camera. An important theme in the movie is visualization. How does Ray visualize a film? Remember, this is analog era, and visualizing a movie is very much an imaginative process unlike today when we have a host of digital services to support our imagination.

It’s a revelation to know that Ray used to direct his actors in a very straightforward manner. In a separate interview Soumitra Chatterjee (who had collaborated as an actor in many Ray movies) had mentioned how Ray could control the actors like marionette. Ray could do so with a matter-of-fact approach. He would explain the scene, read aloud the dialogues, make actors focus on the subtleties of on-screen communication. Behind the scenes footage in Beveridge’s documentary shows exactly that (Mrinal Sen, the director who ushered in new wave in India, used to do the same). Actors are never made to project their acting, but internalize their actions.

Beveridge is remarkable in his use of montage techniques. His camera moves constantly and turns the elements from environment around into visual metaphors. This is Kuleshov effect at its most evocative. My favourite is when camera lands on Ray directing Uttam Kumar in Chiriakhana. It zooms until Ray’s single eye is in extreme close up.

There is so much movement in the movie that you can’t but compare it with cinema verite. Either the car moves, or the person in front of the camera moves. If no one is moving, the movie sharp cuts to images around. Often it is Calcutta in the 1960s with Ray’s background voice. When Karuna Banerjee speaks the camera cuts to budgerigars playing inside a cage.

Are details important in movies? Yes, they are. But what’s more important, we get to know from Ray’s Art Director Banshi Chandragupta, is the look of the details. Banshi babu is as lucid with his ideas as Mitra or Ray. Along with Ray, he looks for authentic details and ignores the fake ones.

Beveridge’s documentary teaches us how we can add layers of meanings to realism on-screen – something Ray did by being in control over the reality he was depicting. Ray was known for being scrupulous with details. For Ray ‘film’ reality was to be carefully constructed to imitate ‘real’ reality. Beveridge’s documentary, on the other hand, finds in an artist’s environment images that correlate with a creator’s identity and creation. His is a more organic and more spontaneous vision of reality.


Photograph shows Satyajit Ray with Ravi Sankar recording for Pather Panchali

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Rajarshi Mitra

Rajarshi Mitra

A teacher by profession, Rajarshi is the editor of this website. He is a passionate book worm, and these days he loves surfing the internet.
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Rajarshi Mitra

A teacher by profession, Rajarshi is the editor of this website. He is a passionate book worm, and these days he loves surfing the internet.

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