Suraj Prasad & Anuj Malhotra
Arup De is the Chief Executive Officer of the Satyajit Ray Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives (formerly, films) based out of Kolkata. The Society is the a rare instance in India of a director’s personal estate – constituted by prints of his films, the yield of his career as a graphic designer, the posters he prepared for his films, his screenplays, his award trophies, etc. – being preserved and maintained by a formal, legally coherent institution devoted to the specific purpose. On the occasion of Ray’s 93rd birth anniversary, an interview with the one of the key individuals responsible for the transmission of his legacy into the future – and the issues inherent within the exercise.
How did your own work with the Satyajit Ray Society begin? Explain to us the day-to-day operations of the Society.
It was absolutely accidental. I had been working in journalism for about one and a half decades and as part of my work, had written a number of articles on Ray. Like thousands of other individuals across the world, his films had impressed upon me since my childhood. Then, in 2005, I was invited by Mr. Sandip Ray, Mr. Ray’s son (and President of the Ray Society), to contribute to the work being conducted by the Society. He and I shared a close mutual friend, Mr. Hirak Sen and I venture that it is because of him that Sandip babu invited me. Journalism can tend to be tedious as a profession, and I was looking for opportunities to do newer, more interesting work, so this suited me perfectly – at the time, there was no one looking into the day-to-day activities of the Society and I seem to fit into that role. The Society itself was formed in 1994, an year or two after the death of Ray – it is a non-profit organization, registered as a society, with the usual composition: an executive body, the president, other members, etc.
We gather that impetus on the fresh rounds of exhibition of Ray’s films is really a recent phenomenon; the focus having shifted only in the last few years from the Society’s early concerns related to the preservation of all these titles.
Well, when I joined the Society in March 2006, about eight years ago, the central objectives really lent towards the restoration and preservation of his films. Immediately after the passing of Ray, David Shepard (renowned film preservationist) arrived in India from America with the objective of examining the condition of the prints and original negatives of his films. His report was alarming. The negatives of Pather Panchali and the earlier classics were in tatters. The Society then instituted a tie-up with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) because they have a film restoration facility – one of the best in the world – to immediately begin salvage operations on these prints. But the process of procuring these prints in itself was a long, long one. The Society’s central responsibility in India was to procure prints from the various separate producers Ray worked with and transfer them to the Academy. This was much more difficult that we originally thought though, because most producers were suspicious of our ultimate motives and apprehensive of a loss of control over these prints – many of them were unwilling to lend them to us, and it took a lot of convincing. Fortunately, over twenty films by Ray have been restored and are stored carefully within Academy’s facility. We don’t really have a similar option – there are no vaults with controlled-temperatures in Kolkata, or in India, for us to store the restored prints or preserve them.
To what would you attribute the recent upsurge in interest in Mr. Ray’s work globally? Is it that the world is now making a conscious attempt to rediscover Indian cinema, or turn a new look at it?
I’d say that there has always been a lot of curiosity about Ray, but yes, there has been a resurgence lately, especially after the Academy conferred the Lifetime Achievement Oscar on him. A few days after his death, a number of American film activists decided that it is imperative that the state of the negatives of Ray’s films be scrutinized carefully – that is when a committee was formed and Shepard was chosen to undertake this task. This, I believe, was the beginning.
Since then, there has been, for the last two decades or so, a revival of Western interest in Ray – if we can call it that. The home viewing formats have been instrumental really, there is obviously the known example of Criterion which has released two of his titles recently, but there are many other DVD and blu-ray distribution companies across the world who are releasing his films in their respective countries. Also, there have been retrospectives, festival sections or individual screenings of his films across the world – most crucially in university campuses. There has also been a spate of books that have been published about him and his work, alongwith a number of documentaries that have already been completed or are in production. It is pretty much a global rediscovery.
Yes, for instance, the recently concluded exhibition of Mr. Ray’s work organised by the British Film Institute and of course, Criterion Collection’s plans to release more titles after Mahanagar and Charulata – do you sense that such interest in renewing discourse around Ray’s work is lacking at an institutional level in India?
You see, the British Film Institute contacted us. Initially, they were interested in procuring a few sketches, photographs, maybe images, which they wanted to publish alongside articles on Ray’s work in their film publication, Sight & Sound. We established a rapport with them. They informed us of their intention to conduct a large festival of his films in London; we recommended an accompanying exhibition to take place alongside the festival, and they jumped at the offer. We jointly put up the show – an exhibition of posters designed by Ray, and I gather that it was rather successful. In the case of Criterion, they approached us and we simply provided a lot of information and access to them – interviews, sketches, still photographs of him on sets, stills from his films, etc. They have released Mahanagar and Charulata, but there is discussion of a number of future releases as well.
Similar institution support is rare in India. In 1993 or ’94, we received a small grant from the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation which was used as seed money for the setting up of the Society. But since then, we haven’t received any assistance from governmental institutions – there has been generous help from corporate houses like Tatas though.
… in view of which, how does the Society intend to place Ray’s work in a fresher, perhaps more contemporary context?
The idea is to address a young audience and introduce them to Ray’s films. In Bengal, Ray’s detective films are popular among the younger audiences, but he made more films than those. There is an entire generation who grew up on his films, watched them again and again and these became a part of cultural folklore. So it’s important to now address a newer, younger audience – those interested in the cinema in colleges, universities, even high schools – and not merely in Kolkata, but also in other cities across the country. Not in metropolises, but in suburbs, smaller towns, where Ray could be introduced to a newer audience through screenings and accompanying seminars. It is also essential that these screenings be conducted in places that perhaps do not have formalized Film Studies courses or students who study how to make films – this will help it expand it to a larger section of people, all of them still not exposed to these films and what they have to say about their lives.
One of the ideas that really did interest us in a similar vein was the plans that the Society had announced for a museum dedicated to Ray. How far along are we with that idea?
It’s a sad story, really. We’ve been trying to setup a museum dedicated to Ray for the last nine years – the premises will also serve as an office space for the Society – but we haven’t really managed to setup a proper home for ourselves. We currently operate from an office space given to us by a company called Peerless, but there is writing on the wall that we may have to vacate it soon. Then we will have to move to a rented place.
Our experience of working with the government hasn’t really been pleasant – marred by casual bureaucracy as it is. Really, each collaboration with the state are similar – they want to dominate the proceedings and there are strings attached. For example, we did meet the Chief Minister of West Bengal, requested her to help secure a place for us, she heard us out, we told her we are prepared to pay the rent and if it’s within our budget, we will even consider purchasing it. In return, she offered us free advice and we’ve been waiting for a response ever since.
Which is sad, but simultaneously, there is an encouraging emerging trend where major publishing houses are exhibiting an interest in publishing serious film literature. Obviously, they’ve started with books on, or by Ray.
Two years ago, we worked closely with HarperCollins India to publish a book called Deep Focus: Reflections on Cinema, which is a compilation of Ray’s writing on cinema. The labour involved was extensive – mainly because the publication of these pieces was carried out across a vast stretch, both in terms of dates of publication, and of the magazines in which these appeared. The first piece in the compilation, for instance, was written in 1949 (for The Statesman): an article on his association with Jean Renoir, while the latter was in India to make The River. It took us about two years to collect all these pieces; some of them were published in newspapers and magazines no longer in existence, defunct, and many others for foreign publications, such as Sight & Sound. The book was a wonderful success, and was printed multiple times, so it was an encouragement that allowed us to extend our collaboration with the publishing house. We are now publishing a 32-page visual script that Ray prepared on a never-made film on Pandit Ravi Shanker – it contains about 117 sketches, alongwith technical instructions, details of camera movements, etc. It had been lying about in the Society archives for a while, so we supposed it’s time to release it for the general public.
Our estimate is that he prepared it either between Pather Panchali and Aparajito, or Aparajito and Jalsaghar. Why do we think so? Because this really was the phase in his career where he prepared these detailed visual scripts – and he prepared only two in his whole life, one for Pather Panchali and the other for this film that he never made. After this, throughout his career, he wrote his scripts in a red diary, known as a kherol khaata in Bengali. Why he never really got around to making this film on Ravi Shanker is a mystery and will remain that way – though there are sketchy details in Marie Seton’s biography of him (Portrait of a Director).
A general inquiry, really. But the notion of ‘preservation’ – how do you think it is placed in the local, Indian cultural context?
Well, we are forgetful by choice – amnesiacs. We easily forget our easily, we forget our heroes – and ‘hero’, not in the sense of those who lay down their lives in battlefields to defend their countries, but also our cultural and political heroes. This attitude extends over to our attitude about preservation, to which we are indifferent.
There is not a single lab in the country where films by our masters can be preserved. Some of the elements of Ray’s films have been placed at Gemini Labs in Chennai, but there is no vault with temperature-control there. The cans are lying on the floor – the situation is the same here in Kolkata. There is no state-of-the-art vault.
…which seems to tie-in to a larger, more looming culture of apathy.
Yes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to raise money for cultural purposes – there are some big companies that have kept aside money for philanthropic purposes (author’s note: a legal ruling makes this compulsory) but this is hardly ever invested in culture. For welfare, yes, but not for culture – so there is an issue of priorities, perhaps. You see my point? For instance, we asked Infosys for money, they said they have no budget – because all the money they donate for purposes of exemption is diverted towards welfare, for improvement of life in villages, or slums. The scope is therefore increasingly dwindling.
In the end, did you ever meet him personally? Give us an anecdote…
I wrote an article in The Statesman about this. I was a college student back in ’78 or ’79, still young, idealistic. Me and my friend wanted to publish a magazine in English, full of opinion pieces, analysis, commentary on issues with a bearing on contemporary life. We drew up an audacious list of prospective contributors – topped by Ray. We called him up to setup an appointment. On the date intimated to us, we reached his house and knocked on the door; someone who looked like a bodybuilder answered the door. He tried to intimidate us into turning back and not meeting Ray – it turned out later to be Bhanu Ghosh, Ray’s production manager. As he was trying to persuade us, Ray emerged from behind him and showed us in.
He was dressed in a khaddar pair of pyjamas, a sky blue kurta. He spent about half an hour with us. The thing is, he was very tall, so you had to crane your neck up at a painful angle to look at his face. I guess he realized that we were a pair of youngsters, too overwhelmed by the occasion, so he asked us about our backgrounds, our university education, general stuff. Tea was served alongwith channa chur, a particular brand that you can get only from Ujala in Kalighat. Back then, it was quite famous – not so much now. We broached the subject of him writing for us – he inquired about the subject. We recommend Pather Panchali and he was a little disappointed; he informed us that he had already written a lot on the film. Anyways, he asked us to return a few days later. I went to meet him alone and he told me that he had started working on a new film, so he couldn’t really contribute to our publication. What really did strike me about him was the simplicity of his lifestyle, and I felt that I was in the presence of a man, who in appearance and stature, was a quintessential product of the cultural Renaissance in Bengal.
Anyways, my friend joined The Economic Times later and then went on to work in The Telegraph. I will meet him today after thirty years.
This interview is the first in a series of pieces sourced from Umbra, a periodical on film journal published by Projectorhead’s sister film society, Lightcube.