Bloodline Triumphs

Sandip Ray is aware that any film he makes almost inevitably invites comparisons with his father, Satyajit Ray's work. But he does not feel intimidated. This fourth-generation Ray has just finished his ninth film, a Psychological thriller, slated for release in November

Arup K De Kolkata

As it often happens with children of great achievers, Sandip Ray was somewhat eclipsed by the dazzle of his father's name during the latter's lifetime. That was, perhaps, why it took him some time to win unstinted recognition of being a filmmaker in his own right. With the intimidating lineage of Satyajit, Sukumar and Upendra Kishore before him, Sandip has emerged as one of the ace film directors Bengal has today. He crafted a carefully executed style in the unique gharana of his legendary father.

Described in 1971 as the "Fourth Generation Ray, Artist" by Marie Seton in the dedication of her celebrated biography (Portrait of a Director) of Satyajit Ray, Sandip has now become an "artist" for both the big and the small screen. A veteran of eight features and a considerable number of telefilms, he has now finished his ninth big screen venture, Hitlist. A psychological thriller based on an American pulp fiction, it features, among others, Dhritiman Chaterji and Tinnu Anand. Both of them had worked in close association with his father - the former as an actor and the latter an assistant director. Shot partly in Kolkata and partly in Malaysia, Hitlist is slated for release towards the end of November this year.

Sandip developed an avid interest in films quite early in his childhood. He did his own script, complete with shot illustrations, when he was only eight. Around the same time, he began penning rhymes and did an original comic strip for Sandesh, the children's magazine founded by his great grandfather Upendra Kishore and edited subsequently by his grandfather Sukumar (known as the pioneer of nonsense verse in India), father and himself. Being with his father during shooting, editing, drawing and other activities helped him grow as an instinctive filmmaker and artist.

Satyajit was not merely a father to Sandip but a great teacher as well, though he never helped his son with his studies unless told to. "Whatever I learnt about art and filmmaking I learnt from Baba," says Sandip. "As a child, I tried to imitate Baba by producing freehand drawings. He encouraged me. Later on, when I started doing serious artworks, I always showed him the material before sending it to print. He made corrections if there were any errors. Baba designed the covers of his own books, but I had to do the covers of some of his books published posthumously."

It was, again, Satyajit who helped fuel Sandip's interest in films. Father and son watched a lot of films together, light and serious. "Apart from serious films, Baba was fond of James Bond movies. We also saw many Hitchcock movies together. Baba did not like talking while watching a film. Back home, we would discuss different aspects of the movie we had just seen." So, the education went on through seeing and free-flowing discussions, and not in the traditional manner of a stern father teaching his son with a cane in hand.

Born in 1953, Sandip has virtually no memory of the making of Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), the film that changed the face of Indian cinema and made the international community sit up to take notice of an obscure movie maker from Bengal who was to become one of the greatest directors of the world. His mother, Bijoya, took him to see the film at a Kolkata theatre in 1955 but saw during the intermission that the child didn't like the darkness that filled the hall. So she brought him back home. But then the two-year-old insisted on going back. "Though I was too small to realise what was happening on the screen, the film probably had a subliminal effect on me," Sandip says. "Later on, I saw the film quite a number of times. People who came to meet Baba from afar would often want to see Pather Panchali. So we had to organise private screenings for them, mostly in studios. Pather Panchali moved me to tears whenever I saw it."

When Sandip grew older, Satyajit began to take him to watch shootings during holidays. "I was there at the Aurora Studio when the much-talked-about cocktail party scene of Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone) was shot," Sandip recalls. "The cream of Tollygunge was there. It gave me a feeling of awe. I felt I was in great company. I also faintly remember the shooting of Aparajito (The Unvanquished) in Boral village where Pather Panchali had been shot. I saw most of the great stars of Tollygunge like Chhabi Biswas, Pahari Sanyal and Tulsi Chakraborty in casual and intimate moods during shooting breaks. Going to see Baba work was like going on a picnic." All this helped Sandip develop a "cinematic" frame of mind, so to speak.

In 1970, Sandip began his career in cinema as a still photographer on the sets of Satyajit's Pratidwandi (The Adversary), a film where Dhritiman Chaterji played the lead role. Tinnu Anand was then working with Satyajit as an assistant director in Kolkata. In 1976, Sandip started as one of the assistant directors to his father. "Initially, I was interested only in pre-production work," says Sandip. "Later, I worked first as a still photographer and then as an assistant director with him." Still later, when his father's health began to show signs of failing, Sandip assisted him in all his activities, from scripting to pre-release publicity.

"After the release of Ghare Baire (Home and the World), Ray wanted to get back to his work at once. But his battle with failing health had begun... it was to continue over the remaining years of his life," writes Indrani Majumdar in her Afterword for a posthumous edition of Portrait of a Director. "His doctors would not allow him to shoot outdoors, handle the camera or do anything that might be physically taxing... Over the next two years, his involvement with filmmaking took a different turn. He now gave attention to the small screen, allowing Sandip to handle direction and other more strenuous aspects of his work."

In fact, Sandip had to handle parts of the shooting for Ghare Baire. He says, "I supervised the direction during the outdoor shooting for Ghare Baire for a couple of days in 1984 when Baba could not be present because of bad health." He took over handling the camera during the shooting of the last three Ray films - Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People), Shakha Prosakha (Branches of a Tree) and Agantuk (The Stranger).

Sandip's break as an independent filmmaker came about in the early 1980s when he filmed one of Satyajit's popular novellas for children, Fatikchand (Fatik and the Juggler). Fatikchand, which deals with the relationship between a little boy and a middle-aged juggler, picked up the Best Feature Film Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1984. The promise shown by Sandip's directorial debut was vindicated in his next venture, Goopi Bagha Phire Elo (The Return of Goopi and Bagha), a sequel to Ray's Goopi Gayen Bagha Bayen (The Adventures of Goopi and Bagha) and Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Diamond Kingdom). It received the Akira Kurosawa Award at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1992. Third in the Goopi-Bagha series, the fairytale film is meant primarily for kids but was accepted by the young and the old alike because it had subtle layers for grown-up viewers as well.

Sandip made his first Hindi feature film, Target, in 1995. He would have done it earlier had the tragedy of Ray's passing not occurred in April 1992. "I selected a story by Bengali novelist Prafulla Ray," he says. "It had enough tension and other ingredients to hold audiences in thrall. But I changed my mind after Baba's passing."

Satyajit wanted to shoot a film, which he named Jagaran (The Awakening), in the winter of 1992, while Sandip had a mind to do his the following summer. But death intervened. "I decided to do Jagaran instead because I thought the film would give an idea of the lines Baba was thinking on in his final days," Sandip says. "I felt I should let people know that."

That Ray began to change his style was evident from his last three films, from Ganashatru onwards. They raised disturbing questions and challenged the mores of our profit-driven, consumerist society. The society he painted was one where values like honesty and rectitude were at a discount. The lyricism and tenderness that had marked his earlier films were replaced by a mood of disenchantment and protest. Jagaran, too, kept up the trend.

The title of the film that Sandip made was changed to Uttaran (The Broken Journey). It tells of a successful city doctor who undergoes an inner transformation while treating a peasant in a remote rural area. Only some life-saving drugs would save the patient. "When the doctor finds how difficult it is for the poor farmer to procure those expensive drugs, he feels upset," says Sandip. "That brings about a fundamental change in his attitude to life and society. He starts questioning the rationale of a society that cannot save the lives of its own people."

It was Ray's own question. He had to undergo expensive treatment (part of the costs of which were borne by the Central and the state governments as he could hardly afford it) during his illness. The question emerged from the frustration he felt when doctors attending on him spoke of their experiences of working at health camps in villages where people had little access to medical facilities or too little money to buy treatment even if they were transferred to a city. Uttaran won the Glauber Rocha Award in Chile in 1994.

Target succeeded Uttaran. Set in a Bihar village, Target captures the violent conflict between a tyrannical feudal lord and bonded labourers who are fighting for a raise. The subject was quite different from those Sandip had handled before. As he says, "After a sombre and subdued film like Uttaran, I desperately needed a change of pace; thankfully, Target was the answer. It has a bigger canvas, a gripping narrative, colourful characters, and, above all, strong human relationships. It also deals with some vital issues: untouchability (still relevant, still rampant in various parts of our country), exploitation and illegal poaching... Hence, making Target has been a memorable experience for me." Though it is one of the least watched of Sandip's films in India, Target greatly impressed foreign audiences. It was adjudged the Best Film according to viewers' opinion at the Sydney International Film Festival in 1996. Besides, critics in major US newspapers hailed it as a remarkable viewing experience.

Then came Bombaier Bombete (Bandits from Bombay) in 2003 and Nishijapan (After the night...Dawn) in 2005. The former, commercially the most successful of Sandip's films to date, is based on a well-known detective story featuring Feluda, the super-sleuth whom his father immortalised through his stories and films. It revolves around a failed attempt by a Bombay smuggler to bring in a precious chain strung with diamonds and pearls belonging at one time to Nana Sahib, a hero of the first war for Indian independence in 1857. Legend has it that the chain passed on to Jung Bahadur of Nepal who gave Kashi Bai, Nana Sahib's wife, two villages in exchange. The smuggler, who meets popular mystery writer Jatayu (pen name of Lalmohan Ganguly) in Calcutta in disguise, gives him a book in a packet to deliver to a certain person at the Santa Cruz Airport. Jatayu delivers a different book in a similar packet. The original book, in which a hollow was made by tearing out some pages to place the historical ornament for smuggling, turns out to be a volume of Life Divine by Sri Aurobindo. Jatayu panics, but Feluda, who accompanies him to Bombay, catches the villain on a train during the shooting of a film based on Jatayu's story.

Nishijapan, on the other hand, is unlike any of the other films Sandip has made till now. He showed enough courage to take up a story (which was one of Satyajit's favourites) by author Narayan Gangopadhyay that deals with man's basic helplessness in the face of hostile nature, and how that helplessness tends to affect human relationships. But Sandip's is far from being a bleak film, as the protagonists, who face starvation and a collapse of ties in the wake of an earthquake, ultimately feel the power of love and rediscover themselves.

Between 1984 and 2002, Sandip made a good number of telefilms and documentaries, including one on legendary singer Kishore Kumar. This documentary was originally made in 1988, but he updated it recently by putting in some new material.

In 2007, Sandip made another Feluda film, Kailashe Kelenkari, which became yet another box-office grosser. Tintorettor Jishu (Jesus Christ by Tintoretto) was the next Feluda film by Sandip, which opened last year. It is the story of the theft of a painting of Jesus Christ by Tintoretto, known as the last great painter of the Italian Renaissance, and how Feluda solves the mystery by the use of his unique magojastro (brain power).

"Baba did two mystery-cum-adventure films, Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) and Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God) for children. They were great hits with adults as well. Goopi Gayen Bagha Bayen (The Adventures of Goopi and Bagha), which he made in the late '60s, was also essentially a children's film but it, too, was enormously enjoyed by adults," says Sandip. Though Satyajit chose Soumitra Chatterjee for the role of Feluda, Sandip had both Shashi Kapoor and Sabyasachi Chakraborty play the private investigator on different occasions.

Who is the better Feluda - Soumitra Chatterjee or Sabyasachi Chakraborty? Sandip does not hide his partiality to Sabyasachi, even though he says he admires Soumitra as Feluda. "Feluda has become an iconic figure. Many other actors are likely to do this role in the future," he says. "So it will be increasingly difficult to make a comparison."

Sandip likes to call Hitlist a psychological drama rather than a whodunit, though the film revolves around a murder which is solved by a retired cop played by Dhritiman Chaterji. The film deals with corruption in the advertising world. According to Sandip, a whodunit is ideal for the small screen because of one-time viewing. A detective story is a misfit for the big screen. In saying so, Sandip echoes the opinions of his father who described Chiriakhana (The Zoo) as his most unsatisfying film. He had been forced by circumstances to do the film against his better judgement.

"He is certainly ready technically," wrote Ray to Marie Seton about his son's maiden project, Fatikchand. "The only pity is that he cannot enjoy the fruits of technology but must face all the hardships I did in my early phases... I know, and he knows, that he is handicapped by being my son, but he has enough equanimity not to be bothered."

Sandip is aware that any film that he makes almost inevitably invites comparisons with his father's work, but he does not feel intimidated. As he says, "When Baba was around, I felt apprehensive about whether he'd approve my work. He was never there with me during the shooting of Fatikchand. He was not working when I was shooting Goopi Bagha Phire Elo. He would visit the studios after lunch and go back home before I packed up. However, I have to be alert while I make my films, because I know comparisons are likely to be drawn."

Were Sandip not the "Fourth Generation Ray", the audience would probably expect far less of him. "I know how demanding my viewers are," says Sandip. "I have to be careful not to let them down."

The writer edits Salt Lake Post, a magazine published from Kolkata, and is CEO of Satyajit Ray Society

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2009