Celluloid EDITED

If some films are sheer poetry, behind it is the unsung rigour of the editor's craft. A tribute to the brilliant editor of Satyajit Ray's films
Partha Mukherjee and Priyanka Mukherjee Kolkata 

An incense stick burns away. The aroma shall persist forever. The metaphor perhaps best describes Dulal Dutta. Deliberately oblivious of his anguish, he went on reinventing his craft. Despite the distress he never despaired. Reticent by nature, he chose to be eloquent through his silence - a taciturn and yet dignified gesture in reaction to the inattention he had to live with till his last breath. Or maybe it was his stoic acceptance of being uncared for. It's a puzzle that shall remain unsolved forever.  

This reminds me of an incident. One scorching summer morning, as I stood waiting for a bus at a four-point crossing of a busy thoroughfare of Kolkata, I heard some noise. An old man had collapsed unconscious on the pavement. I was busy but couldn't help rushing to the spot. 

It was Dulal Da lying unconscious. I asked for help so that I could take him to one of the clinics nearby. But no one came forward. I felt his pulse and found it to be normal. And to my relief, his blinking eyes showed that the danger was over. As soon as I sprinkled some water on his face, he sat up and asked for some water. I was with my wife and we helped him walk a short distance to a cab, which took him to the house of one of his cousins. That is where he gradually came around. 

I wonder if this could have happened with the better-known faces from the tinsel world. Would people have been so indifferent had he been one of their matinee idols? It is our sheer callousness that while we admire our stars, we remain blissfully ignorant of those who make them glimmer. Dulal Dutta was one of the rare few with whom the film industry has come of age, and yet, one of the most ignored.  
Dutta never had the gift of the gab. Shy and introvert, he could never blow his own trumpet. Instead he infused eloquence into pieces of celluloid, which later became masterpieces that we now boast of. 

Dutta grew up at Gondalpara, a small township under French-ruled Chandannagar. It was the 1930s and the boisterous boy would set the villagers on their toes, always up to some mischief - striping trees, fishing in the local ponds and playing hide-and-seek at Patalbari (underground house) near the river bank. This is how the boy came to gather experiences that he would treasure later in life. 

That Patalbari was where he happened to catch a glimpse of Rabindranath Tagore playing his gramophone, listening with rapture to his own composition in the caressing voice of Pankaj Kumar Mullick. 

And one morning, when he was eight, he saw the British force led by Charles Tegart and the French Police jointly raid the secret base of a group of rebels that included Aurobindo Ghosh, Ananta Singh, Jyotirmoy Ganguli, Loknath Bal, Makhanlal Ghoshal and a few others. Although Ghosh and others could escape, Ghoshal couldn't duck the bullets and died in the ambush. The boy had witnessed history that morning and the memory would forever remain etched on his mind. Dutta finished his schooling at Banga Vidyalaya and entered Duplex College in Chandannagar. He spent these formative years at his paternal uncle's place.  

The boy had by then developed a taste for cinema, watching 'bioscopes' like Chand Sadagar, Savitri Satyaban, Hiranyakashipur Badh and Bhakta Prahlad with his paternal aunt at Cinema de France or the Shree Durga cinema hall. Sometimes the show would be interrupted when the makeshift screen slipped off the stand or the light of the petromax failed, but those frames of visuals would leave an indelible impression on his mind - in his dreams the characters would come alive in their glitzy outfits.

The boy would often crave to free himself from the tight reins of his guardians by running away from home. It was perhaps this urge for freedom - to live life his own way - that would later lead the young Dutta to go to Bombay. The Second World War was raging and the Japanese had been incessantly bombing Calcutta where the Dutta family had shifted from Chandannagar. He had bagged the job of a first-aid assistant with the Air Raid Precaution department of the Calcutta Corporation. But while playing carrom one afternoon, he decided to board the train to Bombay, with a mere 30 bucks on him. 

While still not quite far from home, Dutta discovered he had lost the money and his ticket. He was cursing his luck when he saw a man picking up some papers from the platform at Burdwan railway station. That is how he got back his money and ticket and could make it to his destination. The man who returned Dutta's stuff had in a way done enough to turn his fate. 

Life in Bombay, 'the city of dreams', was not quite like a dream. Dutta had to earn his living as a newspaper boy. He lost no chance to slip in himself, wherever, whenever. From the very day he arrived at the Dadar station, he had been seeking an opening at any of the studios, longing to learn the technicalities that go into the making of films. He knocked on quite a few doors and was yet to knock the right one - while many would talk hope, no one could offer him any scope. 

Then one day Dutta happened to catch the attention of KL Mitra, one of the better-known art directors of the time. It was through Mitra that he got acquainted with Satyen Bose. By then Dutta had picked up some nitty-gritties of editing. Impressed by his skills and more so by his perseverance, Bose offered him work as an editor for Bhor Hoey Elo ('It's Almost Dawn'). And it would soon turn out to be a bright dawn for Dutta too.

Work brought him back to Calcutta. He was still working on Bhor Hoye Elo at Calcutta Movietone Laboratory, when on the evening of July 27, 1952, Banshi Chandragupta told him about one of his friends, the creative director of the then famous British advertising agency DJ Keymer. This was Satyajit Ray. He had been looking for an editor for his first film, and Banshi Da had recommended Dutta's name to him.

Banshi Da told Dutta that the film was intended to be shot at outdoor locations and the director would not want any of the dialogues to be dubbed. A meeting with the director was fixed for the next Sunday. 

Sunday morning: The sky poured heavily and there was a chance the meeting would get cancelled. Still, Dutta reached the studio, drenched to the bone. Fortunately, Banshi Da was too obstinate to let the rain spoil his schedule. They paused only as long as it took Dutta's shirt to dry under a ceiling fan and then started out for Ray's residence at 31A, Lake Avenue.

The opportune moment had arrived at last. Ray was a tall, dark, handsome person with bright eyes, seemingly in his thirties. He told Dutta that he was going to make a film, Pather Panchali, based on Aam Antir Bhenpu, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's classic for children. Dutta had some idea about the storyline and was intrigued by the idea of translating it into celluloid. He didn't think twice before joining Ray's unit as the editor of the film. Thus started their Song of the Road.

Dulal da would often share a story with us that the editing of Pather Panchali was not yet over and it had to be sent to the Museum of Modern Arts (MOMA) in 15 days. Ray took leave from his office so that they could spend all their time in the editing room. The onus was on Dutta to finish the editing in time, and yet, to maintain the film's flavour. And he did it the best way that he could. Pather Panchali did reach MOMA on time and, indeed, the result made history.  

Such was his fidelity towards Ray that even the lure of lucre from Hollywood couldn't make him join Merchant Ivory at the cost of separation from his Manik Da.

A bond between the two grew over a short period of time. They had come to appreciate one another's needs. While Dutta developed a keen understanding of what Ray's nuanced on-screen portrayals required on the editing table, Ray too would accept his suggestions wholeheartedly. 

For instance, even after the final print had come out for Nayak, Dutta still felt the need to make an insert in the sequence where Sharmila Tagore destroys the sheaf of papers carrying the superstar's (played by Uttam Kumar) interview. Ray was initially apprehensive about the prospect of the insertion. Dutta, however, managed to do it and the result matched up to the maestro's expectation. 

Having worked with Ray for almost four decades (from Pather Panchali, 1952 to Agantuk, 1991), Dutta gained renown all over the world for the amazingly deft touch with which he edited the maestro's films. 

If the magic of montage can ever create poetry, that is what Dutta, the sensitive editor, did to Ray's films. And the fact that Ray banked on him for all his ventures was a tacit recognition of Dutta's flair for that finishing touch. 

Even Marie Seaton, film critic and biographer of Sergei Eisenstein, marveled at Dutta's genius. Dutta, under Ray's close supervision, developed a cutting style of great economy, but one which could reveal the poetry of the content. Akira Kurosawa commented, "His work can be described as flowing composedly, like a big river." 

Dutta's editing skills were most apparent in scenes of dialogue, such as the picnic and memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri. Ray described in a 1966 article, 'Some Aspects of My Craft', the alternative assemblages Dutta would put together for him: "These offer endless variations of emphasis, unlimited scope for pointing up shades of feeling. It is not unusual for an important dialogue scene to be cut in half a dozen different ways before a final satisfactory form is achieved." 

Dutta has worked with other directors, including James Ivory on his first film, The Householder. His master cuts made magic in other films too. The charm of his editing keeps us engrossed in films like Debatra, Andhare Alo, Charan Kabi Mukunda Das, Balika Badhu, Ferari Fouz and Uttoran.  

With his phenomenal contribution to Indian cinema, hedidn't really get his rewards. The sage who sacrificed himself at the altar of his craft passed away on August 17, 2010, at the age of 86. As admirers of his work, we can only hope that with death Dulal Da shall become alive to all - that the neglect he had suffered would come to an end.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2010