PRINT April 1992


SOMETIME IN THE FIRST MONTHS of 1960 I went to Calcutta. My main reason for going was to meet Satyajit Ray. Indian friends of mine in New Delhi had told me that in addition to the films that make up his famous “Apu Trilogy”—Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu—Ray had directed other films that were not at all known in the West, and I was hoping that somehow I could see them. There were in fact two, and one of them—Jalsaghar, better known as The Music Room—sounded particularly intriguing. The other was called Parash Pathar, or The Philosopher’s Stone, and Ray had made both in the gap between finishing Aparajito and taking up work on the last film of his trilogy.

My friends had told me that it was not hard to meet India’s foremost artist: all I had to do was to call him up. So I did just that once I arrived in Calcutta, getting his number out of the directory. I don’t remember our conversation—I was a good deal more brash and outgoing then than I am now—but he must have encouraged me in his generous way, and we made an appointment for the next day. We met in a shadowy coffee house in the center of town, where Ray was waiting for the Censor Board’s decision on Devi, or The Goddess, his newest film. He was afraid they might not take to it, and, very tall and very tense, he chain-smoked as the censors watched the film in a nearby movie theater. The story was somewhat controversial for 1960: a miracle is attributed to a young woman (Sharmila Tagore), and she becomes the subject of mass veneration, until, estranged from her husband and family by all the commotion and unable to save a child she’s related to, her mind snaps. Though the film is set in the past, Ray was afraid it could still offend orthodox Hindus, one or more of whom might be found among the censors. Before long, however, a message came that Devi had got through all right.

Ray arranged for me to see The Music Room with him in the screening room of the studio at Tollygunj, a suburb of Calcutta, where he had his production headquarters. Since it was not subtitled, he explained certain passages to me during the projection. As my friends had led me to expect, the effect of this film on me, as on countless others since then all over the world, was extraordinary. Its ravishing black and white images (Subrata Mitra was the cameraman) and intoxicating music (provided by the sitar player Ustad Vilayat Khan and the singer Begum Akhtar) created an unforgettable impression on me, just as Pather Panchali had done, and as Charulata would a few years later. The story was also unforgettable, grand, and Chekhovian: a proud and reclusive nobleman, mourning for his lost wife and son, has locked himself up in a crumbling palace by a river. Everything is fast going to ruin, partly brought about by his taste for expensive musical soirees, at which the greatest classical musicians sing and play and Kathak dancers perform. Suddenly the nobleman, or zamindar, played by Chhabi Biswas, comes violently and obsessively to life in order both to glorify art and the family honor and to put down an upstart nouveau riche neighbor.

When the screening was over and I told him how very, very much I’d liked it—how rarely is one given the opportunity to praise a great work to its maker!—Ray seemed a bit surprised. Yes, he liked the film well enough, he said, but technically it didn’t seem all that good to him, and when he’d sent it to the Moscow Film Festival it had been criticized for being “negative” and decadent. He doubted that audiences in New York and London would be interested in it. When I urged him to show it to his American distributor, Ed Harrison, he said he’d think about it.

A day or two later I visited Ray on his set. He was making The Postmaster, part of Teen Kanya, a trio of short films, based on stories by Rabindranath Tagore, that became known in the West as Two Daughters. The location for The Postmaster was near a village some miles from Calcutta. I had to leave my hotel very early in the morning in order to travel there with the crew. This was the first feature-film location I had ever visited on an actual shoot, so I did not know what to expect in the way of a routine. I could not appreciate then that the process I was to watch that day would be virtually the same as on all the days to come when I’d be directing features myself, and that film units everywhere—when they try to be disciplined and cost-conscious, at any rate—behave in much the same way.

But what interested me most that day was that I was plunged into the world of Pather Panchali—into the verdant, tropical heart of a tiny rural community in what seemed to me the timeless India of Ray’s trilogy. All the evocative sounds, the woodpeckers (if that’s what they were) and the little green rustling parakeets, the moods of the softly changing weather, the solemn-faced village elders who appeared to do bit parts—everything was as I remembered from those films, and it seemed to me I had been lucky enough to have dropped out of the sky into their midst.

After tea and a cigarette or two, Ray began to set up the scene in which the young, uneasy, poetry-reading postmaster (Anil Chatterjee) from the city steps out on to the mud-floored veranda of his combination house and post office in the jungle, sits down, and his chair collapses under him. As he is recovering from the shock, a madman appears and starts an unintelligible harangue. The madman is soon driven off by the postmaster’s little housekeeper (Chandana Bannerjee), an orphan girl of ten or so whom he eventually begins to teach to read and write. It is not a very long sequence in the film, perhaps two minutes in all. Each bit of it was rehearsed and shot in sequence—first the collapsing chair, then the crouching lunatic, who seems to jump toward the sprawling postmaster like a big black spider, and finally the girl coming up and stamping her foot to get rid of this nuisance, after which the nuisance marches off, military style. There seemed to be no prolonged instruction to the actors; Ray doubtless told them pretty precisely what he wanted them to do and they tried to do it. The prop chair did not always break apart satisfactorily, but other than that, the scene seemed to be going along in a straightforward way, with few takes. Everything was very calm, very quiet, and very businesslike, with minute things being dealt with in preparation for shots to come—the sorts of things that visitors to a movie set don’t often notice, so that they think nothing at all is going on and that there is a lot of unnecessary, wasteful waiting around before something important happens—all a film set’s hidden activity, which is its heartbeat.

The cameraman that day was Soumendu Roy. Subrata Mitra, Ray’s usual cameraman (and soon to be my own on The Householder), was out of commission owing to an injured eye. During the shooting Ray took over the operation of the camera himself. This did not seem strange to me, having come from documentary filmmaking; I did not know that this is unusual on a feature. I once asked Mitra what he thought of the director taking over the camera like that, and he said only, “When the director’s a good operator I don’t mind.” At about one o’clock we had a meal. The crew and actors sat down in two long rows on mats on the ground—myself amongst them—and the food was served on shiny dark-green banana leaves in lieu of plates. There were dal and rice, but no utensils for a Westerner to eat them with, so I used my fingers. Since we were in fish-mad Bengal, I imagine there must have been a fish curry, but as I don’t often eat fish, I can’t remember it. And there must have been chapatis. Ray ate apart, from a tiffin brought from home, and I could see him bringing things up from its various layers. I think it would have been lèse-majesté for the director to have eaten with the others, as it often is elsewhere.

When the scene outside the postmaster’s hut had been completed, the unit moved to a nearby pond with a path running along its edge. This was the site of the final sequence in the film. The postmaster, who has secretly requested a transfer to some more congenial place, is joyously returning to the city. He passes his little housekeeper returning from the well, and she refuses to acknowledge him. He calls out to her, offering her a tip, but she doesn’t answer. He stands looking after her as the realization dawns on him of how shabbily he has treated her by sneaking off in this way. There was some urgency to shoot this scene in the day’s last sunlight; at that time of the year the days were short, but the sequence was finished without scrambling. Ray invited me into his car for the ride back to town and we immediately left. This was another lesson I learned that day: at the wrap, the director turns his back at once on his discarded set and on the others pulling it apart and packing it up, and, without a backward glance, is borne away. That is the way it is invariably done, unless there’s a very good reason indeed to linger behind.

James Ivory’s newest film, Howards End, from the novel by E. M. Forster, opened recently in New York.