The photographer who documented Satyajit Ray’s work tirelessly till the very end
Frame by frame
Nemai Ghosh’s tall frame sits somewhat bent with the steel plate in his back, a remaining vestige of the physical toll of having been Satyajit Ray’s shadow from 1969 to 1991, when Ray shot his last frame. Ghosh sustained many falls in his pursuit of the perfect composition and his zeal to protect the camera rather than his back. The octogenarian’s memory is crammed with Ray and more Ray, having shot a humongous number of images of every kind—not just multiple shots of every frame that Ray captured on film, but also the visionary’s myriad frame by frame moods on and off the set.
In short, Ghosh lived his entire professional life to capture Ray and his work through his lens. So much so that it prompted the maestro to once ask him why he photographed quite that much; to which Ghosh replied, “I shoot because you shoot.” Ghosh didn’t just immortalise Ray’s leading ladies in their various moods, but also introduced at least two of them to Manik da (as Ray was fondly known to those close to him). Ghosh confesses he is plain helpless when it comes to choosing his favourite photo of Ray’s leading ladies, but here, he offers us a rare insight into the story behind the pictures:
This particular frame is unique in how it has captured Sharmila Tagore in motion, says Ghosh. Tagore was full of infectious energy, and singing and dancing were second nature to her. On Ray’s birthday, she arranged for Santhal dancers to come to where he was staying, and ensured that everyone, including the birthday boy, danced and made merry. Shooting used to be suspended during “top-sun” hours when everyone stayed indoors. On one such afternoon, Tagore was sitting near a window, leafing through Ghosh’s photographs of the shoot, while Ray rested supine nearby, with the rest of the crew lolling around. Suddenly, she said, “Nemai ekhane esho (Nemai, come here),” startling Ghosh, whose Bengali sensibilities were unaccustomed to the use of a first name without enough acquaintanceship. Tagore asked him what he did for a living, and when he answered that he was an amateur photographer, she gently asked him to refer to himself as a non-professional photographer instead. Their friendship continues to this day.
Ghosh calls Pikoo a “lyrical” movie. A bold film made and produced by Henri Fraise for a French television channel, Pikoo is based on a short story called Pikoo’r Diary, written by Ray himself. The film follows the titular character, a six-year-old boy, and his feelings about his mother Seema’s passionate affair with family friend, who he refers to as “uncle” (played by Victor Banerjee), as his grandfather lies dying in the room next door. A young and intense Aparna Sen requested Ray to ask both Ghosh and Ray’s son Sandip—who was also a still photographer on the set— to leave during the shooting of a “bed scene”, perhaps because Ghosh and her father had been long-time acquaintances. Ray acquiesced easily, and Ghosh’s collection remained just a few frames short.
Based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s acclaimed novel of the same name, Ashani Sanket recreated the great Bengal Famine of 1942 on celluloid. And it was Ghosh who was instrumental in getting a teenaged Bobita to play the lead. It was in Dhaka that Ghosh met Bobita’s sister, who requested him to photograph Bobita and show the pictures to Ray. Bobita came all made up, and was promptly asked by Ghosh to scrub her face clean, after which he shot her stills under a tree. Ray liked the girl in the photograph, and Bobita went on to essay the key role of a Brahmin schoolteacher’s wife in this film, which was set in the caste conscious times of Bengal.
Ganashatru literally means ‘an enemy of the people’ and was an adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name. Ruma Guha Thakurta played the role of Maya, the protagonist’s wife, who supports him in his fight for the townspeople. Thakurta was not only Ray’s wife Bijoya’s niece, but also Kishore Kumar’s first wife, with a standing of her own as an established singer-actor. Ghosh admits he found her intimidating, a trifle too intimidating to breach despite his utterly democratic sets (Ray’s sets were great equalisers), and everybody mixed freely, but with Thakurta being much older and more well known as Bijoya’s niece, and with far greater accomplishments to her credit than most of his younger leading ladies, it was natural for a still photographer on the sets to be in awe of her.
In 1977, Ray adapted Munshi Premchand’s short story into the first of his two Hindi films (the other being Sadgati in 1981). Ghosh recalls how the producer, Suresh Jindal, had insisted on a still photographer of his choice from Mumbai, to which Ray quietly nodded. Upon being asked what Ghosh was to do then, Ray simply said “Nemai would do Nemai’s work”. Within 10 days, the photographer from Mumbai had had enough of Ray’s intense energy. He promptly quit, leaving Ghosh’s lens in charge of documenting the sets once again. Being a theatre buff himself, Ghosh knew of Shabana Azmi from her Indian People’s Theatre Association days, and this admiration blossomed into a warm, long-lasting friendship. Azmi had a small but powerful role, including a lovemaking scene that she handled like it was any other. In this frame, her vulnerability as Khurshid—the wife whose husband’s life has been completely consumed by chess—overflows through her limpid eyes.
Ghosh remembers Simi Garewal as a patient actor who sat through many hours of Anant Das’s make-up to turn her peaches and cream complexion into the dark skin of a Santhal tribal. Aranyer Din Ratri was also based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s famous novel of the same name, about a young Santhal girl’s tryst with a man from the city. At the film’s outdoor shoot, which was deep in the jungles of Chhipadohar in Jharkhand, Ghosh and Garewal did not share a common spoken language, and thus communicated through their eyes, he says. A similar frame to this one won Ghosh a UNESCO prize for photography.
Pratidwandi was based on a Sunil Gangopadhyay novel, and was the first in Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy, capturing the trials and tribulations of an urbanised existence. Ghosh smiles as he reminisces about the competitive bonhomie between the leading ladies, Roy and Krishna Bose. Both would pester him to use their photographs for publicity, little knowing that Ray himself cleared every little aspect of the publicity. This particular frame was captured on the rooftop of the 18-storey Tata Centre, an iconic post-colonial building overlooking the sparse Calcutta Maidan. Shot in the late afternoon sun, this frame captures the play of light and human emotions in a mellow yet vivid kaleidoscope.
Story goes that Ghosh knew Mamata Shankar first as a schoolgirl, and later as a talented young actor. At a film party at The Park Hotel, Ray sent a hand-delivered letter of absence to his hosts through Ghosh. It was at this party that Shankar asked Ghosh for guidance on how to make it as a leading lady in a Ray film. The next day, Ghosh mentioned Shankar’s wish to Ray, which the film-maker brushed aside because he thought Shankar’s hair wasn’t long enough (Ray liked thick, long hair on his leading women; Shankar actually did have hair like that). Ghosh tipped off Shankar to enter through the back door (since the front door had a huge Do Not Disturb sign). But when she visited the Ray residence, her first attempt was foiled by the ever-vigilant Bijoya, who sent her away with a “he is unwell”. Ghosh then asked Shankar to revisit at seven in the evening. Shankar went with her long hair open, Ray opened the back door to his home, and the director and his leading lady came face to face.