If there is one name that cannot be overlooked in the annals of Indian cinema history, it would without doubt be that of Satyajit Ray, the one man who put India on the world map. But such is the disdain about archiving something of importance in the arts that it was always outsiders who attempted to not only curate but also archive and preserve his art. Pioneering efforts in this direction have been made by Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz which has successfully re-mastered and restored 22 of Ray’s 36 films from 1993 till date. One is uncertain whether some or all of them are available at the Society for Preservation of Satyajit Ray Films, Kolkata headed by son Sandip. So far, so good.
It was, therefore, heartening to view a display of rare archival material on the famed film-maker in Segovia, a small hill resort in Spain recently. But the more recent is the saddening news of the disappearance of the original storyboard and screenplay of the maker’s maiden directorial venture, Pather Panchali from the famed Cinematheque Francaise, Paris, the Mecca of sorts for film lovers, where the film-maker had deposited it way back in the 1960s.Although the fact of the missing documents first came to light shortly before his death in 1992 when he had recalled it for the purposes of a documentary to be made on him but the information about it was not revealed keeping in mind the delicate state of his health. It appears Sandip had sent another request a decade later in 2002, and when informed ‘no trace’ left the matter at that, and now when a German film-maker approached ‘Society’ the issue seems to have got raked up once again.
Questioned have often been raised about possible influences whether in terms of technique or style but discarded with more disdain than when they had come up. This is because the stories and contents of his films had forced him to evolve a form and technique that was wholly Indian, or should one say, very individualistic. Though there was no denying he was influenced by Western cinema because technically there was hardly any other cinema to learn from by watching movies. It could also be said that apart from simple ‘technique’ there was nothing that could be applied to the content of his cinema. To re-emphasise, Ray’s stories (including the Feluda series) were deeply rooted in the Indian culture and social traditions, and that too in his native Bengali. He was uneasy in the course of shooting Shatranj ke Khiladi because he was not familiar with the language, and that’s perhaps why his dream of making The Alien in English remained unfulfilled despite the fact that he kept reworking the script right through the 1970s.
Unlike most other directors, the original screenplays of Ray films were not merely scene and short breakdowns but a teaching guide—they contained sketches and drawings of characters complete with costumes and make-up with dummy dialogue (if they were not fully done), main incidents, set designs, outdoor locations, if required, camera placements, and even character movements. So they, therefore, meant more than a normal film, resultantly heavy in their import and historic value. They were not even ‘complete bound scripts’ as the contemporary jargon goes. They could also be termed as the director’s personal sketched shooting script for he felt writing detailed scripts was not relevant to his kind of cinematic vision. That was one of the reasons, it is believed, that he often operated the camera himself. One hardly knows of anyone else who did something beyond peeping into the lens eye to okay a shot. Ray would have certainly disapproved of the contemporary practice when the director runs towards a television screen to examine how the scene had been shot. After all, some of the best scenes and films were shot when untrained cameramen created magic, and the directors relied on their judgment. The system of playback, as in video, did not exist.
Pather Panchali, and Shatranj ke Khiladi, the negative of which has also been recently restored by the University of California, are two definite landmark Ray films, the first because it was his debut film which instantly put Indian cinema on world map, and the second because it is the only feature length film that he made in a language he did not really understand. Mercifully, it is believed that the producer of Shatranj, Suresh Jindal has indeed taken pains to preserve much archival material. But, unfortunately, not the script for Ray never parted with them. Society for Preservation of Satyajit Ray came about with a grant from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences after it conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award to the film-maker on his death bed, a grant which enabled renowned curator David Shepard who after looking at the material observed: “The work of no other world-class film-maker hangs on such a thin as Satyajit Ray’s.”
There are lessons to be learnt from Cinematheque Francaise experience where cinema heritage remains locked as safe as safety could be. Much less is the preparation for it in a country like India where everything is so fragile. Not very long ago a number of unaccounted prints of precious films got destroyed in a fire at the National Film Archive of India, Pune, and reports continue to filter in for loss of negatives with no takers from closing down, or thereabout laboratories in Mumbai.
It is now heartening to learn that NFDC empowered by a substantial grant from the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting has undertaken to restore 100 classics of Indian cinema (the damage to which ranged from moderate to severe and laden with faded colour, dust, grains etc even though they lay in strong vaults at NFAI, Mumbai) that include Tagore, the 60-minute documentary made on the Nobel Laureate. But according to experts a Ray classic or for that matter any other classic cannot be restored like a new film because it requires a different kind of aesthetic to be adhered to.
The million-dollar question however remains, where is the original script of Pather Panchali which if it cannot be located means just one thing: it has been stolen to what intent or purpose one does not know because even in the distant future it wouldn’t fetch a penny, if that had been the intent for stealing it? Another million-dollar question is, can’t a high-profile international spying network trace a work of art which, perhaps, means nothing to the international political class?
By Suresh Kohli