Your Films, Our Pride

Sujit Mukherjee

Orient Longman
paperback ed. (1998)
You rang the doorbell with some trepida­tion. It was generally believed he was a haughty person, seldom welcomed visits from strangers, did not enjoy meeting persons of little accomplishment, and so on. But it was too late now because the door had begun opening. The first shock you got was that it was he himself who opened the door, and not some servitor. The second shock was that he was a head taller than I was (I don't really know about you, but I'm nearly two inches over six feet). The third was that wonderful voice saying, "Asoon, asoon," (Come in, come in). More memorable than the reality of that welcome was the quality of that voice.

That is how I remember, though about thirty years have passed, the first of my few visits to Satyajit Ray's residence. I was nearly a stranger and a person of no particular accomplishment, but I had been granted access to him at home because I had worked on what would become his first and only book in English on cinema, Our Films Their Films (1976). I must quickly disclaim that I had not worked with him on the book. That was done entirely by his devotee and friend, the late Nirmalya Acharya, who was then associated with the Kolkata office of Orient Longman as publication advisor. The author has recorded his debt to Nirmalya simply, but comprehensively on the 'Acknowledgements' page of the book. And I can vouch for the unremitting con­cern with which Nirmalya supervised its pro­duction.

My having anything to do with this book was entirely accidental. I had just joined Orient Longman at Delhi, did not have much work in the early days, had brought with me very little experience of editing books, when a large packet of typed material arrived on my desk from our Kolkata office. I was thrilled no end to learn that these represented occasional arti­cles on cinema written by Satyajit Ray, but was suitably worried to be told that I was expected to write an editorial report on this material. Had the subject been English studies, or American literature, or Indian cricket, I would have taken up the challenge without hesita­tion. But I knew little about the theory or prac­tice of filmmaking, could not recall ever having read any book on the subject, and had never written anything remotely related to cinema.

Nevertheless, I got down to the job, read every line of every article in the packet, then wrote my report. As with all inexperienced but enthu­siastic publishing editors, I wrote a long and wordy report. With temerity I didn't know I owned, I praised many articles, rejected some others, suggested how a few could be revised to improve them. Finally I divided the material into two parts -- one consisting of writing on Indian (i.e., our) films, the other of writing on foreign (i.e., their) films -- and proposed that the author should furnish some more articles, write them freshly if necessary, to fill up the first part. Once I got going, I must have got carried away, forgetting that I was commenting on the writings of a rather eminent person.

Hyperion Edition
Hardcover (1994)
I realised this when the report came back to me, properly typed, ready to be forwarded to our Kolkata office. Therefore, in my forwarding letter to the then Kolkata manager -- R N (Robi) Das, whom I hardly knew at the stage -- I requested humbly that since all I had written could not be shown to the great man, only the more neutral portions should be extracted and conveyed to him. I did not hear from Kolkata for quite some time and feared the worst.

Only when I visited our Kolkata office again, did I come to know about the fallout of my report. For some reason not clear to me, Robi Das sent the entire report to the author. Within a couple of days, Satyajit Ray telephoned, and wanted to know who had written that report. Robi immediately thought that the report had offended the author, and began making excuses -- that he didn't know the person at all; that this person had been newly recruited by our head office in Delhi; that he belonged to Patna but had been found in Pune; that he was merely an English teacher before he joined Orient Longman -- and concluded by assuring the author that he could wholly ignore the report and go ahead with the book any way he liked. Whereupon Satyajit Ray said that belonging to Patna need not be held against anybody, since his own wife hailed from there; then added that he had found the report very interesting and useful, and that he wanted to meet its originator when he next vis­ited Kolkata.

That is how I happened to be outside Satyajit Ray's door late afternoon (or early evening, what Bengalis call bikel) one day, where I began this article. Several other visits followed, though I was always anxious not to wear out my welcome -- yet I got to feel that I had known him for a long time. He has been writ­ten about so much, that I cannot hope to add anything that is not already known and revered. What I admired the most about each visit was how easily he made me feel at ease with him. That is not a quality one usually associates with eminent persons, especially among our countrymen (including women), many of whom have had eminence thrust upon them without really meriting it and can't quite handle it.

The book took a long time to get ready. That was partly my fault, partly Nirmalya Acharya's. The two-part frame I had suggested -- and the author accepted the suggestion -- required the addition of a few more pieces to balance the first part against the second. The author was too busy to write anything new --I think he was about to complete Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) when I wrote my now much-treas­ured (by me) report (of which I now have no copy, so it is a lost treasure). And Nirmalya, the original compiler, couldn't readily find new pieces to add to the collection. The author had thanked Nemai Ghosh (the filmmaker) and Sumit Sengupta "for their invaluable help in retrieving some of the more elusive pieces". Perhaps they, too, like many Bengali intellectuals, didn't like doing things in a hurry.

Nirmalya and I briefly debated the possibility of translating into English some pieces the author had written in Bangla. Being incapable of writing poetry or drama or fiction, I was only too eager to undertake such translation.
Bishoy Chalachitra
Ananda (1976)
But Nirmalya ruled out this possibility -- and I could not but concur -- because a collection of Satyajit Ray's writings in Bangla was also in the making. Entitled Bishoy Chalachitra, this was also first published in 1976. (But how I would have loved to translate into English statements such as "...Rudramoshai abaar amaar pechhone legechhen" in the opening sentence of the piece on Charulata. A literal translation of this would have to be "Mr. Rudra has again begun chasing my backside").

Sometime in 1976, my book got printed to Nirmalya Acharya's satisfaction, and was pub­lished. In those days, Orient Longman seldom organised release functions for their publications. But this was a very special publication and a special occasion had to be arranged. I could not be present that day, and thus only heard at second hand that it had turned out to be a very successful gathering. Professor Niharranjan Roy was the main speaker while Professor Sunitikumar Chatterji presided. Niharbabu spoke elegantly as usual. When it was Sunitibabu's turn, he waxed eloquent but mainly about the genius of Sukumar Ray (Satyajit's father). Ultimately, somebody had to nudge him as a reminder that the son, and not the father, was the focus of that evening's cel­ebration. Whereupon the acharya changed discourses in mid-flow and grew lavish in his praise of a calendar 'young Manik' had designed for Rabindranath Tagore's birth centenary in 1961.

I own and treasure a copy of Our Films Their Films, the first edition, released that day. It wears a jacket designed by Satyajit Ray, and carries his autograph inside (not that he autographed it especially for me -- it is one of several autographed copies that were presented to those who had worked on that book). It I remained a steady seller with Orient Longman and is often referred to as OFTF by younger members of their staff, who are too busy to pronounce the full title. This emasculation never fails to annoy me, because I believe the title grew out of my report where I had apparently complained that the original MS had more material on their films and not enough on our films.

This article has been reprinted from RayTrospective2001: A Celebration, compiled, edited, and published by Indrani Majumdar (New Delhi, 2002). We gratefully acknowledge Ms. Indrani Majumdar and Prof. Meenakshi Mukherjee to grant permission to publish this work in Parabaas.

Published October 12, 2004

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