People know Satyajit Ray as a master director, as the man who put Indian cinema on the world map, but he was so much more. How many really know Ray beyond his cinema? Ray was a master writer as well. To revive and continue a magazine called Sandesh that had a history and legacy of its own was not a small thing. His was a dynasty of great writers. His father, Sukumar Ray, was no less of a genius, if not greater, when it came to children’s fiction. The images that he created through his words as well as the illustrations were not child’s play, and he was a master of gibberish and nonsense verse. His sister and Manikda’s (as Satyajit Ray was fondly called) aunt, Shukhalata Rao, also wrote extensively for children.
First, the tales
As a Bengali child, you grow up with Sukumar Ray’s poems and the stories written by Satyajit Ray. Satyajit Ray’s movies come much later. Also, let’s not forget his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray, the writer of the fantasy adventure, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which later Ray turned into a movie. Upendrakishore Ray was also a master storyteller. And all their writings, when you scratch beneath the surface, reveal layers that are not just meant for children.
One of Ray’s greatest achievements has been in the field of science fiction, especially his stories involving the mad scientist, professor Shonku. Also, much has been written about Spielberg’s ET (1982) having uncanny similarities with Ray’s script of The Alien, which was loosely based on his story Bonkubabu’s Bandhu, published in Sandesh in 1962.
[When Satyajit Ray asked Gulzar why he learned Bengali] I joked that I had picked up the language while writing love letters!
The new kind of modern children’s fiction that started with his grandfather slowly evolved into a very new-age science fiction in Ray’s writings. In fact, Ray built his Professor Shonku based on a character called Hesoram Hushiar, created by his father. It is amazing how Manikda not only managed to retain the legacy but also took it forward.
Love letters and tagore
I had the rare opportunity to meet him and I own it as a great compliment to myself, with all my modesty and humility, that he had wanted to work with me. He was about to start his adaptation of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and was in Bombay for a few days. He had sent a message for me through Hrishida (Hrishikesh Mukherjee) to meet him at the Sun and Sand hotel in Juhu where he was staying. I was just an ordinary writer then. I got a tad scared…I was so much in awe of him.
However, I met him. He was looking at the ocean. I presented myself. He turned and in that deep voice of his, he asked me to pull up a chair. He told me he wanted to make Goopy Gyne a bilingual film, and I and Shailendra had been recommended to him to write the Hindi script. He had chosen me as I understood and could speak Bengali. Till then he was speaking in his very proper and impeccable British English. Suddenly, he broke into chaste Bengali and asked: “Tumi Bangla bolte paro? Ki kore shikhley? (Do you speak Bengali? Why did you learn it?)” His tone had changed completely!
I joked that I had picked up the language while writing love letters! Although, to be honest, I had learnt Bengali to read the original texts of Tagore.
The next time I met him was also for the script of Goopy Gyne and it was in Kolkata at the New Theatre. He wrote all the songs for me in his beautiful handwriting, which till date remains one of my most treasured possessions, and then suddenly asked how I would translate a line like “Amra sheedha shaadha Bangla’r manush” for a pan-India audience.
I promptly translated it to “Hum seedhe saadhe dehat ke log hai” and he was very happy with it! However, later on he decided to make the film only in Bengali.
Satyajit Ray’s film Shatranj Ke Khilari won the National Award and he made his grandfather’s fantasy adventure (above) Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne into a film
The lost moment
Later when he was working on Munshi Premchand’s Shatranj Ke Khilari, I learned that he was in Bombay and about to leave for Calcutta. I rushed to meet him at the airport. In those days, you could buy a two-rupee ticket and go inside. I told him that I really wanted to work with him and was very keen to write the dialogues for Shatranj. But he had already committed it to Shama Zaidi. She was doing the costumes for the movie and had shown interest in writing the script as well and since she knew the language well, he had said yes. He finished the sentence with, “It is one of those things, you know…” in his clear baritone.
As I recall the incident, I can still almost hear his voice saying it in his own typical way. And that is how I lost my opportunity to work with him the second time.
(As told to Ananya Ghosh)
Gulzar is a doyen of Urdu poetry and is also a celebrated lyricist, screenwriter and filmmaker
This is Part Three of a series of essays celebrating the legendary filmmaker, Satyajit Ray. Next week’s tribute is by Parambrata Chatterjee.
From HT Brunch, June 28, 2020
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