Sunday, June 23, 2024

Reminiscences of Satyajit Ray

Dhananjaya Kumar revisits his indelible and prized moments with the doyen of the Indian film industry, Satyajit Ray.

Washington, DC – This article is not about the world-renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray- lovingly called Manikda; rather, it is about the soft-hearted person behind the formidable personality. In fact, spending three weeks with him in 1978 was one of the most precious and instructive experiences of my life. Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess players) was Manikda’s first and only Hindi/English film, and I had persuaded him to visit USA and Canada to be present at some of the important screenings of the film in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Berkeley, San Francisco, and New York. Everywhere I watched many senior journalists, and high intellectuals sweat or shiver in front of his towering personality, piercing eyes, deep resonating voice, and impeccable English; then I watched the lucky child in me playing with the invisible child in him and cherishing each moment of the time spent together.

When I first met Manikda at the President Hotel in Mumbai in 1977, it was a working session with producer Suresh Jindal and the film crew. I also saw a few rushes (scenes with Sir Richard Attenborough as an actor) with Shabana Azmi, Sanjeev Kumar (Hari Bhai), Saeed Jaffrey, and a few other senior artists and technicians. During those interactions, I must have said something which convinced Manikda that I was the right person to promote and distribute the film in North America. That may have simplified Suresh’s decision also. With big help from my close friend Sankar Basu, taking on that task seemed to be the right thing to do. We also succeeded in getting Saeed and Suresh to agree to join the tour. Subsequently, I was in Delhi and saw Shabana again a few times at the International Film Festival and a party at Suresh’s house. She accepted my invitation but eventually was unable to join the trip. Hari Bhai was busy with his shooting schedule and suffering from hypertension, but we still met at his house. A few months later, I met Amjad Khan, who was quite amused when I told him about an American woman falling in love with his silky voice.

Phone calls were difficult those days, so Manikda and I exchanged many letters, some quite long and revealing. Those letters are tucked out of sight somewhere in my house but always remain fresh in my memory. Shortly before traveling from Kolkata, he wrote a letter asking me not to subject him to the torture of radio and TV interviews because that would make him nervous. But what actually happened was just the opposite.

We had taken him to a network television studio for an interview with a prominent journalist. They both sat facing each other at an angle, now with lights on and cameras rolling. The conversation had to be interrupted every few minutes to wipe the sweat off the interviewer’s face and puff it up with powder. And Manikda just sat there with ease, sipping water, which helped cool down the studio’s environment for the interviewer and the crew.

Manikda’s arrival in Washington DC was the most dramatic one. I was to pick him up at the airport but was delayed due to certain last-minute logistics. Yet I did not want Manikda to wait for me after arrival. Probably unconsciously, I crossed the speed limit on my way to the airport. Within moments, I was stopped by a police patrol – he told me I was speeding and asked why. I admitted the mistake and explained that the reason for going fast was being late to pick up Satyajit Ray, who was arriving from India, and I did not want him to wait or be inconvenienced in any way. The police officer seemed to recognize the name, and said, “Oh, Mr. Ray is coming … the great filmmaker from India; you know, I am his fan and love his films; maybe I will be lucky to get to see him today; just start your car and follow me”. So now it was me, following the police car; both of us way above the speed limit – strange but true. I arrived at the passenger pick-up area; Manikda was waiting near the curbside. I touched his feet; he hugged me; I placed his bags in my car trunk; he sat next to me in the car, and I started to drive off. That was a precious moment of joy for me and the beginning of an unforgettable three-week journey together. I was also happy to share that moment with the police officer who was standing nearby, next to his car, smiling and waving.

Part 1 of  five episodes by Dhananjaya Kumar: Precious Moments with Satyajit Ray.

The first screening of the film was also a rare event – at the Kennedy Centre of Performing Arts, which specializes in concerts and theater. Films are rarely screened there. The concert hall was packed with over 4,000 people, including artists, journalists, politicians, and other who’s who of Washington – many standing in corridors or waiting in green rooms. Daniel Patrick Moynihan rushed to tell me that he was the most ardent fan of Ray. He also liked the tagline for the ad campaign- “An Empire Was Going to Pieces, and All That Mattered Was the Game … Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players”.

Satyajit Ray and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Manikda’s public image of a stoic and reserved personality was quite different from the simple, soft, sensitive, and loving person he really was. In Boston, he and I were sharing the same room for a few days. The first night we talked a lot like long-lost friends. When I got up in the morning, he looked restless and sweating. A bit concerned, I asked, “Manikda, what happened? Are you OK?” Very gently, he spoke, “You know Dhananjoy, I couldn’t sleep last night … feeling hot in the head”. While mumbling, “But everything seems OK, I didn’t feel anything like that,” I got up and started looking around for clues. In a few minutes, I discovered that our beds were laid out in such a way that the radiator heater was too close to the head side of his bed. Unknowingly, I got a little upset with him. “Manikda, you were suffering all night like that; you should have woken me up, or at least moved your bed away from the heater.” Sheepishly, he said, “You had been working hard … I thought you must be tired and in deep sleep, so I didn’t want to wake you up or disturb you by moving my bed … I thought the night will pass, and I will be OK”. I wanted to scold him but kept quiet; by then, something had touched me deeply and silenced my outburst.

Different city, similar incidence: my daughter Anjali was just a few weeks old when she got sick, and my wife Indira had to take her to the hospital while I was away traveling. Naturally, I was concerned and later in the day mentioned to Saeed what was happening at home. He narrated everything to Manikda. As dinner was being served, Manikda came close to me, put both his hands on my two shoulders, looked into my eyes, and said, “This is not right; your baby daughter is sick in hospital, and you are pretending as if nothing happened … but I am really upset that you didn’t even tell me about it, I heard it from Saeed”. I was learning more and more about the inner Manikda.

Dhananjay Kumar and his family with Saeed Jaffrey.

But in the outside world, Manikda was often stingy with his words. Those few words, packed with meaning, would sometimes fall on folks like rocks. After a screening in Chicago, there was a Q&A session. Someone asked a long-winded question- in short, why Ray does not make films like Ingmar Bergman. Manikda replied, “Yes, I admire Ingmar Bergman; he makes the kind of films he wants to make; do you mind if I make the kind of films I want to make?” The questioner became silent; others began laughing. A while later, another question came “Mr. Ray, these days Amitabh Bachhan is the most popular actor in India. Why did you choose Sanjeev Kumar? Why not Amitabh Bachhan?” “Yes, why not?” Manikda said – all that needed to be said.

Manikda’s silence spoke at Barbizon Plaza in New York at a premiere screening organized in collaboration with the Asia Society. Again a large gathering, the usual high-end intellectual gathering. The show was interrupted a few times, and then the screen went blank. The projectionist was new and was having a problem restarting the show. People sat quietly; some took a walk, some a tea break. I was the only person who appeared agitated. I thought I was running the show, and the projection failure was a disgrace to Manikda, although he did not say a word. I started arguing with the projectionist and apologizing to those I thought were VIPs. It was about 11 pm. My friend Ismail Merchant translated his concern into a rescue mission as he started calling all the senior projectionists he knew in town.

Meanwhile, watching Manikda totally relaxed and silent had a calming effect on me. About thirty minutes later, a senior projectionist arrived, took charge of the booth, did some repairs, and restarted the screening. I realized I contributed nothing to the breakdown or the recovery – an important lesson learned and applied ever since.

Then there was another lesson in the message of silence. We were at the Berkeley Film Archives. The curator announced a surprise before screening The Chess Players. We sat in suspense until they rolled an old black and white short silent fiction film by Ray. He exclaimed, “Oh my God, I had forgotten about this!” This film had a rich girl confined to her room full of expensive toys, looking out the window with envy. Out in the field was a poor boy flying a kite and playing with pebbles, occasionally beckoning the girl. No words were exchanged. Within 15 minutes, a big story was told, and a stirring message was conveyed. The end!!!

Our longest stay was in Los Angeles, which included the screening, the spotlights, and other festivities at the Film Festival. One whole day, Manikda and I spent just talking and telling stories. He also recounted his days in Hollywood as a scriptwriter and graphics designer. He loved science fiction, and some of his material ended up in big films such as ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He was not totally charmed, as he said, “Spielberg has rather spoiled my script.” In the evening, he had agreed to meet with a group of black-suited lawyers, who failed to persuade him to sue big-name studios and directors in Hollywood for plagiarism. They promised a potentially big payoff with no cost upfront. All Ray had to do was agree to sign some papers. They returned disappointed. Later Manikda told me: “I am not interested in getting rich at the cost of mental peace.”

The next day, there was a big welcome event for Manikda, attended by at least 500 people, including notable media and Hollywood luminaries. Many famous film stars had to stand outside the hall, savoring his words and glimpses through the doors and windows. Marlon Brando, Sydney Poitier, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, and many others had already offered to work free for Ray if he ever wanted to make a film in English. Manikda had graciously declined. But the question continued to be asked during interviews. One Hollywood studio rep had to get the answer from the source. His preface was that a film in English would make Satyajit Ray known throughout the world and establish him as a top director internationally. He asked: “Mr. Ray if you ever made a film in English, who would be your producer?” Without a pause, the answer came that “I am not sure if I will ever make a film in English, but if I ever do, my producer is present right here in this room.” Heads turned in all directions, but a screaming silence engulfed the gathering. Within seconds, which felt like hours, Manikda turned towards me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said without hesitation that “this young man will be my producer.” I was stunned like everyone else but was not disappointed like some present there were.

We had planned to spend the next day at Disneyland amusement park, about a 90-minute drive from LA. So I rented a car in the morning and drove with Manikda and Saeed. Suresh had decided to stay back with Sir Richard. By the time we arrived at Disneyland, Saeed had transformed into a teenager and Manikda into a younger child. I remained the only adult guardian. We walked around and sampled some junk food. Manikda was gravitating toward amusement rides, especially the more scary ones. I had given Saeed the freedom to take any of the rides he liked. But I knew Manikda had high blood pressure. I kept leading him more toward baby rides and avoiding the risky ones for him. He kept insisting on taking those rides, making my job more difficult. I prevailed, he gave up, but we all had fun.

The following year at Miami International Film Festival, I was invited as an expert/speaker on Satyajit Ray and his films. So there I was at the podium, in an auditorium full of filmmakers, actors, reporters, and fans of Ray. There was great fun but no magic. For many years afterward, until Manikda passed away, I tried to visit Kolkata often to see him at 1/1 Bishop Lefroy Marg. We chatted for hours. Then one day, all those magic moments turned into memories more real than daylight. During my several incarnations in this life, I have been fortunate to be in the company of many great personalities. But the only one I have insisted on taking a picture with was Manikda.

Author profile
Dhananjaya Kumar

Dhananjaya Kumar is the Co-Founder and Trustee of India International School and Cultural Center (IIS).

IIS is a non-profit and equal-opportunity educational institution, serving the community since 1982. The main objective of IIS is to: provide quality education in the arts, culture, and languages of India; impart knowledge and skills to younger generations seeking personal growth and harmony with others; and sensitize the youth to basic human values and preservation of the environment. About 100 classes per week are taught by 35 teachers in core subjects including: vocal and instrumental music, classical and modern dances, fine arts, Yoga, and languages. IIS students frequently perform at national and local community festivals, theater, radio, and television.

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