Ramesh Sen with Satyajit Ray, editor Dulal Dutt, and Sandip
Film virtuoso Satyajit Ray’s chief assistant director and virtually a member of the Ray family, Ramesh Sen, who passed away on October 6th, 2020, was naturally mentioned by his fair name in the opening titles of Ray’s movies. But, those fortunate enough to befriend him over the years, endearingly called him “Punukaku” (Punu Uncle).
Well, I first met Punukaku when my mother took me to the outdoor sets of Ray’s film Chiriakhana (The Menagerie) in 1966. The locale was Barasat where Chiriakhana’s pivotal Golap Colony (Rose Colony) had been pieced together.
Ramesh Sen first met Manikda (Satyajit Ray’s nickname) in the editing room at Bengal Film Laboratory. Dulalda (Dutta) was his editing supervisor then. The sight of that extremely refined gentleman and a towering personality had never left his mind. There was no Moviola in those days. So, one had to peer into the frames of a film through a thickly powered glass. That contraption was known as Editola, remembered Sen. “This was during Pather Panchali. I was also present during the music recording of Pather Panchali. We would address him as Satyajitbabu at that time. This transposed to Manikbabu, in time. I hadn’t realised that I had begun referring to him as Manikda as the days went by,” Punukaku had told me in an interview in 2017.
Ramesh Sen with Satyajit Ray, editor Dulal Dutt, and Sandip
Punukaku began working with Ray as a junior assistant editor from around the time of the master’s opening film, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road). “When I was first introduced to Manikda, I found him to be exceptionally calm and cultured and someone who exuded an awesome personality,” Punukaku had observed.
The master’s sketching illustrations while drafting his screenplays, impressed Punukaku “immensely”. “I had worked with several directors in Bengal. But, never had I come across another film maker creating his ‘shot divisions’ in this fashion. It was absolutely unique.”
Punukaku had gone on to recount the heady days when Pather Panchali lifted the Best Human Document award at the Cannes Film Festival. “The newspapers were brimming over with the news. And, the film travelled to other festivals, winning prizes galore. Sadly, I missed being with Manikda when he made his next film, Aparajito (Unvanquished) because I was involved in another movie shooting. But, I always enjoyed full access to Manikda’s editing sessions.
When the master turned to make Aparajito, the sequel to Pather Panchali, Ramesh Sen was involved in another film after the making of Pather Panchali. “By the time, I approached Manikda, the crew for Aparajito had already been frozen. But, realising that I required work, Manikda wrote out a letter for me to meet a gentleman named O.C. Ganguly who was making a film. But, everytime I dropped by at this gentleman’s house, I was told that that he was not home. I returned to Manikda and told him that this gentleman was weird. Manikda laughed it off and assured me not to worry. I began attending all the editing sessions of Manikda’s films,” reminisced Ramesh Sen.
In tandem, Sen was working in other films. It happened Satyajit Ray’s unit members were working in well-known Tollygunge director Tarun Majumdar’s 1963 film Palatak. Ramesh Sen also joined in. But, after Palatak, differences cropped up with Tarun Majumdar. “This is the juncture when Bansi Chandragupta (Ray’s famous art director) roped me in to work in Manikda’s 1965 film Nayak (The Hero) as chief assistant director. I had always yearned to assist Manikda at the directorial end. Bansida was very fond of me. Thus began my journey as assistant director of Manikda,” Ramesh Sen had said with a gushing smile.
A memorable incident in Ramesh Sen’s life was when his mother passed away during the post-production phase of Nayak. “That day glows in my mind. I was supposed to be involved in channelling Nayak’s sound effects. The sound effects of Nayak were very elaborately fashioned by Subroto Mitra (Satyajit Ray’s famed cinematographer). But, I sought permission from Manikda to be slightly late in coming into work on getting news of my mother’s death. I didn’t tell him the reason,” Sen had recounted. “I used to live in Ballygunge Place (in south Calcutta) at the time. Meanwhile, Ruma Guhathakurta (the well-known singer and Satyajit Ray’s close relative, who used to live in the same locality) informed Manikda about my mother’s going. When I came out of the house with my mother’s mortal remains, I suddenly spotted Manikda standing across the road. When I rushed up to him, he told me that he had learnt of my mother’s passing away from Rumadi. In the same breath, he asked me not to worry about work at all and attend to my mother’s last rites. Then, he left in his car. That was the magnanimity of Manikda,” Ramesh Sen had driven home.
Ramesh Sen with Biplab Chatterji, Satyajit Ray, and Soumitra
The next day, Ramesh Sen went to the film laboratory to work on the arrangement of sounds relating to the train that was the pivot of Nayak. The compartments of the train in which the entire movie unfolds, were built totally on the sets. “Manikda had simulated the movement of the train totally through sound effects. This was historic in the film industry in those days. Almost the entire film was shot in the New Theatres One And New Theatres Two studios. Manikda was very pleased with the manner in which I had slotted the ‘effect sound’ as they say in cinematic terminology,” Sen had recalled. “There’s a sequence in the film where Uttam Kumar is shaving after he is appeared in his first movie. We purchased several shaving brushes from stores, but Manikda was not satisfied with them. Finally, I sourced a worn-out brush from someone I knew who used to live close to the New Theatres Studio. Manikda immediately selected that shaving brush. ‘This is exactly what I was looking for,’ he exclaimed. Manikda was an unflinching stickler for details, Sen had recalled.
The background music score of Nayak was recorded at New Theatres Studio. The music recording of the James Ivory-Ismail Merchant production Shakespeare Wallah, for which Ivory and Merchant invited Satyajit Ray to compose the music, had also unfolded at New Theatres. At that stage, the maestro had not moved to the HMV studio for his music recording sessions. Even Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’s music recording had crystallized at New Theatres. “Even Babu (Satyajit Ray’s son Sandip Ray) would come for some shooting sessions of Nayak and the music recording. He was a schoolboy then,” Ramesh Sen had remembered. “Nayak’s censorship screening had transpired at the Roxy miniature theatre (in central Calcutta),” he had added.
“After Nayak, (Bengal’s super star) Uttam Kumar inspired me and some of the other crew members like Dulal Datta (editor) to craft a film. Uttamda knew me from very early on and loved me a great deal. He even ventured to slash half his normal remuneration if we came up with a film. Manikda egged us on to turn Chiriakhana into a film,” Sen had informed. “Manikda selected the novel for us.”
“But, Haren Bhattacharya (a flourishing publisher of medical books), the producer, was adamant that he would only take up the project if Manikda directed the film. Manikda agreed, because we were almost out of pocket then. Meanwhile, Manikda won the Magsaysay Award and a prize money of Rs 75,000 that went with it. He paid us all off from that amount. Wonder how many would have taken care of his crew in that manner,” Punukaku had reflected.
Meanwhile, according to Ramesh Sen, the producer of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) had backed out of the film, despite maestro Satyajit Ray having selected the locations and all poised to start production of the film. “We requested Manikda to agree to move into the directorial seat of Chiriakhana. We were all without work at that time and told him that his directing the film would bail us out for the time being. Realising our plight, Manikda agreed to take up the directorial reins of Chiriakhana,” Punukaku had recounted. “Manikda had picked the actors, but I had to approach them and get them to agree to act in the film.”
With Suhasini Mulay
Thus, Chiriakhana took off under the wings of maestro Satyajit Ray and with Uttam Kumar as the protagonist. “Uttam was shooting for Chiriakhana and his Hindi film Chotisi Mulaqat with Bombay star actress Vyjayanthimala simultaneously. Of course, by the time Chotisi Mulaqat began, we had almost completed Chiriakhana. But, everytime Uttam left for Bombay, Bansida had to pull down Chiriakhana’s sets and reconstruct it when Uttam was back in Calcutta to shoot for our film.
“On one such occasion, Uttam Kumar came to shoot for Chiriakhana and went straight to the make-up room. Manikda was waiting for Uttam to return to the sets to act out his role. But, sensing his delay in arriving on the sets, Manikda asked us to check out what was holding up Uttam. We went to the make-up room and found that he was feeling unwell. Manikda immediately instructed us to have actor Subhendu Chatterjee, who was also a qualified physician, examine Uttam. After examining Uttam, Subhendu Chatterjee felt that Uttam Kumar was suffering a cardiac failure. He was rushed to the hospital. The shooting of Chiriakhana was stalled for three to four months, till Uttam recovered and came up with fresh shooting dates,” Ramesh Sen had recalled.
Finally, Chiriakhana was wrapped up. But, none of the players except Uttam Kumar and Sushil Majumdar, a reputed actor of the day, were paid. “I used to interact with all the actors and told them that we were not in a position to pay them immediately. They would be compensated once Chiriakhana releases and runs at the theatres. All the actors readily accepted my proposal. When you are handling things, Punu, we don’t worry or hold a grudge, they told me,” Sen had said with a smile.
“While Chiriakhana had a successful showing at the cinemas in the final analysis, there were initial teething problems at the stage of the film’s release. Exhibitors were wary of accepting a film where Suchitra Sen was not in the lead in step with Uttam Kumar. Uttam-Suchitra were the super hit pair in those days. Anyway, the movie was distributed at theatres in the end and ran well,” Ramesh Sen had informed.
After Chiriakhana, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne was revived with financial backing come in from Purnima Datta’s Purnima Pictures. Of course, Purnima Datta’s father-in-law Nepal Datta and husband Ashim Datta were also involved in the production. As everyone is aware, the master had cast the renowned Rabi Ghosh as Bagha, while Tapen Chatterjee complemented him in the role of Goopy. “We had travelled across Rajasthan when the locations were being selected in the run-up to the making of the film. The snowscape sequence was shot in Shimla,” Sen had said.
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’s shooting had begun in Rampurhat on the outskirts of Calcutta. Together with two songs, several sequences were shot in Rampurhat. A couple of sequences, revolving around Goopy encountering Bagha for the first time and the dance of ghosts in the jungle were shot in Shuri, another fringe town, Sen had informed. The carnival sequence was also shot in Shuri. Incidentally, Tinnu Anand of the Bombay film industry was an assistant director in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.
After Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Satyajit Ray shot Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest). “Amongst other commitments, I was given the job by Manikda to brief all the actors, in the evening, about their roles the next morning,” Ramesh Sen had recalled.
Dwelling on his relationship with Satyajit Ray, Ramesh Sen had said that they began dropping by at Ray’s home from Pather Panchali days. The master used to live with his family on Lake Avenue (in south Calcutta) in those years. Ray’s mother and the great Nonsense Rhyme writer Sukumar Ray’s wife Suprabha Debi was part of the family. “Mashima (Aunt) was very sweet. Everytime we visited Manikda’s Lake Avenue home, she would inquire about our well-being and serve sweetmeats. Of course, we would interact with Manikda more on work-related matters. Mashima used to be in her room. After Nayak, my relationship with Manikda became similar to that between an elder and younger brother. I was not financially well-off and sometimes approached Manikda for financial help. Manikda would never carry cash. But, the next day, he would hand over an envelop with funds to me. The friendship between Manikda and myself remained at the same intense level till the end of his life,” Sen had recounted.
Reminiscing, Punukaku had struck a personal chord: “I didn’t have a TV at home in 1983 when the Indian cricket team won the World Cup. So, I was at Bishop Lefroy Road (where the Ray family residence is located) watching the game with Manikda, Boudi (Bijoya Ray) and Babu (Sandip Ray). After India’s victory, Manikda told me there was meat and rice for dinner and that I should dine with the family. After dining with them, I walked home through all the revelry on the streets.”
Ramesh Sen had ended his reminiscences about his very dear Manikda with the maestro’s last film, Agantuk (The Stranger). “We were set to shoot the Shanthal (a tribe in Birbhum district) dance sequence in a village in Shantiniketan. But, Shanthal’s nowadays don’t wear the same attire as they did in the days of yore. But, Manikda was bent on shooting them in the trappings that they wore in the early days. Otherwise, he said, he would pack up shooting for the day. I was left with no other choice but to take the Santhal group into a secluded corner and convince them to dress up in the manner they used to earlier. In the end, the dance sequence was filmed. Manikda’s eye for authenticity was inimitable,” Sen had underscored.
From Pather Panchali to Agantuk, Ray’s farewell film, is an indescribable journey. What will always ring in my ears is the self-effacing Punukaku’s shouting out “silence” on the sets just before his mentor Manikda’s baritone “action”!
Ashoke Nag is a veteran writer on art and culture with a special interest in legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
All images from Satyajit Ray Society.
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Updated Date: January 22, 2023 06:00:43 IST
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