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Ray & His Script

Ray & His Script

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Satyajit Ray, believed in making films that were directly contributive to the theme, with nothing extraneous finding a place in the final product. This article explores the intricacies of Satyajit Ray’s scripting process and his contributions to Indian cinema.

“One rule of script: does the reader want to turn the page?” Leslie Dixon “Nothing – not a scene, not a word, not a gesture – that is not directly contributive to the theme, should find a place in the film.” – Satyajit Ray in his article entitled, ‘The Outlook for Bengali Film’

The book that shaped his outlook towards film-making was a hardcover copy of “20 Best Film Plays”, written by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols. When Ray was working at D.J. Keymer he improvised a new ‘job’ for himself. I would rather not coin it as a job, but more of an act of cerebral exercise. Once he learned that a film was being made based on a certain book, he would immediately buy a copy of it and read and internalize it. He would subsequently develop a script based on that story that he thought would be the best adaptation suitable for the cinematic medium. When that film was commercially released in Calcutta he would go and watch it. He would then return home and compare it with his own script, making note of where it had been different and perhaps the reason why it differed. Equipped with these fresh inputs he would then work on a second, ‘refined’ script for the book.

Though when he got the chance to make his first film, he didn’t write a script for it. Since there was so little dialogue in the film he didn’t need to write one. What Ray instead created as a series of pen-and-ink and wash sketches which indeed brought to life the essence of each scene in “Pather Panchali”. After a while Ray and his two most trusted and extremely talented lieutenants, cinematographer Subrata Mitra and art director Bansi Chandragupta, got so used to those sketches as points of reference that they did not require the need for a formally written script. So, for Ray, the written script came into existence only with the advent of “Aparajito” (perhaps one of his greatest creations, albeit not commercially successful).

During a tete-a-tete with actor Barun Chanda, Roy somewhat nonchalantly admitted that he took about a week to finish the first draft of a new script (and a couple of reads, if it’s based on somebody else’s novel). Out of the twenty-eight feature films made by Ray, only seven of Ray’s screenplays – “Kanchenjungha”, “Nayok”, “Shonar Kella”, “Joy Baba Felunath”, “Pikoo”, “Shakha Proshakha” and “Agantuk” have been entirely original, and of these, several were based on his own stories. ‘I don’t have enough experience of life,’ Ray remarked, to tackle all the situations that interested him without borrowing from others. ‘My experience is all middle class and that’s rather a limited field . . . I can deal with something I do not know at first-hand only with the help of someone who does.’

When Ray chose to pick up a story for adaptation, he subsequently developed them in writing his screenplay. After he had directed his first few films, he treated the originals without much inhibition, as novelist Sunil Ganyopadhyay discovered when Ray adapted his novel ‘Aranyer Din Ratri’, but no writer was ever unhappy with what did transpire once Ray turned them to film. Other than reading the book, Ray, before embarking on a script-writing journey, would often sit down with the author asking questions and soliciting clarifications. He did that with Sunil Ganguly whom he adored as an author who reflected with much honesty and without unnecessary sentimentality, the problems of those troubled times of the 1960-70s Bengal. Siddhartha, of Pratidwandi, was singled out as a personal favourite amongst his latter-day protagonists. He had similar sessions with Shankar as well, while the master was delving into the script of “Seemabaddha”.

Ray meticulously chose his material mostly from celebrated authors. He borrowed five stories from Tagore: “Charulata” (from Tagore’s short story, Nashtaneer), “Monihara”, “Postmaster”, “Samapti” and “Ghare Baire”; three stories from Bibhutibhushan: “Pather Panchali”, “Aparajito” and “Ashani Sanket”; two from Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, “Jalsaghar” and “Abhijan”; another two from Munshi Premchand: “Shatranj ke Khilari” and “Sadgati”; a couple again from Parashuram, “Parash Pathar” and “Mahapurush” (from Birinchi Baba); two from Sunil Ganyopadhyay … “Aranyer Din Ratri” and “Pratidwandi”; two from Shankar, “Seemabaddha” and “Jana Aranya”; one from Premendra Mitra .. “Kapurush” (from the story, Janaika Kapurusher Kahini); and one from Prabhat Mukhopadhay, “Devi”). The script for Ganashatru was sourced from Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People”

Ray’s approach or method of scriptwriting was significantly different from others. “I visualize everything very clearly, so all I have to do is to convey what I have in mind. Often, I express it pictorially. This is essential.” Still, Ray had to trim multiple characters and simplify the storyline in movies like Pather Panchali. In this case, however, he was extensively helped by the existence of a shortened version of the book “Aam Antir Bhenpu”. He did away with copious volumes of dialogue which he felt were unnecessary in the film and then rearranged the storyline for improved structure and clarity. Ray also used his brilliant mind to extend the life of the old aunt, Chunibala, because he opined that her early death as depicted in the book killing her early, would take away a pivotal element of the film.

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On innumerable occasions Ray had taken a story, only to retain just the core – the perfunctory structure of characters and basic incidents. He then proceeded to put more meat onto them, crafting out situations and dialogues that were completely his own. In “Aranyer Din Ratri”, for instance, he brought in the memory game which lasts all of twenty minutes on screen and is unarguably one of the key highlights of the movie and remains iconic to this day. Similarly, in “Pratidwandi”, he did manage to create an interview scene, lasting close to five minutes, that is magical in its presentation and content, in which the interviewers ask the protagonist a series of questions bordering absurdity. In “Charulata”, Ray kept the essential love triangle of Tagore’s short story intact but otherwise affected significant alterations in the treatment of the story. The fact that Bhupati is Westernized and runs an English newspaper gives Ray the scope to expand the canvas, bringing in political events of the times, especially what transpires in England, and its ramifications on the urban, educated, well-to-do middle class in India.

Apart from the characters who were to speak the dialogues, Ray generally had the actors in mind when he was writing a screenplay. Some prominent instances would be Paresh Chandra Dutta in “Parash Pathar” (played by the inimitable Tulsi Chakrabarti), Indranath in “Kanchenjungha” (essayed by the regal Chhabi Biswas), Arindam in “Nayak” (The charismatic Uttam Kumar portraying himself) Charu in “Charulata” (enacted by a brilliant Madhavi Mukhopadhyay), were written for the said individuals.

Putting it into perspective, in Madhabi Mukhopadhyay’s words “A Satyajit Ray script is so clear and natural that no discussion is necessary”

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