Calcutta (now Kolkata) saw the arrival of Jean Renoir in 1949. Having accompanied Renoir who was in town for location hunt for his forthcoming film The River, Satyajit Ray discovered in himself a latent talent. His resolve to become a filmmaker strengthened as he found himself being increasingly drawn towards the world of cinema.
Ray, along with some friends, had already founded the Calcutta Film Society, and had been writing film scripts “just for the fun of it.” The professionalism of the scripts included in John Gassner and Dudley Nichols' 20 Best Film Plays, which he found “beyond doubt and of great value to me,” came in handy as a learner's guide. He continued doing scripts “without any thought of turning any of them into a film.”
The first ever script that Ray worked on was for Tagore’s novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) that was to have been directed by a friend, Harisadhan Dasgupta. Almost three decades later Ray returned to the same script, reworked its earlier contents and finally rewarded the world with a superb depiction of his own Ghare Baire.
“Thirty-five years later, when I made The Home and the World” wrote Ray in his memoir, “I had a look at my original script and I realised it was an amateurish, Hollywoodian effort which would have ruined our reputation and put an end to whatever thoughts I might have had about a film career.”
While doing the illustrations for an abridged version of Bibhutibhusan Banerjee’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Ray decided that this poignant tale of a small Bengali family in some nameless hamlet could form the subject of his first film.
Ray never developed a fully formed and properly etched out screenplay for the film. He decided to simply detail the very basic personal thoughts he had for it. On a return trip from abroad, he made some drawings in the manner of comic strips in a small sketchbook. “I knew I did not need a dossier, because I knew the whole story by heart,” Ray wrote. He remained faithful to the original dialogues of the novel. Later, Ray donated the sketchbook to the Cinematheque in Paris, where, rather unfortunately, it is reported to be missing.
Ray maintained a red notebook, popularly known as Khero Khata in Bengal. Scribbling down his jottings, making elaborate sketches and painstakingly detailing the set, costume and shot compositions, Ray ensured that these notes at once served as his script as well as storyboard. Bijoya, his wife, was the first to read these scripts, and by Ray’s own admission, was fairly ruthless in her criticism. She suggested changes quite often. “The first person to read it was my wife. She always is,” said Ray in an interview on Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People). “Her comments are often pertinent and sometimes quite ruthless. Then Babu (Sandip) read it.”
The script was then read to the cast and the crew, and soon thereafter handwritten copies were circulated amongst them. Ray based only a few of his twenty-eight feature films on original screenplays. The rest he based on either his own stories or those by others. He made his own original interpretations of the stories by others that he adapted into films.
He never regarded total loyalty to the original narrative as a virtue for a filmmaker. “We do not admire a painting for its fidelity to the model,” Ray remarked in an interview while speaking on his screenplays. “All we want is for the model to stimulate the painter's imagination.”
He was a master craftsman whose intricately fashioned scripts were in themselves ideal examples of how brilliantly literary works could be transformed into the language of celluloid.
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