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A new Ray-naissance
For three decades, cinema sleuths across the world were searching for Satyajit Ray's documentary on Sikkim. Now, after surviving ban, censorship issues and rigorous restoration, the maestro's take on the mountain kingdom before its accession to India is ready to enthrall and engage.
One of Satyajit Ray's Feluda mysteries is titled Gangtoke Gandogol or Trouble in Gangtok. It was published the same year, 1971, that he made the documentary Sikkim. But Ray probably didn't have any idea how prescient his thriller's title would be. The documentary was not only banned by the Indian government in 1975, the year Sikkim merged with India, the original negative later went missing. After a futile search spanning continents and decades, a restored Sikkim is now available for viewing in India. The repaired 35 mm print was screened last weekend as part of the Satyajit Ray retrospective organised by the National Museum of Singapore followed by another screening in Delhi earlier this week.
The story of the search for the missing print of Sikkim reads almost like a Feluda whodunit. According to Dilip Basu, director of the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, leads would occasionally turn up only to peter out. In December 1995, he was waiting to take a connecting flight at Frankfurt airport when he ran across a group of noisy American teenagers on their way to Kolkata. After striking up a conversation he discovered that they were headed to Sikkim on the invitation of one of their classmates. The classmate turned out to be the daughter of the last Chogyal (ruler) of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal, from his second marriage with an American, Hope Cook. It was Cook, a huge fan of Ray, who was keen that he directed Sikkim.
Through the Chogyal's daughter Basu got in touch with Cook, who has been living in New York since 1975 and was believed to have taken a print with her. It turned out she had given hers away to the Haffenreffer Museum at Brown University. When the print was located, it was discovered that the colour had completely faded. Some years later, another print was dug out by the late Chogyal's son, Wangchuk Namgyal, when he was rummaging through old documents in his home. The print, which could not even be spooled on to a projector, was beyond repair. Eventually another print turned up in London. This one had some colour and was painstakingly restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in California with the help of the other prints. It's this restored print that was shown in Singapore.
The lost-and-found print and its restoration are only part of the Sikkim story. This was Ray's only film that had to face cuts and censorship. Ray's biographer, Andrew Robinson, writes that the director's cousin living in Darjeeling knew the Sikkim royal family well and persuaded Ray that he would "get a well-paid holiday with complete editorial freedom". This would not turn out to be entirely true. There was one particular shot showing a senior bureaucrat eating noodles in a not very flattering way, which led Cook to exclaim during a private screening, "That's wicked! That's wicked!" Needless to say that scene was not included in the final version, which made Ray unhappy. But as Sandip Ray, the director's son who accompanied his father to Sikkim, says, they got to shoot in parts of the state which were then very remote and without electricity. "It was an adventure, " he says.
The bigger blow would come in the run-up to the merger of Sikkim with India in 1975 when the government banned the documentary. Though the Kolkata office of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) had recommended a 'U' certificate, the ministry of external affairs also wanted to have a look at the film. When the film's producer refused to comply, the CBFC on the advice of the I&B ministry refused certification. The likely reason for suppressing the film was that it showed Sikkim as a monarchy, including shots of people prostrating themselves before the king. Ray would later say, "It's not a very logical reason for banning the film because after all it shows Sikkim at a certain point in history. It doesn't claim to show Sikkim of today. "
In 1992, the year Ray died, the I&B ministry revived the issue of certification. But at the time no copy of the film could be traced. It was only in 2002 that the film was formally certified by the CBFC. And in September 2010 the restored print arrived at the Art and Culture Trust of Sikkim, which now holds the rights to the film. This meant that the film, which was shown once in Kolkata before the ban, had not been seen in India for over three decades until this week. There have, however, been a few screenings outside India. Ugyen Chopel of the Sikkim trust says that there are plans for a grand premiere of the documentary in Sikkim early next year.
The few who have seen Sikkim wouldn't probably rank it as one of Ray's best, but it occupies a unique place since it was his only documentary on a place. Filled with images of the state's natural beauty and happy faces, the onehour film dazzles in parts though. The silent opening sequence, which has a shot of a parallel ropeway with two carriages approaching each other, has Ray's touch all over. Ray later said of the opening sequence, "It's a very poetic seven minutes. " There are other shots of the market place, of dirt-streaked children and sequences inside Rumtek and Pemayangtse monasteries that stand out. Then there is the bonus of Ray's narration in his inimitable baritone.
The Chogyal, who passed away in 1982, his wife and ceremonies in the palace grounds figure prominently in the film though the royal couple is not interviewed. Indeed, no one speaks in the film;it's only Ray's commentary and music we get to hear. And every now and then we get a glimpse of the majestic Kanchendzonga peak - shrouded in mist until the very end of Ray's 1962 film Kanchenjungha when it reveals itself - which has always watched silently over Sikkim and its people.
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