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Portraits of a director

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REEL-LIFE STORY: On an off-day during the filming of 'Aranyer Din Ratri', Sharmila Tagore asked Ghosh (above) to do a photo shoot of her

The man who shadowed Satyajit Ray for 25 years gets his share of the spotlight.

Satyajit Ray had a gift for getting the best out of his actors but in Nemai Ghosh's photographs, it is he who becomes the principal actor. Ray, the man behind the camera, is the star of Ghosh's body of work, which spans 25 years and runs into thousands of photographs.

Some of the pictures form a part of an ongoing exhibition at the Delhi Art Gallery in Hauz Khas. Most of them are in black and white, which is Ghosh's preferred medium. Called Satyajit Ray And Beyond, the selection comprises not only photos of Ray and his films but also those of Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and M S Sathyu.

But it is Ray who dominates the exhibition as well as any conversation with the 79-year-old photographer. Ghosh says that his priority was to photograph Ray, and that he did other assignments only during the intervals when Ray wasn't filming.

"Manikda would have made a fine actor himself, " says Ghosh, talking about his filmmaker subject. "He would explain the scenes to actors by acting them out. If you had a little intelligence, you could follow him and deliver what he wanted. "

The photographs show Ray filming from the boot of an Ambassador car, composing music in a dark room, holding a recorder at Howrah station, in the editing room, reclining on a beach during a shoot on the outskirts of Chennai. Photographs of Ray's storyboards, costume sketches and even a topographical map that he made during the shooting of Kanchenjunga, Ray's first colour movie which was set in Darjeeling, provide an insight into the meticulousness of the filmmaker. One endearing photograph captures Ray, now aged and grandfatherly, receiving a peck on the cheek from a child actor, Soham, on the sets of Shaka Proshaka (1990).

Of all those who have interacted with Ray professionally, Ghosh was perhaps the closest. He became a constant but unobtrusive presence in the filmmaker's life for a quarter of a century. Ray never told him what to shoot and gave him the license to wander about freely both on the sets and at his home.

"We understood each other perfectly but we seldom talked, " says Ghosh. "Manikda mentioned my work to others but never discussed it with me. He would not even say if my photos were good or bad. But sometimes, he would use the word 'boma' (meaning 'explosive stuff' in Bengali). "

It all began with a chance visit to a location where the children's classic, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, was being shot. Ghosh had just been given a camera by a friend and on an impulse, began shooting on the sets. When he showed the prints to Ray later, Ray paid him a rare a compliment - "Tui toh aamar angle mere diyechish (You have pulled off my angle), " he told Ghosh in Bengali.

Ghosh never asked Ray for payment and got by with selling photos to newspapers and magazines. He mostly operated on a shoestring budget. There was often no money to buy film so he used what he calls "cut-piece" - unused movie reels that were discarded by the unit which Ghosh turned into film for his camera. He never used zoom lens or even a flash.

It is this ability to produce striking pictures from basic equipment that makes Ghosh special, says Pramod Kumar KG, the exhibition's curator. Ghosh's work can be seen from two different aspects, he says - as an archivist and documentarian, and as a photographer.

From the first perspective, the photographs are valuable because they provide a rare glimpse of a master filmmaker and his art, and also because they were taken at a time when few had the discipline to stick it out with a subject for 25 years. But the point of the current exhibition is to concentrate on the second aspect, says Kumar.

"Till now, Ghosh's work has primarily been of interest to film historians. This exhibition tries to look at him chiefly as a photographer. And as a lensman, his work stands out for their clarity of purpose and their ability to capture that perfect moment. "
Ghosh's photography, he adds, has been more or less independent of Ray's style despite the proximity. "He has had his own style, which hasn't changed over the years but has certainly evolved. Though he likens Ray to god, it is possible that he was more influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who he even went and met in France. "

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