By Tirthankar Mitra
Size matters, so do strength. But it was something more than these physical attributes which helped Soumendu Roy, the most appreciated film cameraman after Subrata Mitra, having carried a heavy Mitchell camera on his shoulders and run in the sets of Pather Panchali cameraman of Bengali films as a cinematographer in twenty one Satyajit Ray films.The legendary cameraman of Bengali films passed away on September 27 in Kolkata. He was 90.
He was looking after the upkeep of an expensive camera on behalf of Technician’s Studio in the sets of Ray’s debut film’ Pather Panchali’ through which Roy started learning the art and craft of a film maker. He was assisting Ray’s principal cinematographer Subrata Mitra.
Soumendu Roy’s internship with Mitra continued till Satyajit Ray’s much acclaimed film Devi. It was a period of invaluable learning for the younger man. Roy never made any secret that a gift of a Baby Brownie camera first sparked his love for photography. One wonders whether the person who made this gift came to know the heights the recipient later scaled.
Small wonder, an impatient Satyajit Ray not a man to put up with any lackadaisical effort on part of any of his unit members during a shoot stopped short of putting Soumendu in his place when the latter insisted on taking his time to arrange lighting for a scene and expressed his feelings about the maestro’s restiveness over a delay.
A street scene of Jana Aranya was being shot when the onesided exchange occurred. And it was just an occasion when one perfectionist easily recognised another. Occasionally during his career, Soumendu had been asked about his utility as the cinematographer in Satyajit Ray’s films. After all, the maestro was known to be skilled in every aspect of film making.
The contention, even if it has a grain of truth in it cannot be substantiated at all. Ray was in the habit of explaining to the protagonists of his film in detail about the venture they were to embark into. It did not exclude Soumendu to whom the maestro stated in detail the intensity of light he sought for the scenes. Both the director and cinematographer were aware that it was far beyond an average lensman’s ability to understand the instructions imparted nuances and all and put them into practice when the cameras started rolling.
The mood of the .men, women or a child on the frame had to be caught right. Any deviation would be a blot on the film and the reputation of its maker not known the world over to deviate from the high standard he set for himself.
In Soumendu Roy were all the qualities which Ray sought in his cinematographer. The maestro was never let down. The street scene of Jana Aranya apart, Roy displayed his skills in the film Sonar Kella in the scene at its end when little Mukul who off and on recalls his previous birth in a Rajasthan village amidst sand, camels and sparkling stones runs about in an abandoned castle in Jaisalmer in search of his long lost friends with the villain in tow.
It was no easy shot subdivided that it was in several parts. Shot in natural light of the morning, Soumendu made it look like a cakewalk to the viewers. Asani Sanket a film on the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 posed a challenge to Soumendu Roy. But it turned out to be another feather in his hat.
Looking back in wonder one finds Soumendu fully associating himself with the maestro from the documentary film on Rabindranath Tagore on his birth centenary. Together with it, Ray had in mind making a feature film clubbing three short stories of Tagore titled Teen Kanya. Though Mitra was to be its cinematographer, he opted out owing to some eye problems. Soumendu stepped in his place marking the beginning of a long and illustrious journey of light and shade.
Working in Ray’s first film in colour, Kanchenjungha was a trial by fire for Soumendu Roy. But he rose to the occasion even if it was no easy task for him to depict through his lens the loneliness of a principal protagonist, a titled gent of the British era enacted by Chhabi Biswas recalling the glories of a dead epoch even as his wife and children find themselves busy deciphering their lives problems enveloped in a Darjeeling fog.
Soumendu Roy’s association with the maestro continued till the latter’s film Ghare Baire, a Tagore novel. But the fact remains that he had given ample evidence of his skills in the sets of films of such hard task masters as Tarun Majumdar and Tapan Sinha, no mean directors themselves. Soumendu Roy’s works with Majumdar are Palatak and Alor Pipasa. He was behind the camera in Sinha’s Wheelchair and Ek Daktor Ki Maut.
In the words of Soumendu Roy, the shots that Sinha directed to be shot had a certain simplicity to it. There was a commercial angle to Majumdar’s films, according to him. Asked what he learnt from his years with Ray, pat came the reply “The language of cinema.” A baritone voice saying “Yes” would have come from the country’s sole Oscar award winner had he been around. With Soumendu Ray’s death and earlier by Subrata Mitra, Satyajit Ray’s two great cinematographers are gone. (IPA Service)