esque | Satyajit Ray’s Favourite Shooting Locations

The camera zooms into Satyajit Ray’s favourite shooting locations. When he decided to make Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), he would go on location scouting. One of them was the Boral village. The village finally ended up turning into Pather Panchali’s outdoor location. The film became so legendary that, visitors to Boral village today will, interestingly, find a concrete tablet set up by the villagers which pays tribute to Pather Panchali and its creator.

Aparajito was Ray’s next for which the master travelled to Benares. “Father was very fond of Benares. This reasons why, much later, he wrote and filmed Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God) which is centered on Benares as far as the outdoors go. Even during Aparajito (The Unvanquished), the old Benares city was undergoing changes in its urban face. Father had a pronounced weakness for visually and pictorially exciting locales,” emphasises Sandip. “Benares clearly reflected this aspect when it comes to the city’s facets locationally. Sinuous lanes and temples, not to mention the Biswanath Mandir. It’s very picturesque, too. The location threw up interesting compositions wherever the camera was positioned. Of course, the city has seen vast changes ever since father shot there.”

After Aparajito, Ray made two films back to back – Jalshaghar (The Music Room) and Paras Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone). Jalshaghar’s outdoors revolve around Nimtita and the palace of the Raychowdhury family. Paras Pathar is, of course, based back home in Calcutta. “Father was frantically hunting around for the right palace to shoot Jalshaghar. He was also constantly on the phone with Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, the author. Then, he visited Murshidabad. It’s there that he learnt of the Nimtita Palace from locals and was bowled over witnessing the palace. But, there was no jalshaghar (music room) in the palace. Father decided to go for it and discussed with his art director Bansi Chandragupta about building the jalshaghar on the sets at Aurora Film’s Studio. The fountain in front of the palace was not functioning. So, that was, again, constructed by Bansi Chandragupta. But, overall father was very impressed with the terrace and verandah. Extremely excited, he returned to Calcutta and put through a call to Tarashankar Bandopadhyay. On hearing that father had stumbled upon the Nimtita Palace, Tarashankarbabu exclaimed that Jalshaghar, the novel, hovers around the Roychowdhury zamindari family of Nimtita. Mentionably, Rabi Roychowdury, who was part of father’s unit and an assistant director, hailed from that family,” informs Sandip. “Father became abreast of Nimtita as a location inside out after Jalshaghar. Besides, the Nimtita zamindars wielded huge influence. So, one didn’t see a hurdle shooting there even in future.”

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Rayesque  Satyajit Rays Favourite Shooting Locations

Abhijan (The Expedition) had found the master shooting in Hetampur and Dubrajpur in Birbhum district. The maestro was hugely impressed by the Mama Bhagne Pahar (hillocks) and shot a strikingly symbolic sequence with the hills in the background.

Kapurush, of Kapurush O MahapurushThe Coward and The Holy Man — was shot in a tea plantation in North Bengal. “Father had turned Malbazar (the junction) into his base from where one could visit various areas in the region,” Sandip mentions.

Rayesque  Satyajit Rays Favourite Shooting Locations

Nimtita entered into the master’s list of cherished locations. This explains Ray’s revisiting Nimtita to shoot the exteriors of Devi (The Goddess) and for the shooting of Samapti (The Conclusion). In fact, Rabindranath, the documentary, was shot in tandem with Samapti. When it began pouring during the shooting of Samapti, Satyajit Ray also shot some footage of the rain for the Tagore documentary, according to Sandip.

“Darjeeling was also a huge favourite of father’s. Kanchenjungha unfolds in Darjeeling. Charulata was shot virtually entirely on the sets. Except for a horse carriage sequence and the one on the sea beach at Gopalpur. Father had visited Gopalpur On Sea on quite some occasions and stayed at the Oberoi Palm Beach Hotel, often to write scripts. In fact, part of Charulata’s scripting was done at Gopalpur. Gopalpur was a very quiet and isolated place in those days. There is a famous letter he wrote from Gopalpur to Bansi Chandragupta discussing the sets. A great deal of research work embraced the pre-production phase. Father was pushed to an extent when a major portion of a film’s making was based outdoors. Although, he was always keen on outdoor shooting.

“He had intensely hunted for virgin terrain which was devoid of electricity when it came to Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players). We had to rediscover Wajid Ali Shah’s Lucknow of the 1850s. We not just stayed put in Lucknow for a while to scour around, but visited Salarjung Museum in Hyderabad. Salarjung boasted of a fantastic wing which had preserved textiles of yore. Father photographed several textiles with their designs,” says Sandip, providing details of incisive research work that went into the making of Shatranj.

In the same breath, collectors were contacted to source props. Shooting locations were identified in Lucknow. Besides, one required to embark on a good deal of searching for the village in Lucknow where Mirza Sajjad Ali and Meer Roshan Ali engage in their chess bouts. The army march was shot in the exteriors in Jaipur.

“The prime reason for this decision was because father banked on the overseas staff at the embassies in Delhi to ride horseback. It was an open invitation to the employees of embassies from producer Suresh Jindal. Many of the embassies’ staffers, who could ride horses, responded to father’s and Suresh Jindal’s call and came over to Jaipur, some with their families, to participate in the army march. Shatranj Ke Khilari enjoyed a huge deal of publicity with all top stars spearheading the roles of the protagonists. Everyone knows that the film featured, amongst others, Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan, Saeed Jaffrey and, of course, the redoubtable Sir Richard Attenborough. And, the topping on the cake was Satyajit Ray,” Sandip says.

The master was also fascinated with Daltongunj and the Palamau jungle, which figured in Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest). “We ran into Mohan Biswas in Daltongunj. Mohan Biswas was a very influential businessman in Daltongunj. Everyone there would respect him tremendously. He went all out to help us. We were there for sometime location hunting – mainly spotting the circuit house and the Kechki bungalow,” informs Sandip.

“Picking out locations for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) and Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds) was the toughest. Sonar Kella’s locations are specified in the book. So, it was easier that way. We had first gone to Delhi and then Jaipur and Jodhpur. We camped at Jodhpur and journeyed to Jaisalmer and Bikaner. But, the film which acted as a compass was Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. When it came to Goopy-Bagha, we were absolutely blank. We were clueless about homing into the final locations in Rajasthan. There’s no mention of locations in Upendrakishore Roychowdhury’s (Satyajit Ray’s grandfather) fanatasy tale,” stresses Sandip.

“You have one location which is a village in West Bengal and, in step, the snowscape of Kufri and the Jaisalmer and Bundhi forts. When one is uncertain, the hunt is that much more painstaking. Jaisalmer and its fort totally captivated father. It wasn’t easy travelling there in the sixties. There was no train service. One had to travel by car across a difficult terrain. Mesmerised by the fort, father decided right there that this would be the Halla Rajar (Halla king’s) fortress in the film. At the same time, Jaisalmer was the location where the camel march in the film was staged. And, since we were stationed in Rajasthan, we went back to Delhi and from there to Simla in Himachal Pradesh for Kufri’s snow stretches. At the same time, we zeroed in on Birbhum as the locale for shooting in a Bengal village. But, that, too, was after some searching around,” Sandip illuminates.

One must add here that Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne ran into a serious predicament on the production front. After the songs were recorded, the producer backed out. The movie was on the verge of fizzling out. Then, Satyajit Ray took on another film project and shot Chiriakhana (The Menagerie). “Father was not supposed to make Chiriakhana at all. He was only meant to write the script and score the music. His assistants were slotted to execute the job of directing. But, that didn’t work out. So, father had to take over. Then, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne returned on his plate after Purnima Dutta of Purnima Picturers stepped in as producer. Except Pather Panchali and Goopy Gyne, a serious hiccup in the sphere of production has, to my knowledge, not occurred in father’s film making years. The producer’s dumping Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne initially was a very messy affair,” Sandip rues. It was just Satyajit Ray’s resilience that he could bounce back every time.

Tracing back somewhat, Apu’s home, in Tallah beside the railway yard in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) was also a very interesting location. That, also, involved a search. The view from the terrace of the railway tracks and trains chugging by was visually very moving. Although, the interiors of Apu’s home were created on the sets of the studio.

Asked on trains being a near constant motif in the maestro’s films, Sandip agrees that they are seen on celluloid or heard passing by. It’s either to underline a change of location in the film or the movement of life. The train in Nayak (The Hero) was entirely created in the studio. It was exacting for audiences to believe that it was fully built on the sets. “Father was extremely interested in shooting outdoors. It was that unique feel of outdoor destinations. The only documentary he made on a locale was Sikkim. However, he did have to travel to quite an extent for documentaries such as Rabindranath and Inner Eye. He even emabarked on a trip to Kathmandu, and loved it, for the Inner Eye documentary on his art mentor in Kala Bhavan, Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay. There’s invariably a connect between a Feluda novel or novella with father’s favourite locales. And, father took Professor Shanku to places he would have loved visiting, but couldn’t because of logistical reasons,” Sandip observes.

Even the making of Satyajit Ray’s documentaries entailed searching out locations. Bala, for instance, the documentary on danceuse Bala Saraswati, saw Ray making trips to various places in South India including Mahabalipuram and Tanjore.

Not to talk of the complete absence of computers when Satyajit Ray lived and worked, there was not even the Lonely Planet in his time. So, the master had to depend on friends overseas for road maps, tourist guides and postcards. After all, he also had to illustrate his writings. Besides, if a word or name was meant to be European, he checked out on the pronunciation. Everything moved by post those days. So, this entire exercise of to and fro posts was very time-consuming. Pratidwandi (The Adversary) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited) were shot in Calcutta. Except that there was a sequence in Balurghat in Pratidwandi and Patna and Darjeeling in Seemabaddha. The shooting for Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) completely unfolded in Birbhum. “We covered various locations there. Jana Aranya (The Middleman) was filmed in Calcutta-centric locations. Sadgati (Deliverance) was important from the standpoint of the locale. Amrit Rai, Premchand’s son, who had collaborated on the screenplay with father, had suggested that we frequent some villages in Madhya Pradesh for filming Sadgati.

Rayesque  Satyajit Rays Favourite Shooting Locations

Stationing ourselves in Raipur, we went around some villages. Amongst them, father was drawn to Mahasamund where he decided to shoot the breadth of the (TV) film,” Sandip updates.

Ghare Baire (Home and the World) was largely indoors and it was during this film that the master suffered his first heart attack. After this, a near three-year hiatus in film shooting ensued. Following this, four creations by Satyajit Ray crystallised. They encompassed Sukumar Ray, the documentary, Ganashatru (Enemy of the People), Shakha Proshakha (Branches of a Tree) and Agantuk (The Stranger). These were all virtually filmed indoors based on physicians’ advice. The maestro not only loved shooting outdoors, but revelled in the masterly cinematic treatment of his locations. Who will forget the yellow limestone golden fortress in Sonar Kella’s Jaisalmer? Or, Apu winding down a narrow path in Boral village (Nischindipur in the film), after his mother Sarbojaya’s death in Aparajito (The Unvanquished)?

All images from Satyajit Ray Society.

Ashoke Nag is a veteran writer on art and culture with a special interest in legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

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