The time of his life
Since 1968, Nemai Ghosh, best known as Satyajit Ray's photographer, has chronicled the best of Bengali film and theatre, discovers Anjana Basu
Photos: Nemai Ghosh
Of all the people who knew Satyajit Ray, one man still considered the last word on the filmmaker is photographer Nemai Ghosh. Some images from his extraordinary body of work will soon be seen in a book titled Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema.
For 25 years, Nemai recorded almost every moment of Ray's cinematic life—his expressions, his movements, his moods. He is still called 'Ray's photographer'. "I found him more interesting than his actors," says the 71-year-old, who has over 90,000 photographs of the filmmaker. There are also photographs of actors of Bengali theatre, politicians, artists and tribals. They cover the shelves of a narrow whitewashed room in his house behind Purna theatre, in Bhowanipore, Kolkata. A room so narrow that besides an old television set, a table and desk, there's nothing else but the shelves that rise to the ceiling.
Nemai 's interest in photography developed quite by accident. He was 34 and his passion was theatre. He had loved to act since his college days—Bengali and Hindi film actor Utpal Dutt saw his performance in one of his college plays and inducted him in his Little Theatre Group. Later, Nemai and his actor-friend Robi Ghosh broke away to form a splinter group, Chalachol.
In those days, his circle of actor-cinematographer-filmmaker friends like Robi Ghosh, and Banshi Chandragupta would congregate at his home to play cards. Never a card player, Nemai would sit and watch, and listen to their conversation. One day in 1968, a friend brought over a fixed-lens QL 17 Canonette camera and gifted it to him. He was fascinated. That's the time that his actor-friend Robi Ghosh was shooting for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a children's film directed by Ray. On a visit to the sets, Nemai took his new camera along and took some photographs of the actors rehearsing. "Banshi saw the photographs and introduced me to Manik Da [as Ray was fondly called]," he recalls. "He asked me to go ahead and take some more."
It was the beginning of a long relationship. The photographer and the filmmaker rarely spoke to each other, yet understood each other perfectly. In fact, Nemai had access to Ray's home and sets in a way few others did. "I visited him whenever I liked, even as early as 6 am or as late as 10 pm," he says. "He would throw me a new book of photography and his wife Bijoya would bring me a cup of tea, and I would sit there for long."