In the Month of May with Ray
BANGALORE: Even though May is just behind us, it is for me a month when I especially remember my gurus. May is a month when the gulmohur across my window bursts out with fiery blossom. When the fragrance of Alphonso mangoes ripening in hay, fills my apartment. A month which starts with my guru’s birthday.
My guru Satyajit Ray, was born on May 2, 1921. I remember my first encounter with him. I had gone to Kolkata with the purpose of meeting him, for I wanted to train under him. I didn’t even have his number. I got it from the phone directory. When I called, he answered himself and very matter of fact said, "Come to see me, only if you are not an actor." When I walked into his house, it was a fortuitous moment. An old man bearing the news of a much coveted prize, had walked in with me. And I was credited with bringing good luck! (of having the feet of Laxmi, as they say in Bengal).
I accepted this compliment very gracefully, of course. Then followed the many do’s and don’ts before he allowed me on his sets. Don’t ask questions on the sets, have a working knowledge of Bengali before commencement of shoot. I was to only observe, not make my presence felt in any way. But for me, it was like a gift from the gods. I was a trainee observer on Agantuk. I didn’t know it then, of course, but it was to be his last film. My guru passed away after completing that film. I learnt more from observing him those few months during the shoot and through the edit, than I would anywhere else. I’d sit in the compound of the Tollygunje studio, enjoying a cup of tea with Anilda, the production controller who had been with him through the ages. I’d hear about incidents that happened on sets, way before my time. I’d chat with Nemaida, his photo-chronicler down the ages, eat mounds of rice, macher jhol and mishti doi with the crew. And sit silently beside the tall, taciturn, bearded direction assistant on the metro train ride back home.
On his last trip to Mumbai for the re-recording of Agantuk, I remember sitting on the sofa of their Taj suite. Bodi (his wife) had brought me a navy blue Bengal cotton sari with a red border. And some relatives, who had come to bid him goodbye had brought along their little kitten, which slept curled up into a tight round ball beside me.
That day, when I looked up at my guru, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards this great man with a prolific body of work.
Ismail Merchant wasn’t really my guru. He was my boss. But I learnt a zillion things from him as well.We shared a common respect for my guru’s work, a similar aesthetic, a love of beautiful things and food.
When we were on the pre-production of In Custody, he took me wherever he went. I sat in, on all his meetings with cast and crew. He showed me how you could buy organza and muslin for a few rupees at Hindmata market. And make them look like a million bucks on costumes worn by Hollywood A listers for Oscar winning films. He took me shopping for antiques at Chor bazaar. Every night we went to Shashi Kapoor’s house for dinner, where we ate delicately cooked meals, off the late Mrs Jennifer Kapoor’s porcelain collection.
I believe my love for cooking was nurtured by Ismailbhai. In London, he’d send me shopping to the Selfridges grocery next door, for avocado and artichoke. I’d watch as he’d lightly marinate the chicken and bring it out from the oven-crisp, stuffed with fluffy rice and sesame. He taught me to lay an elegant table in minutes, for the most interesting array of people.
Ismailbhai taught me that one couldn’t always be patient on film sets. That sometimes it was necessary to shout and scream. Ismailbhai gave me a voice. On the May 25, 2005, I was in London in a meeting with my first investor for a film. The days were getting longer. But Ismailbhai lay dying in St Mary’s hospital at Paddington. As I said, May is a month for my gurus.
The filmmaker started work on her new project Fish out of Water in May and penned this tribute to the cinematic and organic influences that have moulded her.