Far Away and Long Ago | Meeting Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer

Nemai Ghosh shot the first test footage for Ray’s Pather Panchali, setting the director on a path of a distinguished career, but the communist Ghosh had to live in permanent exile in Madras

It was 40 years ago. Being a young man full of enthusiasm and untested talent, one presented oneself at Nemai Ghosh’s T Nagar residence in Madras without too many qualms. It wasn’t called Chennai then. He was knocking on the doors of old age, still fit and active. His sitting room in that modest single-storey house was simple, verging on the spartan. Books on still and motion picture photography neatly arranged and catalogued, found a pride of place on tall, steel racks painted grey. He had, to be sure, read each one of them thoroughly and understood and ingested their contents. He was not working all that much then. The producers, several of them big-time, admired his cinematography very much but were reluctant to offer work, not having quite forgiven him for setting up the first Cine Technicians Union in Madras.

We are getting a little ahead in the story. He had arrived in the city in 1951, having burnt all his bridges in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata. Being a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), he had fallen foul of the ruling Congress government, which had banned the CPI following the failed 1948 armed uprising against the newly formed Indian state in Telangana. Out of the Indian sub-continent, two countries - India and Pakistan had been carved out in 1947 when the 190-year British rule ended. Nemai Ghosh had photographed and directed on a shoe-string budget, Chinnamul (The Uprooted), about the sufferings of refugees from East Bengal which had by then become a part of Pakistan. It was, and remains still, a moving film that dealt with existing ground realities. The film was promptly banned and the much sought after Ghosh found himself without work. It was with the arrival of a cultural delegation from the Soviet Union led by leading filmmaker VI Pudovkin that saved the depressed, financially beleaguered Bengali. Pudovkin ordered eleven hundred prints of Chinnamul, touched by its sense of truth.

...he explained to yours truly how to capture the effect on Black and White Orwo 16 MM Reversal stock. “Take your shots when the sun is almost on top, use a red filter, underexpose very slightly.” The trick worked. The water appeared dark on the screen during projection and the white of the foam stood out. 

Nemai Babu, with this new found financial stability promptly escaped to Madras where his reputation as a fine, resourceful cameraman had preceded him. He had, for the record, shot the first test footage for Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray, a sought after young visualiser from DJ Keymer, an advertising agency in Calcutta. The film launched Ray on a long, distinguished international career, and ironically, sent the communist Nemai Ghosh into permanent exile in Madras. He never looked back with nostalgia and accepted the hand that destiny had dealt him with dignity.

He was dressed informally on that evening of our meeting, in khaki shorts and a white Sandow vest with half-sleeves. His married daughter was visiting from Hyderabad. Tea and biscuits were served and the conversation got underway. He was a stickler for detail and could not take sloppy framing or lighting. Though sympathetic to laboratory technicians who soldiered on bravely and skillfully despite technical limitations, Ghosh was scornful of colleagues who gave less than their best. Madras technicians, then were not very well paid; there were of course exceptions like the cameraman Vincent or his confrere, Marcus Bartley.

One had seen a couple of years earlier, Hamse Geethe, a Kannada film directed by GV Iyer, a maverick. It was based on the legendary Karnatic musician, Bhairavi Venkata Subbiah. M Balamurli Krishna, the celebrated vocalist composed the music and sang playback for the hero. Nemai Ghosh, who else, photographed this moving film set mainly around Hampi. The film is now remembered by an Internet user as being, ‘’ beautifully shot’’. Ironically, there are no technical details available on the Net and so, there is no mention of Nemai Ghosh either. For the record, Anant Nag gave a powerful performance as Venkata Subbiah.

The purpose of one’s visit to Ghosh was to get some basic knowledge about motion picture photography, having embarked recklessly on an adventure as a freelance director-cameraman of 16 MM documentaries. Some shots on Marina Beach were to be taken and the white of the foam on the sea water had to be made prominent. Without being patronising in the slightest, he explained to yours truly how to capture the effect on Black and White Orwo 16 MM Reversal stock. “Take your shots when the sun is almost on top, use a red filter, underexpose very slightly.” The trick worked. The water appeared dark on the screen during projection and the white of the foam stood out. The close-ups of the waves, especially, came out well.

He started discussing film lighting as if with an equal. Stars were a nuisance when it came to lighting and tried to teach him his work. One of them tried to tell him how to light her face. “She had a putty nose, I sharpened it by using a cross-light from a certain angle.” Darkness was almost upon us and getting back to Cholamandal Artist’s Village would be a chore. Reluctantly we – my colleague Raj Iyer and I - bid this generous, warm-hearted artiste goodbye.

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