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5 iconic scenes shot by Subrata Mitra – Anniversary special

The ace cinematographer began his journey with Satyajit Ray's maiden film Pather Panchali in 1955.

Roushni Sarkar

The creative partnership between filmmaker Satyajit Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra (12 October 1930–7 December 2001) is often considered one of the greatest in world cinema, alongside the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Raoul Coutard, Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist, and the Coen brothers and Roger Deakins.

A master of manipulating natural light, Mitra began his journey with Ray's maiden film Pather Panchali (1955). The self-taught director had blind faith in the autodidact Mitra, who had only worked as a still photographer until then but had closely followed Claude Renoir’s work when Jean Renoir came to shoot The River (1951) in Kolkata.

“He didn’t have the support system for the kind of realism he wanted to achieve at the time, so he had to do everything himself,” cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay said of the visionary, who used the bounce-lighting technique in Aparajito (1956), 10 years before Nykvist, who claimed to be its originator in the American Cinematographer magazine.

Mitra produced some of the best lyrical and thought-provoking moments of Ray’s cinema while working on the Apu trilogy, Parash Pathar (1958), Jalsaghar (1958), Devi (1960), Kanchanjungha (1962), Mahanagar (1963), Charulata (1964) and Nayak (1966).

It is often said that with Charulata (1964), Ray began overstepping his authority, which marked the beginning of the end of the legendary collaboration. While working with the auteur, Mitra had already started working with James Ivory, joining forces with him for The Householder (1963) and then for Shakespeare Wallah (1965). He would go on to shoot the American filmmaker's The Guru (1969) and Bombay Talkie (1970).

Being a perfectionist and driven for meaningful works, Mitra only worked on 18 films altogether. His last film was New Delhi Times (1986), a political thriller directed by Ramesh Sharma, for which he received the National award in 1986. He was also awarded the Padma Shri that year.

On the 20th death anniversary of the artiste, whose work was described as “truthful, unobtrusive and modern” by Ray himself, we look at five iconic scenes from his career.

Pather Panchali (1956)

Ray’s first work, which immediately placed him in the international film scene, Pather Panchali had numerous life-like moments, captured by Mitra, that studied nuanced human behaviour of joy, grief, gain and loss in the most rustic and minimalistic setting.

While the sequence of Apu and Durga’s experience of getting soaked in the rain after a long wait is a joy to behold and wonder at, the scene in which Apu throws the necklace, stolen by Durga, for fear of getting a truth about her validated, invokes multiple layers of emotions of sibling love.

However, the most iconic sequence of the film is the one where Apu and Durga catch sight of a train for the first time. Before their first interaction with the modern world, Apu is engrossed in imagining himself as the king in the gorgeous Kash forest, while Durga first senses the vibration of the train coming in and then gets busy in relishing sugarcane.

The visual of dark smoke bellowing from the steam engine against the white glistening Kash forest through which the siblings rush to catch a glimpse of the wonder introduces them to a new world beyond the familiar remote surroundings. A sense of freedom pervades the entire scene.

Mahanagar (1963)

One of Ray's most radical works, Mahanagar narrates the story of a simple housewife who takes charge of running the household with her earnings when her husband finds it difficult to manage the financial load all by himself.

Essayed by Madhabi Mukherjee, Arati lands the job of a saleswoman, going against the wishes of her in-laws while her husband (Anil Chatterjee) supports her, at least initially. The sequence in which she receives her first salary is iconic as Mitra’s composition defines the identity of a woman through her financial strength. Arati holds the bundle of currency notes against her face as she slowly savours its smell as well as a sense of newly attained empowerment and independence while she looks at herself in the mirror. The sequence also marks a transition in the film as, from that moment on, the gender dynamics in a patriarchal household begin to change in terms of economic and social parameters.

Charulata (1964)

Considered a film with the “fewest mistakes” by Ray himself, Charulata, adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s novella Nastanirh, opens with a sequence that delineates the entire setting in which the titular character, enacted by Madhabi Mukherjee, unfolds.

The Victorian-inspired aristocratic Bengali household interior in which the multifaceted and creative Charulata feels confined and bored bears the signs of the emergence of the Bengali renaissance. While Charu’s husband Bhupatinath Dutta remains engrossed in his work, the iconic opening sequence of the film, meticulously shot by Mitra, shows how Charu spends a normal day, oscillating between finding amusement and sinking into ennui.

The film opens with Charu knitting the initials of her husband on a handkerchief, then exploring her way through her grand yet familiar space. For a few minutes, she gets excited as she peeps through her window and, to make the experience more exciting, she brings out a vintage pair of binoculars to get a sense of the outdoors — an alien space for women from 'respected' families who would not venture out alone in those days.

The binoculars remove the distance for a while, until Charu returns to brooding about her own space and existence at large. Each frame captured by Mitra in the entire sequence presents the socio-cultural context of Charulata that eventually pushes her to find her desired companionship and validation from Bhupati’s young cousin Amal.

Nayak (1966)

The film that marked the end of Ray and Mitra’s collaboration, Nayak saw the great cinematographer coming up with experiments in sound. As Nandini Ramnath mentioned in an article titled ‘Light of Ray: The Subrata Mitra-Satyajit Ray partnership led to cinema’s most unforgettable moments’ for the website Scroll.in, “The film, about the experiences of a Bengali movie’s star trip to Delhi, is set almost entirely on a train. The train was a set. The sounds we hear during the journey were recorded by Mitra, Avik Mukhopadhyay said. Mitra also recorded sound for Mrinal Sen’s Chorus and Calcutta 71.”

Nandini further quoted filmmaker Goutam Ghose, “For the back projections used in Nayak to simulate an actual train journey, Mitra got his crew to move around with bamboo poles to create shadows and the illusion of the landscape whizzing by.”

However, the scene that springs to mind when one mentions Nayak is the famous one of the nightmare that shakes movie star Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar). At the beginning of the dream, Arindam's subconscious mind is overwhelmed by his success as he dances about in a heap of currency notes. Suddenly, the lights dim, the scene begins to get its haunting mood with an eerie background score of phones ringing, and Arindam finds the receivers on skeleton arms. As he seeks to escape the situation, he gets submerged in the quicksand of money, crying for help from his mentor in the theatre.

The guilt underneath the feeling of success keeps him gnawing and he cannot help but blame himself for his selfishness in his pursuit of popularity and wealth.

Shakespeare Wallah (1965)

While watching this James Ivory film, the element that strikes the viewer the most is its rich visual treatment, thanks to Subrata Mitra's camerawork. Depicting a period of transition in the post-colonial era, the film tells the tale of a theatre troupe that produced plays of Shakespeare. The troupe is struggling to maintain its relevance against the emergence of commercial cinema in the backdrop of newly independent India.

The theme is explored with a love triangle between theatre actress Lizzie (Felicity Kendall), aristocrat Sanju (Shashi Kapoor) and film star Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey). In a sequence towards the end of the film, Manjula suddenly makes an appearance during a show of Romeo And Juliet, starring Lizzie. As Manjula attempts to distract Sanju from the play, the entire theatre shifts its attention towards the celebrated actress, irking Tony Buckingham, the owner of the troupe and father of Lizzie, who is on stage.

While Sanju makes clear his stand in support of the play, the sequence establishes how cinema and its commercial aspects were snatching away the relevance and glitz of the grand theatre productions of old and the colonial hangover.