Had this been a Hollywood film, or even a film made in Bombay, there would have been at least three hundred people to take care of a scene involving a thousand men. But we only had about thirty. All of us knew that if we could get to the location by half past six and start shooting at seven, we would have the whole morning to finish our work. The light in the morning and in the evening is the best for photography, so we could not afford to lose a second.
Today, however, we had decided to shoot the easy and straightforward scenes in the morning for we knew how taxing the big scene in the afternoon was going to be. We returned to Jawahar Nivas at twelve o’clock for an early lunch and a short rest, before going to the battlefield at two.
The camels and the men were all waiting for us. The appearance of the camels was most satisfactory. We had asked the owners to dress their camels, and they had adorned them with jewellery, some of which were made with cowrie shells, and colourful sheets draped across their backs. No, I could not find fault with the camels. But the soldiers in the army? The same could certainly not be said about them. They were all still wearing their ordinary everyday clothes. What happened to all those red, blue and yellow garments? Those fancy turbans? And those thousand pairs of naagras we had bought for them? Why were those not on their feet?
A few questions revealed the whole story. Most of these men were Muslims, and they preferred wearing white. In fact, some of them had strong objections to bright colours. A few had simply laughed at the specially designed clothes that had come all the way from Bombay, some had frowned darkly and shaken their heads ; and others had picked them up and cast them aside. Now what were we going to do? How could we explain to these men the seriousness of the situation?
To start with, how could we speak to a thousand men at the same time? Then we remembered the battery-operated loudspeaker, for which we had paid three hundred and fifty rupees. It had been brought from Calcutta, knowing that we would have to work in an open area with a large number of people.
A silent loudspeaker
It was time to call Tinnu Anand. He was one of my four assistants and had come from Bombay. He could speak fluent Hindi. A quick learner, he had already picked up quite a bit of Bengali. But now I needed him to address the soldiers. I handed him the loudspeaker and told him what he must say to the assembled men. ‘Tell them they have not come here simply as owners of these camels. They are here as soldiers, and they are about to march off to attack their enemy. Their camels look beautiful, and their commander is dressed in all his finery. Now, shouldn’t the rest of them be similarly dressed in colourful clothes? How else will they look the part they are playing? After all, when the film is released, they will be seen as brave warriors, not as simple village folk. They have to remember that.’
Tinnu took the loudspeaker and moved away to stand facing the men. Then he placed the speaker before his mouth and began speaking. ‘Bhaiyon!’ he said, his voice booming across the entire assembly. But, after just that one word, there was complete silence. I turned hurriedly to find Tinnu still speaking into the loudspeaker, making gestures as if he was some sort of a political leader, but his voice could not be heard. The battery was clearly not working.
The loudspeaker had to be abandoned. The whole unit split into small groups to go and speak personally to all the men. After a while, our appeals began to take effect. A handful of men got up to change into their costumes. Gradually, the others followed suit.
Our first job was to picturize the song. The army was supposed to remain perfectly still when the song began. I noticed that some young men in the front row were getting restless. They were promptly dispatched to stand at the back. The old and the middle-aged men were chosen to stand in the front. We had to get all the camels in a proper formation, or they would never look as if a battle was about to begin. So we gave them another fifteen minutes to get into position; then the shooting began.
In order to film a song that went on for four and a half minutes, we needed to take at least forty shots, each of which was going to take about fifteen minutes. Some of them would focus purely on the soldiers, some would show Goopy and Bagha, and the rest would show both the soldiers and the two men. The song would be played on a playback machine. Goopy would sing along, his lips matching the words, and Bagha would play his drum. The camera, too, would move in keeping with the rhythm of the song.
We managed to take all the shots we needed in three hours on the first day. That is to say, all the shots leading up to the pots of sweets wafting down from the sky. The actual showering of sweets was going to be shot the next day.
Before I go on to describe the scene with the sweets, I must mention something else that happened on the first day. Everyone worked until the last possible minute before sunset, then started to get ready to go home. The soldiers were taking off their colourful costumes and getting back into their own, their plump commander (played by Shanti Chattopadhay) had dismounted from his camel to check if all his bones were in place, when suddenly the strangely beautiful sound of a flute reached us. A quick investigation revealed that the flautist had come with all the other men, though he had not bothered to don a costume.
Wearing a turban on his head, and a black waistcoat over a white shirt, the man had a quiet, faraway look in his eyes. From the pocket of his waistcoat were peeping not one, but two flutes. He was accompanied by another man, whose appearance was rather remarkable. He was dressed similarly, but was much taller than the flautist, probably over six feet. The colour of his skin was almost jet black, with an amazing polished texture to it. Under his sharp nose sat a most impressive moustache. I don’t remember having ever seen anyone with such a complexion, or such a moustache. It rested on his cheeks, coiled two and a half times, like the springs of a giant clock. I learnt later that if it was uncoiled and straightened, its length measured nearly three and a half feet!
We told the flautist we had truly enjoyed what little we had heard. Would he care to come to our guest house later in the evening and play some more? I wanted to use his music in my film, if I could. The flautist readily agreed. His name, we learnt, was Shaukat Ali.
At around half past seven, he arrived at Jawahar Nivas with his friend. He sat on the carpet in my room and played for an hour. We recorded what he played. He startled us at the very outset by taking both his flutes out of his pocket and holding them to his mouth. As he blew into them, I realized we were in for an extraordinary experience. All but one of the holes in the first flute had been closed with blobs of wax. Out of this one would come a single steady note, a bit like a shehnai. The other flute had no obstructions, so that all the other notes could be played on it. I learnt later that these flutes were called satara. They had originated in a small village called Khuri, twenty-five miles to the west of Jaisalmer and only twenty miles from the border of Pakistan. Everyone in this village was poor, but all were exceptionally gifted singers and musicians. The flute of a snake-charmer—the been—had also originated in this village.
When we had finished recording, Shaukat Ali turned to me with a strange look in his eyes. ‘My only brother crossed the border and went to Pakistan,’ he said. ‘If you can play this tape on the radio, who knows, maybe he will be able to hear my music?’
Excerpted with permission from Childhood Days, Satyajit Ray, translated from the Bengali by Bijoya Ray, Penguin Books.