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Remembering Satyajit Ray and his encounter with PM Narasimha Rao

Shantanu Mukharji

Updated: May 13, 2013, 3:18 PM IST
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Satyajit Ray's 92nd birthday was fondly remembered recently by one and all and was also reported extensively by the print and electronic media.

His acumen as a film maker, music composer, photographer, singer, creator, etc. are universally known. However, I was privileged to witness one incident, a direct encounter with the master which remains etched in my memory for ever. And it's time I share this with you all.

It was March 21, 1992. I was with the Special Protection Group (SPG) and was sent in advance for security liaison with the Kolkata Police ahead of Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao's visit to Kolkata and Shantiniketan.

Satyajit Ray was then under treatment at Belle Vue Clinic, Kolkata. Prime Minister Rao, after his programme at Shantiniketan, was scheduled to see ailing Ray at the hospital. I was in touch with the hospital authorities and the Kolkata Police to ensure smooth facilitation of the PM's visit. This drill included sanitising the alighting point of the PM, securing the elevator to take him to Ray's room, who all will be present when the PM and family would be present inside the room and other related issues.

Having tied up all the loose ends, I briefed on wireless my other SPG colleague who was accompanying the PM (then addressing the convocation at Shantiniketan) about the arrangements. My colleague transmitted to me PM's desire to have his family photographed with Satyajit Ray inside the hospital room. I conveyed PM's wish to Ray's son Sandip and Dr Baxi, his personal physician. While the doctor didn't seem to disagree, Sandip was forthrightly opposed to the idea. I thought he worried that it would be an infringement of the privacy of the Rays and the clicks and shutterbugs might disturb the ailing film genius. Sensing the hard stance of Sandip, I didn't have the guts to push the request further but in my long career in SPG, I have not seen any individual resisting a photo opportunity with the PM.

Meanwhile, helicopters carrying PM and his entourage descended on the Calcutta Race Course helipads and the motorcade drove to the hospital. There was a battery of cameramen from the media lined up at the alighting point. The PM, accompanied by his daughter, grandchildren and a bare minimum number of SPG personnel (the hospital room couldn't take more and crowding was against medical advice) took the elevator and entered the room. I led the PM as the cameras clicked.

Satyajit Ray, with his six foot plus frame, was lying in a frail health in the hospital bed. It was sad to see the celebrity in that state with so many contraptions and tubes invading his body. Dr Baxi was present and of course Ray's son Sandip. PM Narasimha Rao presented a bouquet and wished him good health. The doctor temporarily removed the pipe from Satyajit Ray's nostrils to enable him to talk to the visiting PM. In his baritone voice and perfect Victorian English, Ray struggled but managed to speak, thanking the Prime Minister for sparing his valuable time for the visit. Narasimha Rao made repeated requests to Satyajit Ray for a photograph with the PM and his family. He said, "Mr Ray, three generations of ours are here to wish you and we are all ardent fans of yours, a photo with you will go a long way with us."

Despite physical constraints, Ray replied "Mr Prime Minister, all these days of my confinement in the hospital, many press cameramen wanted to take my photograph but I turned down their requests. If I accede to your request, what will they think? That I have bowed to the PM as he is in authority. It will also give a wrong signal and appear discriminatory." The Prime Minister was silent and didn't pursue further. But he couldn't hide his disappointment. Nor could members of his family hoping to be photographed with the giant of cinema.

On his 92nd birthday, I am reminded of this unforgettable incident. Wasn't it courageous on part of Satyajit Ray to decline the request and that too of the Prime Minister? Are there many of his stature today? Not from the point of view of a filmmaker but as a man of principles? And Narasimha Rao? He was disappointed but was not bitter. Ray must have gone further up in PM's estimation. How many of us can stand up to the principles Ray stood for? Not many I guess. Ray has made many films but this one, less than a reel long and in black and white, remains my favourite.
First Published: May 13, 2013, 3:18 PM IST