Extracted from an interview published in the Bengali journal Chitrabhash, April-December 1980, Bansi Chandragupta was a pioneer in production design and worked on a number of Satyajit Ray’s films.
It was in 1942 and during the Quit India movement that I gave up college. It was in my college, in Srinagar, that I had met Subho Thakur. He inspired in me the love for art and aesthetics. My family was opposed to the idea. For one, art, and that too in Kolkata. It was unthinkable. I was left with no other option but to leave home. This was in 1944. Kolkata had just gone through the horrors of the Bengal Famine the year before. I somehow managed to meet ends meet by illustrating book covers and sketching for novels that were serialized in magazines and newspapers. Thanks to Subho-babu and my experiences in Kolkata, I realized what fine art was all about. … Around this time, Jyotirmay Ray, who had made a name for himself as the story and dialogue writer for Bimal Roy’s Udayer Pathe, requested Subho-babu for some oriental furniture design. Ray was at the time in the middle of preproduction for his new film, Abhijatri, and needed sets designed in the oriental style. Subho-babu introduced me to Jyotirmay Ray and I was taken on as assistant to well-known art director Botu Sen. For a salary of Rs 175 per month and free lunch on the days I reported for work. There was also a minor role in the film that I would have to essay. Needless to say, I agreed.
As luck would have it, Botu Sen fell ill with typhoid. Director Hemen Gupta and Jyotirmay Ray asked me to take over as art director for the film. I tried to reason with them that I had no experience about designing film sets, but to no avail. Following this, the film’s cameraman, Arijit Sen, discussed his lighting requirements for the sets. He explained the close relationship between a film’s set and lighting issues.
Art directors of the era loved to use two phrases: ‘good finish’ and ‘good depth’. Good finish implied that any patch-up work done had been well camouflaged. Good depth, of course, meant that there was a three-dimensionality to the prop. As long as these were okay, there wasn’t much to it.
I had few expectations of a career in cinema, but once I was in, what I saw astounded me. I realized that art direction largely involved following a few set rules without accounting for the intrinsic requirements of a scene. Art directors of the era loved to use two phrases: ‘good finish’ and ‘good depth’. Good finish implied that any patch-up work done had been well camouflaged. Good depth, of course, meant that there was a three-dimensionality to the prop. As long as these were okay, there wasn’t much to it. It used to surprise me because I believed that art direction for films should involve a great deal of thought, an awareness of the story being filmed, its location, and its characters. But most film-makers were oblivious to this. For them art direction meant nothing more than a few cardboard walls, a few window impressions etched onto them. They had no realization that the art design for a film should follow the film’s screenplay, that it should have a physical persuasiveness vis-à-vis screenplay, that it was possible to design sets without cardboard or jute, that ten different rooms could be designed in ten different ways in keeping with the characters. The same sets were used in innumerable films – till they had outlived their utility. But I was merely an assistant at the time. There was not much I could, even if I wanted to.
It went on like this for a while – working as a set designer more than an art director. It was around this time that I met Satyajit Ray through our common friend Pritish Niyogi. I had acted as a labour leader in Abhijatri, and Manik had praised the performance. Our friendship developed with our work on getting the Calcutta Film Society started. The society owed a lot to Manik’s efforts and I was with him in the endeavour right from the start. We watched a number of films, dissecting each film for its artistic merits. We met a lot at the American Library in Chowringhee. Manik used to frequent the library during his lunch hour to go through film magazines. Books on cinema were a rarity those days. Even the American Library had only a few titles. Film scholarship was largely absent – there was no realization that films needed to be read about, thought about, discussed. During these meetings with Manik, I realized how much he knew about cinema, how much he thought about it. Even before he made his first film, he was evolving as an extraordinary film scholar.
It was working as an assistant on Jean Renoir’s The River that opened my eyes to the possibilities of art direction in a film. Renoir used bricks for the walls of his sets. He didn’t even hesitate to use cement to create footpaths and roads for the film. It was on this film that I discovered the immense possibilities of plaster of Paris.
These were historic times. A new age was being ushered in, almost silently, thanks to Manik’s initiative and the Calcutta Film Society. The society screened Battleship Potemkin in 16mm – an extraordinary experience. In 1950, his office, D.J. Keymer, sent Manik to London. In London, Manik watched 99 films over a period of four months in between his office work. He wrote to me regularly about his impressions of these films. These letters gave me a glimpse of the turmoil he was experiencing in his mind. On the way back home by sea, he developed the first draft of the script of Pather Panchali. I still remember the trials and tribulations he had to go through to make the film, the snide remarks, and the opposition. We were all written off as a bunch of lunatics.
It was working as an assistant on Jean Renoir’s The River that opened my eyes to the possibilities of art direction in a film. Renoir used bricks for the walls of his sets. He didn’t even hesitate to use cement to create footpaths and roads for the film. It was on this film that I discovered the immense possibilities of plaster of Paris. Light, yet malleable, it could be used to create walls, staircases, ceilings. Going ahead, we used plaster of Paris for sets in Jalsaghar and Devi. I also learnt the importance of creating a believable atmosphere in art direction – it was not enough to make sets.
I developed a technique all my own to depict the effects of rain and sun on a set: softly char the prop and then brush it well with a wire brush. Remember the door of Apu’s house in Pather Panchali? Like old Indir Thakrun, the door too is ancient, crumbling.
One of the biggest problems with designing sets in films is getting the old, washed-out look. It is easy to create a sparkling new set – a new house, new walls are easy to deliver. But to depict the ravages of time on a set calls for great ingenuity. There’s a great deal of difference in the ravages wrought by time and nature and that wrought by man – and it is the former we have to approximate. I developed a technique all my own to depict the effects of rain and sun on a set: softly char the prop and then brush it well with a wire brush. Remember the door of Apu’s house in Pather Panchali? Like old Indir Thakrun, the door too is ancient, crumbling. We made the door with pinewood, burnt it and then brushed it to get the required look. In fact, I burnt the lower part of the door a little more to depict its worn-down nature. Then we bleached the door with caustic soda. No one can tell it was a new door treated to resemble that of an old village home.