Here's a journalist's fear: somewhere on earth you stumble on an important interview, but you're dogpaddling at sea because there's not an opportunity of last-minute research. What to do? There I was in California at the Palm Springs Film Festival in January, when I found that Subrata Mitra, 69, the cinematographer for Satyajit Ray's masterly Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali in 1955, Aparajito in 1956, The World Of Apu in 1959) had been flown in from Calcutta.
Did I dare risk a conversation? Trusting to dimming memories of Ray's trilogy, which I last had seen a few years ago, I decided to engage Mitra in a Q&A.
"Do you know my work? Otherwise, I don't have the energy," Mitra cautioned me. He was aging and infirm, relying on a metallic walking aid. "And I don't like to do interviews," he added, "because people misquote me."
I didn't heed his warnings. "I've seen lots of your movies," I said, vaguely recalling Devi (1960) and Charulata (1964) but, honestly, having no idea about some other Ray works in a filmography he handed me. Paras Pathar(1957)? Jalsaghar (1958)? Mahanagar(1963)?
Quixotically, I plunged ahead. "I remember that Ray began his career on Jean Renoir's 1951 The River, which was shot in Calcutta. He worked as an assistant director." Mitra shot me a dirty look. "That's misinformation," he said. "He was an art director for a magazine and could only come to the set on weekends as an observer. I could go every day. I brought him photographs I'd taken of the filmmaking, and we became friends. And that's how someone who had never shot a foot of film became a cinematographer for Pather Panchali, Ray's first feature."
"I loved the scene with the birds," I muttered, recalling a dizzying, poetic shot of winged creatures bolting off the ground at the moment of someone's final heartbeat.
"What birds?" Mitra asked in puzzlement, having no idea what I was talking about.
What birds? I panicked. "You know, when Apu's mother dies in Pather Panchali."
"The mother doesn't die in Pather Panchali," Mitra corrected me.
"Sorry," I gulped, suddenly recalling her living presence in the next movie, Aparajito.
"You mean the pigeons," he clarified matters.
"That's right, the pigeons! When the father dies in Pather Panchali.
"The father doesn't die in Pather Panchali," Mitra corrected me again.
This time, however, I was confident he was the misinformed one: the fading memory of an almost septuagenarian. "Of course he dies in Pather Panchali," I said again.
Now, Mitra had had it with me. "If you believe that, I'm not going to argue with you." He became totally stonefaced.
"The father..." I started to make a point, and he cut me off, repeating, "I'm not going to argue with you."
Mitra stared straight ahead. Through me. Silence.
I tried a desperate ploy, being a suck:"Do you know my favorite scene in one of your movies with Ray? It's one of the most beautiful in the world, when the boy, Apu, in Aparajito has left his mother's house to take the train, abandoning his lonely mom so he can go back to college, but suddenly he reappears at her house. The joy of the mother to see him once more!"
Eventually, I stopped babbling. Mitra, unmoved by my compliments, hadn't moved an eyelash. He still looked ahead. So I stood, stepped back, and more or less crawled off.
Home in Cambridge, I raced to my books. Horrors! Ray hadn't been Renoir's assistant director. It was the sister and grandmother who died in Pather Panchali. Both the father and mother succumbed in Aparajito, and that's where the pigeons flew off.
Subrata Mitra, that old buzzard, had been right on every count!
A pioneer of "available light" cinematography, Mitra popularized the Arriflex-Nagra combination in the 1950s. He worked as Director of Photography for four Ivory-Merchant films: The Householder (1962), Shakespeare Wallah (1964), The Guru (1968), and Bombay Talkie (1970). In addition to his camerawork, Mitra is a distinguished sitar player, and, as he'd told me, he filled in on several soundtracks, for Ray and Ivory, when maestro Ravi Shankar suddenly was unavailable.