I first met Marie Seton as a child. She was keen to meet my father soon after she had seen Pather Panchali. So she came to Calcutta and visited us at our flat in Lake Temple Road. At the time, my grandmother (Suprabha Ray) and a great-uncle (Subimal Ray) were both alive. Marie therefore got the chance to talk to not just Baba and Ma, but these other older members of our family as well. I still remember her recording her conversations with my great-uncle in particular. She would then set up her typewriter in my room and type away for hours. She also had innumerable conversations with Punyalata Chakravarty (my father’s aunt) and her two daughters, Kalyani Karlekar and Nalini Das. It was for this reason that Marie could produce authentic and accurate details of our family background, and describe so well the atmosphere in which my father grew up.
When Portrait of a Director was first published in 1971, we could see immediately what a dedicated piece of work it was, written in a style that was both interesting and intimate. It was-and, I think, still remains-something of a landmark in that genre of writing. When writing a biography, it is easy to litter every page with too many facts and figures and turn ever a very interesting subject into something dry, flat and boring. Marie had the experience, and the judgement, to know where to draw the line.
What makes this book very special is that much of the text is peppered with anecdotes collected while Marie first watched my father shoot a film, and then sat in the editing room, observing all the details of post-production. I remember Baba explaining the process of editing to her, pointing out the subtlety and sensitivity with which the task had to be handled.
One particular day stands out in my memory of the time when Marie was in Calcutta. We were all in the editing room when my father received news that the famous actor, Chhabi Biswas (who had acted in three of his films), had died. Within minutes, all studios in the city stopped working. Everyone wanted to pay their last respects to the actor. Marie was so much a part of that day. I think she has mentioned this incident in her book.
One question that I have heard people ask when talking about Marie’s book-and other biographies of my father that were subsequently published in the West-is what he himself thought about them. The truth is that her rarely spoke of his feelings; but I do know that he often got irritated if anyone commented on his work without sufficient knowledge about the subject on which they chose to speak. I remember him telling a few people that if they were to talk about, and pass judgement on, Bengal and the culture of Bengalis, then they should take the trouble at least to learn the language. Perhaps that was what prompted-or provoked-him to write the now famous article ‘Under Western Eyes’ in sight and Sound.
I do not know how much Bengali Marie managed to learn. Indeed, when he had been through the book, my father did point out a few spelling mistakes to her! But, in spite of these errors, I think Portrait of a Director is the only book which puts Satyajit Ray in a true historical context. It does not just help one to get to know the man, his films and his style of working, but it also puts the focus on the Bengal film industry of that time.
After Marie’s return to London, we met her there a couple of times. My father loved to meet all his old friends in London, including Marie and the ‘Sequence’ group of people. The last time we met Marie was in 1984, when we were returning from Houston after my father’s heart surgery. We stopped in London for ten days. During that time, Marie would often visit us and have lunch with us. But she herself was looking very frail in those days, suffering from a bad cold and cough. I believe she had been a heavy smoker at one time. Unfortunately, she died a year later, in 1985.
Had she been alive today, I am sure it would have given her as much pleasure as it gives me to witness the re-birth of her book. A book like this should never have into hibernation for so long-it is over two decades since it was last known to be in print! I have noticed, while talking to some young people, that even those who know about this book and its author cannot always pronounce her name correctly, let alone spell it. The tendency is to call her ‘Mary’. Once the book sees new light of day, hopefully no one will make that mistake again.
I have been fortunate enough to have retained some of my father’s old unit members. Like me, they are delighted that Portrait of a Director is being published again. Marie and her book will always occupy a very special place in our hearts-and, I hope, in the heart of every reader who will now get the chance to read it.
I first me Maries Seton in 1955 when the Indian Ministry of Education, in association with The British Film Institute, commissioned her to lecture on film appreciation at many of India’s flourishing film societies. I had on film appreciation at many of India’s flourishing film societies. I had known of her for some time, having read her book on Paul Robeson and learnt how she had battled and supported Robeson and his family when the McCarthy witch hunt almost ruined their lives. And of course I knew her monumental biography of Sergei Eisenstein and how she managed to rescue footage from his Que Viva Mexico and fashion it into a film of her own: Time in the Sun.
I was apprehensive and extremely nervous about meeting her, particularly because of her friendship with and devotion to Eisenstein, one of the greatest masters of film, and also because she was known as a very feisty, formidable lady who didn’t suffer fools gladly. I was surprised to find her physically very frail, nevertheless through a haze of her cigaretee smoke, and over an agreeable lunch, I discovered she was an extraordinary, stimulating, witty person with words and ideas tumbling out of her lips with hardly a pause.
She told me that she had always had a fascination for India and as a young woman she had been introduced to India’s fight for independence by one of India’s greatest political figures, Krishna Menon, who was then a struggling lawyer in London. She also had family associations with India through her father, who had served as an officer in the Indian Army and been seriously wounded during one of the many uprisings of the period. She loved him deeply and was distraught when he died in London some years later from the effect of his wounds.
She also told me that as a very young girl she had met Mahatma Gandhi in London and had somehow engineered a brief conversation with him, much to the surprise and irritation of the so-called dignitaries who had gathered to meet him!
During her first Indian lecture tour she struck up a lasting friendship with Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi. This friendship, and her fascination with India’s political scene, prompted her to write a biography of Nehru called Panditji.
Later, having met Satyajit Ray, whose genius as a film-maker she immediately recognized, she championed his first film, Pather Panchali, until it received international recognition.
Marie set out to get key film journalists to know the young filmmaker and I recall the times when I told Satyajit that Marie was arranging a party for him at her house in Kensington, during his visits to England. He would exclaim: ‘Oh my god, not a party. Please, please get her to put it off!’ it was even worse at official film receptions I had organized at the Indian High Commission. I would frequently find him trying unsuccessfully to hide behind a potted palm or one of the marble pillars. All this came about because in his early days as an up-and-coming of persuasion to inveigle him into meeting film journalists, film-makers and distributors at her home. Indeed he was often accused of being haughty and difficult to approach by those who were not aware of his shyness.
After Ray had won numerous awards and international acclaim she finally decided it was time to write his biography. After writing a rough outline in London she went back to Calcutta, having cadged a lift in Pandit Nehru’s baggage plane, to finalize work on the book which was published in 1971.
She was honoured by India in the penultimate year of her life with a Padma Bhushan. The assassination of her close friend, Indira Gandhi, deeply upset her and in a way set the seeds in her frail body for her death from pneumonia in 1985.
Following Marie’s death the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, wrote: ‘…she was a fine friend who reached out to people, effortlessly crossing the generation gap and any kind of cultural barrier.’
To me she was a wonderful friend, a woman full of life and new ideas right to the end of her life. I still miss her enormously and am delighted that her wish to have her book published in a revised paperback edition has finally come true.
I am particularly grateful to Indrani Majumdar for writing the Afterword to this book.