Sep 17

Of Pather Panchali & other Ray films

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri: For some reason, if there’s Satyajit Ray’s name on a book cover, there is a commercial viability to it.
At the time I started commissioning books, all of Satyajit Ray’s books were published by Penguin. But when I reached out to the people at The Ray Society, they got in touch with us about the writings of Ray that had not yet been published. So that’s how Deep Focus happened and it did really well. I enjoyed working with Sandipda, who is Satyaji Ray’s son, and Arup Dey who runs the society at the moment, and because the first book did so well with us working together, they suggested I do another. It was Satyajit Ray’s Ravi Shankar, which is a niche book on a screenplay Ray had done for Ravi Shankar which never got made into a film.
Then the ‘big book’ happened, the one on Pather Panchali, which is something I am most proud of. This book is a wonderful story of the rediscovery of a screenplay that had been lost. Ray used to make sketches in his storyboard in which he would sketch out each frame of his movie. Ray had drawn every frame of the film in a sketchbook and had given the original to Cinémathèque Française, a film organisation in Paris that holds one of the largest archives of film documents and film-related objects in the world.

As Executive Editor of Harper Collins India and someone who has commissioned many classic books, especially on cinemas, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is now a household name in the publishing industry. Book Link correspondent Mathew M Philip asks him about his collaboration with The Ray Society that has resulted in some truly wonderful books on Satyajit Ray.

Later when Ray asked them to return his sketchbook they said it had gone missing and that they had lost it. So for the longest time the sketchbook was a mythical entity; everybody had heard about it but nobody had seen it.

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri: from finance to publishing

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri : When I did my graduation, Arts was not a very appealing field to get into. And I was never a Science student. So the only option left for me was Commerce. I did my BCom, MCom, Cost Accountancy and then ventured into the field of finance. For six-seven years I worked in the accounts department of various organisations, primarily Oxford University Press. At the time, I kept asking folks at OUP whether a shift to editorial was possible for me, but they said I need an Arts degree for it and need to have studied English.
Before his days as a publisher began, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri donned another avatar and has had a very interesting journey which eventually led him down the publishing path to Delhi. Book Link catches up with the man who won two National Awards for the very first two books he commissioned, and asks him how he, who was a finance guy before he got into the publishing industry, shifted lanes
By the time I was 30 I realised I was tired of accounts and decided to give it up to chase my dreams. I even used to joke with my friends that I want to be in a creative field, and in accounts if I try to be creative I will end up in jail! Since I was interested in writing and cinema, I went to Bombay to do a course in film and television from XIC (Xavier Institute of Communications). After that, I worked in Bombay in various capacities, even started and ran a magazine called Lights, Camera, Action over there for a year. The magazine closed down after a year or so, but I gained editorial experience while running and managing the magazine, and through that I applied to many publishing houses in Delhi and that’s how I got into the publishing industry.

Even though India is a cinema obsessed nation, I don’t think we have developed a habit of reading about them and our interest are limited to only watching cinemas. But I think it’s important for books on cinemas to exist as well.

I started out from Vanity Publishing where I learned the ropes of editing, so to say. I then started doing freelance editing and soon got into Penguin as a copyeditor when they had an opening. I worked in Penguin as a copyeditor for six years and then moved to Harper Collins where I started as the head of a copyediting team. When I was at Penguin I used to work on a number of Cinema books, even though I was not commissioning them. So Karthika, my boss then at Harper, suggested I should start actively commissioning books on Films since she knew how passionate I was about them. That’s how I got into book commissioning.
Over the years, you have created a niche in the publishing industry for commissioning books on cinemas. Was your interest in cinema always there or did it develop later? Which was the first book you commissioned?
I think it developed later as a result of me being thoroughly bored with my life as an accountant. Films at that point of time gave me an escape from accounts, and I involved myself a lot in cinemas—both watching and reading. Even when I was in college doing BCom and MCom, I used to take off from classes and go watch films, or attend screenings and group discussions on cinema, and that’s how my interest in cinema gradually developed.
The book on RD Burman, and BD Garga’s book called Silent Cinema in India: A Pictorial Journey were my first.I had already published once with BD Garga in Penguin. I had come across his manuscript but at the time since I was not a commissioning books, I had passed it on to a commissioning editor. Subsequently, because I had worked on that book, Mr Garga sent his second manuscript to me when I was at Penguin itself which was on non fiction films in India, and the book won a National Award for best book on cinema. Then, when he sent his third book I had already shifted to HC, but he said he wanted to publish with me only. So the RD Burman book and Silent Cinema happened almost simultaneously and they came one after the other in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and both won the National Award for best book on cinemas in those two years.
Your interests go beyond Bollywood as you have several books on regional cinemas from south, Bengal etc. under your roster. Were these done more out of academic interests or is there commercial viability to such projects as well?
The books on Bengali cinema that I have done so far have been primarily associated with The Ray Society and they have done well. I did a couple of other books like the biography on Suchitra Sen and a book on Soumitra Chatterjee which have done reasonably well. But I thought there would be more people wanting to read about Soumitra Chatterjee or Suchitra Sen which didn’t happen. I think we need to do a different type of marketing for these film books to reach those kinds of numbers.
And there has also been certain academic books which I have backed, for instance, we just published this book Women of the Window: The World of Tagore through the eyes of Ray. The author has actually picked up Tagore’s stories which Ray filmed and which had primarily women characters, and tried an analysis of it. So it’s an academic book, but because I found the subject very interesting and intriguing, I said we must do this even if it doesn’t do well commercially.