Bollywood Nostalgia

Extreme Close Up With Satyajit Ray

By N K Sareen

You must have seen this photograph numerous times but I bet you wouldn’t have heard the story behind it. Here’s an account of how one of the most iconic photographs of Satyajit Ray was clicked.

For that I will have to take to you to a hot July morning in New Delhi. Almost 34 years ago.

It was the summer of 1978 and my phone rang early in the morning. I dragged myself out of bed and picked up the receiver (Those days there were no mobile phones).Delhi. Almost 34 years ago.

‘We are having a symposium in south Mumbai. Do you want to come? Manik Babu is attending too…’ (Manik was the pet name of Satyajit Ray.)

BasuDa (Filmmaker Basu Bhattacharyya) gave me more details but my mind was focussed on the word ‘Manik’

I had told BasuDa that I wanted to photograph Ray and he had promised me that he would give me a call whenever such an opportunity arose. He told me that there were other reputed filmmakers coming to the symposium but the star attraction was of course, Manik.

A week later, I reached the auditorium and I was late by at least 15 minutes and I it was due to Mumbai’s notorious traffic (even then it was pretty obnoxious). While sitting in a cab, I had composed a number of frames in my mind but nothing prepared me for the frame that I got that afternoon.

Not finding Ray on the stage, I spent sometime inside the auditorium looking for him in the audience. Instead of climbing on the stage during his speech and disturbing the audience, I was looking for a corner to position myself. My plan was to click him when he would go up on to the stage to speak.

There were no TV cameras and if I recall correctly, there was only one more lensman, who the organizers had arranged for.

I tried my best to not disturb the audience or block their view. But, it was really difficult to find a place to stand. Wherever I stood with my camera, some person would whisper or gesture that I was blocking his view.

Out of frustration of not finding a place acceptable to the audience, I decided to occupy one of the two seats lying vacant right in the middle of the front row hoping to get at least some shots instead of going back empty-handed.

But I had no idea of what was to happen next…

Now imagine the situation! I am a photographer with a Minolta still camera in my hands (those days it used to be the one of the best brands. It’s extinct now) and your subject decides to sit just half an inch away from you, the other vacant seat just next to mine.

Was it a deliberate move by Ray because he didn’t want to pose for photographs? I don’t know!

For a few minutes, I was dumbfounded and left wondering how could one possibly photograph a subject like that.

Getting a shot of such a tall man (Satyajit Ray was six feet five inches or 1.96 metres tall) was impossible with a normal 50mm lens. In most frames, I just managed to get half a frame of a brooding Satyajit Ray and that too when the source of light were just a few tube lights!

I noticed that Ray was intently listening to the speaker on the dias. At that instant I decided to concentrate only on his facial expressions.

I decided not to let anything else bother me (even though the source of light remained nagging worry) and took my camera out. From that close distance, I only focussed on his face. I took out my F2 lens and set it to full aperture and very slow shutter (speed) because there was low light.

Satyajit Ray sensed that I was about to start clicking. But he never moved, never looked at me and continued looking the stage. He was still deeply engrossed in the discussion.

I kept clicking as he kept listening.

After a few shots, I stopped.

Ray never looked at me and was solely focussed on the speaker.

Thus I got one of the most iconic and oft used photographs of him today which was taken without any exchanges, either of pleasantries or of words.

We spoke much later but that day we spoke a thousand words, without actually talking to each other.


All photographs are copyrighted to NK Sareen. 
To know more about NK Sareen, click  HERE. 
To contact NK Sareen on his facebook page, click HERE
You may send him a mail at
Sareen's last post on this blog, Protima Bedi. Woman. Fearless. Posted 
on November 7, 2013
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5 replies »

  1. Mr Sareen is a great portrait photographer, but I don’t know why he should apologize for using black-and-white, which is a powerful medium.


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