The Maestro and his Mountains

Nilay Chakraborty

As if I wasn’t myself anymore, as if I was someone special. A hero! A giant! As if I was full of courage…careless…undaunted. And as if no one could stop me anymore.”

I asked her opinion on the proposed tunnel. To my surprise she expressed her opposition. "This peaceful Lahaul will be lost altogether as many people from all over India will easily enter this valley".

When Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury visited Darjeeling in 1891, he like many others was mesmerized by the beauty of the hill station, fell in love with the place and started writing articles and letters describing it (these were probably among the first Bengali articles on Darjeeling). Little did he know that his grandson would inherit his love for the mountains and would produce few a masterpieces both in cinema and writing. His grandson the great Satyajit Ray needs no introduction but probably his love for the outdoors especially mountains is little known and thus needs discussion.

In his long illustrious filmmaking career, initially, Ray adapted the literary works of others. It was in 1962 that Ray wrote an original screenplay and then went ahead to make it into his first colour film—Kanchenjungha.

The events of the film take place in real time, on a late afternoon near the Observatory Hill in Darjeeling. Rai Bahadur Indranath Roy Chaudhuri’s family has come to the Himalayan hill station for a holiday, and they are supposed to head back to Kolkata the next day. Kanchenjungha is a film far ahead of its time. For one, it is an experiment in filmmaking within the limited confines of both time and space. Unlike the usual Ray films, it has a fragmented narrative with no central characters in the classical sense. It is a structured allegorical film that uses colour and nature to heighten the drama. Ray told his biographer Andrew Robinson: “The idea was to have the film starting with sunlight. Then clouds coming, then mist rising, and then mist disappearing, the cloud disappearing, and then the sun shining on the snow-peaks. There is an independent progression to Nature itself, and the story reflects this.”

So the film begins when the sun is shining brightly upon Darjeeling —everything seems in place, everyone seems happy and calm. Then come the clouds, and ugly secrets keep tumbling out of the proverbial closet, one after the other. Finally, the mist rolls in, covering the quaint little town, and we begin to witness unmistakable hints of doubt in every single character’s mind. Finally, when the mist clears, those doubts turn into decisions of various kinds, which finally culminate into a happy ending as the sun begins to shine brightly once again— this time revealing the majestic Kangchenjunga in all its glory.

Title cover of Kanchenjungha by Ray

Title cover of Kanchenjungha by Ray

Ray wrote the screenplay of Kanchenjungha in ten days and completed the shooting of the film in as few as 24 days. One wonders how he did that, and perhaps the answer lies partially in his creative genius and partially in what he saw as the core source of his inspiration—the Himalaya. For it was on the terrace of the Windermere in Darjeeling that he wrote the screenplay of Kanchenjungha, and although he makes one of the characters in his film say the following words, we know that it is Ray describing how he came around to pulling off the greatest creative stunt of his career:

“Maybe it is this place that has got something to do with it…I have never seen anything like this before; the majestic Himalaya, these silent pine-trees, this strange play of sunlight, clouds and mist. It’s so unreal, almost like a dream. My head was in a whirl, and everything seemed to change before my eyes.

Presented in Ray’s inimitable style, Sikkim is another gem in his illustrious career which, over a period of almost 40 years was cut, chopped and finally banned by not one, but two nations.

Calligraphy of Kanchenjungha in Bengali by Ray

Calligraphy of Kanchenjungha in Bengali by Ray

Sikkim was not always a part of India. It used to be an independent nation, ruled by a Chogyal (King). In 1971, in a bid to let the world know about their tiny state, the Chogyal Palden Thondhup Namgyal, and his Gyalmo (Queen Consort)— an American lady by the name of Hope Cooke—commissioned Ray to make a documentary on their nation state. Ray accepted the assignment and made the film—a beautiful and wholesome depiction of the history, terrain, flora, fauna, art, culture and the people of Sikkim.

Unfortunately, the Chogyal was not happy with the final cut of the film. He responded discontentedly to Ray’s portrayal of poverty mong the Sikkimese people. Those scenes were cut out of the film. Then Sikkim was annexed by the Indian government. But technically, it was not an annexation. After India attained independence from the British and became a democracy, a freedom movement began to take shape in Sikkim too—with the objective of replacing its monarchy with a democratic government. The Chogyal sought help from India to thumb down the movement, and in the ensuing rush to compete with China; India signed a treaty with the Chogyal in 1950, to grant Sikkim the status of an Indian protectorate.

Sketch in Joto Kando Kathmandutey (Criminals of Kathmandu) by Ray

Sketch in Joto Kando Kathmandutey (Criminals of Kathmandu) by Ray

The moment Sikkim became a part of India, the Indian government banned Ray’s documentary. And it was not until September 2010 that the documentary resurfaced, when the ban was finally lifted by the Ministry of External Affairs. The film was screened at the Kolkata film festival later that year.

The film opens with Ray describing the terrain—a tiny speck in the heart of the mighty Himalaya, which despite their mammoth stature, are nothing but ‘young mountains’ which have hardly stopped growing. Ray narrates that what the kingdom lacks in size, it makes up for in scenery. The misty mountains, the melting snows giving birth to mighty waterfalls, the lush green valleys, the roaring rivers and the steep hillsides all create the picture of paradise on earth. Ray then goes on to elaborate upon the rich flora of the land—the hundreds of varieties of orchids and rhododendrons that bloom in a wide range of colours. Ray spends a considerable amount of time talking about the origins, religion, occupation and habits of the Sikkimese people. We learn how Sikkim has become a melting pot, with Lepchas, Nepalese, Bhutias, Tibetans and even people from other parts of India living together in this idyllic little heaven of a hill state—each managing to maintain its own identity.

The most candid shots, of course, are of Sikkim’s people, especially the children. The documentary points out that education was free in Sikkim, and 20% of the kingdom’s budget went into ensuring the futures of its next generation. Ray explains the religious practices of the different tribes and makes apoint of the fact that the kingdom is a tolerant place. Towards the end of the film, Ray chooses to focus on festivals and celebrations of this idyllic state. One of them is a ceremonial Lama dance—where masked Lamas dance in circles to celebrate the warding off of evil spirits. At the end of the Tibetan year, the gates to the royal palace grounds are thrown open and a fun fest takes place, where gambling bouts, drinking sessions and playful mirth abound. But amidst all this, the disparity in income and well- being is not lost to the discerning eye of a keen observer.

The CD sleeve of the documentary Sikkim afte the ban was lifted

The CD sleeve of the documentary Sikkim afte the ban was lifted

Soumendu Roy’s camera captures the sights of the land with great affection. Picture a white wall of mist, and a ropeway car slowly emerging out of it, with a worker standing on its edge dangerously, and yet with sure footing—creating a visual marvel, only to be followed by another, more poetic scene of raindrops sliding down a telegraph wire. Or the giggling faces of children as they walk to their school or of peasants as they arrange their wares on a Sunday morning in the middle of the town market in Gangtok, the mighty deity of Kangchenjunga looking down upon them. Ray and his cameraman Roy linger on scenes that others wouldn’t even notice, and it’s their gaze that frames this travelogue that also serves as a documentary. Sikkim is a historical account of the kingdom and serves to show a simpler time unsullied by modern ways. Witnessing these scenes, there’s only one thought that comes to mind—if what remains of the documentary is so visually stunning, how beautiful must the whole film have been?

Every Bengali teenager’s favourite fictional character is Feluda.

Calligraphy of Kanchenjungha in Bengali by Ray

Calligraphy of Kanchenjungha in Bengali by Ray

Feluda or Prodosh Chandra Mitter, is a fictional Bengali private investigator starring in a series of Bengali novels and short stories written by Satyajit Ray. Ray’s storytelling style amalgamated the sharp deduction of the sleuth with a brief description of the places along with its history and geography. Information about the setting in lucid Ray style which gave the scene a pictorial effect made Feluda more appealing to the readers. Many novels and short stories took Feluda to the Himalaya. Some of them that come to mind are – Feludar Goendagiri (Danger in Darjeeling), Gangtokey Gondogol (Trouble in Gangtok), Joto Kando Kathmandutey (The Criminals of Kathmandu), Ebar Kando Kedarnathey (Crime in Kedarnath), Darjeeling Jomjomat (Murder in Darjeeling) and Bhuswargya Bhayankar (Peril in Paradise). In fact while shooting for Sikkim, Ray decided to write Gangtokey Gondogol (Trouble in Gangtok) as well. In all these stories not only has he given a vivid description of the mountains but like in all his cinematic works, he did the sketches and calligraphy which are masterpieces by themselves. He studied painting at the Kala Bhavan, Viswa Bharati University, Shantiniketan, where his mentors were Nandalal Bose and Benod Bihari Mukherjee who taught him not only to break rules but also to look at typical Indian motifs for inspiration. All of us are aware that Ray would always sketch every scene by hand to visualize it in his mind first. As his son Sandip Ray has said, ‘Storyboarding for him was a revered ritual’. He was the first Indian filmmaker who created his own posters for the films he made. All the sketches and book covers were made by him.

Discussion on the genius of Ray will take a long time so I will not go on. I end the piece with a genuine suggestion to all readers to see the two films discussed here, believe me, Ray will throw new light on the mountains that you love.


This article celebrates 100 years of Satyajit Ray with a brief synopsis of his films and literature set in the Himalaya.


  1. Darjeeling by Upendrakishor Ray Chowdhury, Charchapad publication.
  2. Pahare Feluda by Satyajit Ray, Ananda Publishers.
  3. Rong Tulir Satyajit by Debasish Deb, Signet Press.

About the Author

Nilay is a frequent Himalayan traveller, who on slightest pretext ventures into the mountains to get away from his business and the hot and humid Kolkata climate. Though he has undertaken a few expeditions, his passion is the middle Himalaya with its people, flora and fauna. He is a photographer and an avid reader on the Himalaya.


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