Sikkim (1971) Documentary Film Review: Directed by Satyajit Ray


November 12, 2010 (Calcutta Tube): SIKKIM is a 1971 rare documentary by legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Delegates and media persons were lucky to catch the first screening ever of Satyajit Ray’s hour-long documentary Sikkim (1971) in India 40 years after it was made. Thanks to an interim order sent by a cultural organization of Sikkim to COO Neelanjan Chatterjee, Kolkata Film Festival and to the powers-that-be , subsequent screenings of the film at the 16th KFF have been lifted temporarily.

Sikkim was jointly commissioned  by the then-Chogyal of Sikkim and his American wife Hope Cooke. It was more due to the enthusiasm of the latter to promote Sikkim as an attractive tourist spot to the world that Ray was asked to make the film. Ray agreed.

It It is a pictorially beautiful film that not only scans the picturesque mountainscape of the land, its diverse orchids that carry its maker’s inimitable signature, but also his command over holding a picture of its people, culture, poverty, music and dance.

The filmmaker’s son Sandip Ray says that the original ‘rush’ print of the film was screened to a very small audience at Kolkata’s Indrapuri Studio’s projection room.

This ‘rush’ print  footage ran for nearly 40,000 feet covering five hours of screening time. The film was processed at Mumbai’s Film Center. The commentary was written by Ray himself and the voice-over is also Ray’s.

Problems cropped up at Sikkim because the royal couple, the Chogyal and his wife was not happy with the final film when they saw it. The objections, wrote Dilip Mukhopadhyay, were probably due to some scenes the king and his wife found unpalatable and unflattering to the royal family and the image of Sikkim.

There is a scene of an open-air party thrown by the royal couple in the royal gardens where a grand royal table is laid out for the invitees comprised of aristocratic families of Sikkim and foreign guests.

Ray is said to have juxtaposed these scenes with scenes of the poor and the starving hunting crazily for the leftovers in the darkness outside the palace in the biting cold. Without articulating in words, Ray pointed out the contrast in the beautiful land ruled by a  king who either did not care about the poverty his subjects reeled under or did not know. Chogyal asked for several cuts in the film and also some snipping of Ray’s commentary.

Ray was firm. He staunchly refused to make any changes to the original footage. By virtue of ownership rights, the film went back to Sikkim and according to reports, just 60% of the Ray’s original print remains.

The story did not end there. Four years later, the Government of India banned the screening of the film. Why? No reasons were forwarded. Which version – the one Ray originally made or the one edited by the Sikkim royalty? No one knows till this date.

Towards the end of the royal regime in Sikkim, reports were rife that all prints of the film were destroyed. Then how did we watch the film? Two to three prints are said to have survived in India.But as cinematographer Soumendu Roy said in his pre-screening speech at Nandan, this print has been reproduced from another print and is therefore, a reproduction. Which version did we get to watch? The screening time was one hour so probably it was the censored version!

Ray is in good company because his peers in International cinema such as Eisenstein and Bunuel’s films have suffered similar fate. But it is unique in the history of world cinema to find that the filmmaker vested with the highest international and national honours for his contribution to cinema, is also a victim of random censorship both by the persons who commissioned him to make the film and also by the government of the country he was born and died in. Will cine buffs ever get to watch Sikkim again?

(Shoma A Chatterji is a national award winning film writer)

1 thought on “Sikkim (1971) Documentary Film Review: Directed by Satyajit Ray

  1. Kudos to Shoma A. Chatterji for her brilliant write-up; Sikkim (1971) Documentary Film Review. The article has, undoubtedly, flashed light upon the nitty-gritty of the cruxes that caused the burial of Ray’s one more creation over four decades. The “Inner Eye” of a master-maker visualises the things, normally go unheeded by the commoner. In the “land of tranquility” where flora and fauna rule the roost, pomps and plights are no unusual phenomena, and Ray has juxtaposed the contrasts as authentic documentation, without which dignity of documentary deserves to be questioned. It is historically proven that men who have been meant for creativity have never been subjugated under any force, be it blue-blood or brain-trust.It is abominable and psychological torture to keep us waiting for over forty years until Ray’s asset,artfully concealed under the deep-delved soil of petty political interests, is exhumed. Needless to say, we would miss a lot, in case the film was scissored, lopped, trimmed awkwardly.In the “Land of Diamond King”(Hirak Rajar Deshe) there are the gem-cutters who must have cut a huge percentage of it, but the uncompounded portion will prove once again that Ray is unvanquished.

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