Inside Satyajit Ray’s little-known corner of life as a board game lover, from Scrabble to chess

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“My father was very interested in puns, quizzes and anagrams. These were purely private concerns, known only to a small circle of family members. Sporadically, his deep interest had also manifested itself in his films,” says Sandip Ray in an exclusive interview.

To celebrate the centenary year of Satyajit Ray, arguably India’s most notable filmmaker born on Indian soil, Firstpost will explore the lesser-known aspects of his life in our Ray-esque chronicle.

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The world is more than familiar with Satyajit Ray, the author of the film. But very few would likely be aware that the master, far from the filming floors and locked in his famous office in Bishop Lefroy Road (south Kolkata), was also steeped in picturesque passions.

“My father was very interested in puns, quizzes and anagrams. He was also drawn to alliteration. These were purely private concerns, known only to a select circle of family members, especially my mother (Bijoya Ray) and myself. Of course, sporadically, his deep interest in hobbies like puns and alliteration had also entered his films,” says Sandip Ray, filmmaker and son of Satyajit.

“For example, he incorporated a word game (the memory game) into the script of Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and nights in the forest), and an alliteration in Charulata (The lonely woman) in a conversation between Charu and Amal (the two protagonists). Some of these elements, encompassing IQ and personality games, were also infused into some of his detective Feluda stories. Dwelling on Feluda, it is essential to observe that the author Ray infallibly incorporated the work of his father Sukumar Ray. Absurdity verses in his books hovering around his literary detective. But indulging in puns largely revolved around his personal life,” adds Sandip.

Memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri

Among the word games that Satyajit adored and enjoyed playing with devotion were Accrossticks, Categories, memory games, crosswords, Scrabble and Boggle. He was particularly fond of Parker Brothers’ Scrabble and Boggle brand in the UK. He also designed a word game himself, which reflected the nuances of Scrabble, but without naming it.

“While he was traveling for filming, on trains or buses, my dad would play some of these games,” Sandip recalled. “Categories and Accrossticks can be played with just a pen and paper. One didn’t require any special formal game tools. I remember a mom and dad sharing a few tricks of categories during a train journey to the filming location of Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress),” Sandip recalled.

When he traveled overseas, especially to London, he would drop by stores like Parker Brothers and Just Games. Just Games also posted on its shelves a journal called Games & Puzzles, for word games, puzzles and magnetic games, to which Satyajit subscribed. Games & Puzzles kept him abreast of evolving word games around the world. He would also take puns from Parker Brothers and Just Games if he found them fascinating, and bring them with him to Kolkata. He was so avidly passionate about puns that he indulged in them as soon as he found his elbows.

“If he was at home between two shoots or if he was writing a novel or a short story, he would come out of his office and spend some time playing a word game with his mother. Mother was his main partner in this hobby,” says Sandip. “But sometimes I remember Reena said (acclaimed actress and director Aparna Sen) visiting our house with her husband and spending time with her mother and father in a game of, say, Scrabble.”

Incidentally, Sen burst into the cinema with his first film samapti (The conclusion), which was one of three short films by the maestro Teen Kanya (The three girls), written by literature laureate Rabindranath Tagore. In reality, The three girls was directed by Satyajit in 1961 as a tribute to Tagore in the centenary year of the virtuoso writer.

“It just so happens that Scrabble, which is an age-old invention, was also a part of my father’s life, in our old house on Lake Temple Road (south of Kolkata), and migrated to our current residence on Bishop Lefroy Road ( also south of the city).” Sandip agrees that the roots of his grandfather’s fascination with puns lie in his supreme mastery of English vocabulary. It must be documented, however, that the master filmmaker later wove puzzles in Bengali, especially in his Feluda writings.

Satyajit was also deeply interested in chess and played games with himself on wandering occasions. “But father acquired several chess books when he decided to lead Shatranj Ke Khilari (chess players) to search for moves so he would get them with precision when the film’s two tireless chess enthusiasts, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, portrayed in unforgettable ways by the late actors Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey respectively, put on to continue their chess battles,” brings Sandip home.

Inside Satyajit Rays, a little-known corner of life as a fan of board games, from Scrabble to chess

Chess board designed by Satyajit Ray for Shatrang Ke Khilari

Inside Satyajit Rays, a little-known corner of life as a fan of board games, from Scrabble to chess

Storyboarding for Shatrang Ke Khilari with chess moves

Satyajit would also infallibly visit Foyles bookstore in London, Winsor & Newton for art supplies, HMV music store and, time permitting, Selfridges for pens, refills and cartridges. “When he fell ill after his heart attack in 1984, he also asked me to visit these outlets every time I went to London,” Sandip informs.

In tandem, back in Kolkata, he could be found occasionally at Kallicharan, Shukla, Khanna and Tiwari in the immortal New Market for books and magazines, Oxford Bookstore on Park Street for books, notebooks and stationery, and the most century-old GC Laha store on the Esplanade (in central Kolkata) for art materials.

“He fleshed out concepts and ideas from everyday life. In the family magazine sandesh, the father posed riddles to the children. These included, for example, half of the famous Bata or Coca-Cola logo, a banknote or a matchbox label. Sometimes the puzzles would see part of Rabindranath Tagores’ signature, which the youngsters had to understand in full. Sandesh’s interrogative section also contained silhouettes of well-known characters from my grandfather Sukumar Ray’s unequaled book. Absurdity rhymes, Abol Tabol, or famous landmarks like the Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar or Machu Picchu. There was also a range of varied games and competitions in sandesh. Father never tires of shaping these elements to sandesh because he cherished them. Of course, he also wrote stories and translations of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll for the magazine,” says Sandip.

From an early age, Satyajit also subscribed to comics like Bino, Dandy, the morons, and The boys have their own paper, to name just a handful. “In fact, hardly anyone would know that a picture of my father on a Shikara, when he visited Kashmir as a young boy, was published in The boys have their own paper and won an award,” reveals Sandip.

The intense interest in obtaining information from various journals remained until the end. Even when he became a filmmaker, Satyajit subscribed to periodicals like Omni, American Scientist, National geographic magazine, Life, and See (where the famous British director Stanley Kubrick began his career as a photographer), and heavy metal and Argosia science fiction magazines. During his trips abroad, he picked up periodicals edited by Alfred Hitchcock, Ellery Queen and Isaac Asimov. Funny, he did not fail to be overwhelmed by the Tintin comics and read them until his last days. “Even when he was around 68 (just two years before his death), he had read Tintin and the Picaros», reflects Sandip, betraying this tint of emotion.

A largely unknown face of Satyajit could probably end with an event the maestro cherished. A favorite occasion for him was when Sandip’s birthdays came around every year. That was, of course, until Sandip’s early and early days lasted. Kolkata at that time sported a range of Hollywood studio offices, which were armed with some of the most fabulous film libraries. Needless to say, the people in charge of all these film repositories were all in constant contact with the grand master of cinema in the city.

Sixteen mm film titles, covering Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello were obtained by Satyajit from film libraries spread across Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal Studios and 20and Century Fox, and screened at Sandip’s birthday parties. As Sandip grew older, Satyajit moved on to films by directors like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and other renowned masters of cinema. Thus, a twist at the conclusion of these birthday parties in the house of the Ray family, was the running of a film for the guests. We retired at night overflowing with thoughts mixed with a memorable film.

Ashoke Nag is a seasoned art and culture writer with a special interest in legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

All photos are from the Satyajit Ray Society.

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