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Kheror Khata – The Red Notebook

Every artist, writer, painter, comedian has a sketchbook or journal. Their deep personal musings, projects, practices, sketches, concepts and notes expressed on the page. Its intrinsic to any creative process to have a personal record of the evolution of the project. Satyajit Ray had the Kheror khata or the red notebook. It's a collection of long, informal, cheap books on which he formulated his movie before it got made, a film manuscript. It looks like a rough notebook children buy for their school work.

Ray was the captain of his own projects. He was a part of the entirety of a film's making from script writing to the final movie poster. What makes these books special is that they are a complete documentation of Satyajit Ray's process – a raw film in a notebook before it becomes a reality.

The book is personal yet professional; quick yet precise; pragmatic and also artistic. Ray based a lot of his movies on literature and books. He translated them superbly in his journals, taking context from the written word but bringing out a screenplay from it. He taps into his characters and repeats motifs and metaphors through the pages. The language switches too, from English to Bengali to illegible. The Bengali dialogue is deconstructed and sprinkled with Ray's own thoughts in different inks. All the technical details about camera shots and lighting is in English with words like 'fade in' and 'fade out' . There are plans of houses, drawings, objects and graphic design. While watching his movies, one can see shots take shape in the notebook that got translated almost directly onto the screen. Set design, context and even the costume design run parallel in his notebook. Little details and checklists are littered almost everywhere. The red notebook for the movie Devi is almost 400 pages long. In the pages, he is obsessive about the motif of Kali, her eyes and lips that are symbolic to life in Bengal. This motif got made into the final movie poster as well.

'When writing a screenplay, one has to make a ruthless analysis of the original story, imagine the characters as people of flesh and blood, bring to life the atmosphere described in the story, and arrange the scattered events in such a way that a chronological thread may bind the m together' ~ Satyajit Ray (In the book, Speaking of films)

Ray wrote about how over time his approach changed from importance of content/story to importance of how it is told. In the red notebooks for his initial movies, there are elaborate drawings and sketches of people, collages and visual patterns. The books for his later movies are more descriptive about camera angles, movement and progression.

From the books it is clear that Ray spent the entirety of his fuel on each project, one at a time. There are no overlapping dialogues, or cross references to other projects unless he is looking back on his work to make some observation (these are rare). There are clearly some rules about his books. There is even costing and budgets scribbled away in random corners like we all do (restricted to his movies only)

Ray had a knack for compressing novels, combining scenes and expressing character through action and emotion. This is what his Kheror Khata shows us – the inner workings of the films themselves. A sketchbook/ journal is a place of freedom and experimentation. A safe 'place' to be who we are and do what propels us. In finding Ray's books, I have found value for my own sketchbooks. They are not as detailed or as singular in focus as Ray's but they offer an insight into my own process and the freedom to be bold on the empty page.

'Objects, locales, people, speech, viewpoints - everything must be carefully chosen to serve the ends of the story. In other words, creating reality is part of the creative process' ~ Satyajit Ray (In the book, Speaking of Films)

This blog post was not able to support pictures because of copyright. Find pictures at the links below.

For images of The Red Notebook

Process of the movie Pather Panchali

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