Satyajit Ray would have been 91 today.
I never met the man but because his son and I share the same name, I was once mistaken for the son. At an NRI reception in California for Sandip Ray, an older man spotted my name tag and came up to me and said “I met your father once on a bridge.”
My father was an engineer who built bridges among other things and for a moment I thought that was how he knew him. When the man started talking excitedly about camera angles, I realised he had buttonholed the wrong Sandip.
Almost every Bengali who grew up in the last half of the 20th century has a Ray story. Even though the man died in 1992, he’s still very much alive in the popular imagination. Sujoy Ghosh paid tribute to him in his hit Kahaani, that running hot water gag borrowed from Ray’s Joy Baba Felunath. The latest Bengali indie hit, Bhooter Bhabishyat, about the future of ghosts is liberal in its nods to the master.
When I asked him if Bengali filmmakers were unable to come out from under Ray’s shadow, director Rituparno Ghosh retorted “If Satyajit’s influence helps us to make good films, then what is the need to come out from under that influence?”
On his 91st birthday here is the undying “influence” of Ray as seen by Sharmila Tagore and Aparna Sen, two of the women he launched to fame and Sandip Ray, the man who is carrying on the family business.
Sharmila Tagore was discovered by Ray as a thirteen year old when he was scouting around for someone to play the child bride in Apur Sansar. “I was quite blasé,” she confessed about that historic role. “I just did whatever everyone told me to do. There was no special enjoyment, no special tension.” She said she knows now that he had to work hard to convince audiences she was a shy village girl, not a sophisticated Kolkata teenager. There was a scene where she is supposed to hit her co-star Soumitra Chatterjee after spouting a lot of dialogue. “ I said it all and Manik-da (Ray) said, ‘Excellent.’ Then he said, ‘Do something. You don’t need to say anything. Just smack him and go.’ He just cut it all out.”
Tagore went on to star in four other Ray films including Devi where she plays the bahu of an obsessed zamindar who thinks she is the goddess incarnate. “I understood the romance of Apur Sansar, but the complications of a woman’s body in Devi were so much more tragic. I had no idea what I was doing till I was in my 30s. The face of that girl still haunts me. You know that film was just close-up after close-up.”
Tagore felt Ray “peaked” with Charulata, Mahanagar and Aranyer Din Ratri but she said he never lost a “certain innocence and simplicity” in telling a story even in his most stiflingly studio-bound films of his last years.
Yet despite the prestige of being a Ray heroine, Tagore to the horror of Bengali bhadralok headed off to Bollywood – to a world of bouffants, bikinis and butterfly knot blouses. “My naak unchoo (snooty) friends were disappointed but I needed to stand on my own feet,” she recalled. “Working with Manik-da was wonderful but there was no money in it.”
But after decades in Bollywood, playing all kinds of roles from Shammi Kapoor’s Kashmir ki Kali to Aamir Khan’s grandmother, Tagore said she often cringed watching herself onscreen.
“I didn’t feel like that about Aparna in Apur Sansar.” Then without missing a beat she recited her lines from that 1959 film.
“Tomaar chokhey ki aachhey bolo. (What’s in your eyes, tell me). Kajol. To my wife. Wife maaney jaani (I know the meaning of wife).” She smiled and shook her head. “Beautiful.”
Aparna Sen was meant to be the Aparna in Apur Sansar. Her father and Ray were friends from their teenaged years and worked together in advertising. But Ray decided she looked too young. He cast Sharmila Tagore. When he was making Samapti, the last part of Teen Kanya, his wife remembered Aparna.
Again here was a sophisticated young woman playing a simple village girl who wore a thin cotton sari without a blouse. She remembered he packed up shooting because she was embarrassed the sari was too thin. “Next day I got a thicker sari,” she said. “I was mortified. All he would keep telling me was, ‘No one is looking at you. No one is here,’ because I kept covering myself.”
As for her pronunciation, he just shrugged it off. He said “Oh these girls who study in English medium schools are a bit like that.”
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