How Satyajit Ray prepared Soumitra Chatterjee for his debut in Apur Sansar: Read an excerpt from 'The Master and I'
Soumitra Chatterjee wrote in his memoir, 'Most people in the country are under the impression that Satyajit Ray was such a formidable film-director that he dominated everyone when a film was being shot. I can aver that in my case, at least, it was just the opposite.'
Editor's Note: Bengali screen legend Soumitra Chatterjee passed away on on 15 November from coronavirus-related complications in Kolkata. Known for his inimitable screen persona and dexterity in performing a myriad of characters, Chatterjee made his mark in Indian cinema with his associations with Oscar-winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Both of them have worked in 14 films together in a span of three decades — from Apur Sansar in 1959 to Shakha Proshakha in 1990. The following is a chapter from Soumitra Chatterjee's 2006 memoir in Bangla titled Manik dar Shange (The Master and I) which was later translated to English by Arunava Sinha in 2014. The excerpt below details Chatterjee's foray into the world of acting under the able guidance of Ray with Apur Sansar.
If I could have actually accumulated all the learning, wisdom and advice that I received from this extraordinary person, it would probably have been too much for me. I used to have all kinds of discussions with Manik-da, but when we spoke of films, I didn’t want to miss out on a single word. He’d ask me the names of the ‘good’ English films I’d seen till then. I realised that the process by which An Actor Prepares was under progress within me. One day he asked, ‘Have you seen Lost Weekend?’ ‘No,’ I answered. ‘Come over next Sunday,’ he said, ‘we’ll watch the film at Basusree theatre.’ He warned me beforehand, ‘It’s essential to watch this film. It’s been made by no less a director than Billy Wilder, and you must observe Ray Milland’s acting — what acting in cinema really is, how to act in cinema…’ I cannot say what my precise relationship with Manik-da was: master-and-disciple or likeminded close friends. Perhaps both. This was how Manik-da prepared me.
The shooting for Apur Sansar was about to start. I remember the date even today — I will never forget it. 9 August, 1958. I had a very poor opinion of how I’d look on camera; I didn’t consider myself photogenic at all. But then I told myself, I am what I am, it’s up to Manik-da and Subrata Mitra to make it work. My screentest had been taken earlier, on the last day of the shooting for Jalsaghar, when the credits were being shot. It seemed unnecessary to me later, because he had already taken several still photographs of me, which meant that he knew what I looked like on camera. But the tests were to increase my confidence, to familiarise me with the camera. After the whole business was over, he said with a smile, ‘It was rather good, you know. You are quite confident.’
Manik-da had given me the first draft of the script to read well before he began shooting. He used to write his scripts in English at the time, typed on foolscap paper. You cannot develop respect for someone, no matter how renowned he may be, unless you respect his work. What an outstanding script! I was mesmerised. In the last scene, Apu returns to Calcutta with Kajal perched on his shoulder, the river flowing past them, with a boat sailing on it. The final lines were:
Where despair has given way to hope
and bitterness to love.
And the river flows on…
There were several exceptional lines like these scattered throughout the script. Those who have seen the film will recall the memorable scene where Apu flings the pages of his beloved novel away from the top of a hillock.
The mission of his life — to write this novel — has ended. Swirling in the wind, the pages disappear in the shadows of the forest. I still remember what Manik-da had written:
Then Apu lets the whole manuscript go, and they seem like an enormous flock of some strange migratory birds disappearing into the depths of the mountain…
How much more help could an actor possibly expect while playing a unique, extraordinary character? Even after countless discussions and a copy of the screenplay, Manik-da had written a two-page note for me on Apu’s character traits. Why did Apu suddenly agree to the wedding in that situation? After all, he was a modern, educated young man who could easily have dismissed the suggestion. What were his motives? All this was captured in the note.
By then Apu had taken root within me. I did something quite childish at the time — I created a sub-text on my own, detailing what Apu might have been doing in the gaps between the scenes that were shot. But Manik-da did not dismiss this project. He read my text with close attention, and even offered some advice — you say this is what Apu did, but he could have done this other thing too instead… and so on. None of this had any direct relationship with the scenes depicted in the film. But my thick diary had a great deal of value for me in the matter of my emotions and my love for the character of Apu. In this way, the character grew slowly within me, like a flowering plant. The direct result of all this was that by the time the shooting began, I had found Apu. The only thing left was to bring him out through my acting. By then I had developed immense trust in Manik-da — if I did make mistakes, I knew he would always be there to explain things to me perfectly.
In this context, I should explain that all my life I was able to act with considerable freedom — and to my heart’s content — in Manik-da’s films, which was possible only because of him. Usually, most people in the country are under the impression that Satyajit Ray was such a formidable film-director that he dominated everyone when a film was being shot. I can aver that in my case, at least, it was just the opposite. The confidence to accept the freedom offered to me came specifically from him, which was why I was able to perform the way I wanted to. I had always assumed that he would correct my mistakes, if necessary.
The first day’s shoot was in the neighbourhood of Beliaghata. CIT Road did not exist at the time. There were some bottling and labelling factories in the area, which was where we would be shooting. Apu was out in search of a job. The first shot was of Apu walking through a darkened area, holding an umbrella, to observe how workers were labelling bottles like automatons. Apu’s face would fall. Following instructions, I moved forward for the shot to be taken. When he sees the nature of the work, Apu discovers for himself that no matter how desperately he needs a job, he will never be able to bring himself to do this work. As an additional expression, I had gulped quietly. When the shot was done, Manik-da said from behind the camera, ‘Excellent, Ok.’ That was the beginning — a thin trickle from a mountain stream joined a broad expanse of water, and has kept flowing for the past thirty-five years.
I acted to my heart’s content in Apur Sansar. That one film alone taught me the basics of acting in films. Audiences and critics will determine how successful I was. But while it's true that I tried to pour heart and soul into my performance, I also know that much of what I managed to achieve was Manik-da’s doing. Right from the beginning, I had a great keenness and a deep love for learning. The first time that Manik-da would read a scene out to me, as was the custom with directors, I could immediately understand out the mood he had set. The very quality of his reading would make the approach of the character clear. He was keen on teaching me with extraordinary love and attention, and I was eager to learn. I think I succeeded in doing what he wanted by dint of following his example. He himself had not yet reached a mature age, and would be working with the adult Apu for the first time. Which was why he made the film very cautiously, preparing me all the way. From my personal experience, I know that he did not give as much time to — or put in so much effort for — any other actor. Therefore, much of the credit for my success is due to Manik-da.
But it wasn’t acting in Apur Sansar that helped me realise what the standard of acting in a top-class director’s film — in the context of Bengali cinema — should be. I had formed my opinions about this from Manik-da’s first two films, Pather Panchali and Aparajito. It was with these convictions that I had started out. I have already spoken about the preparations before the shooting began. Even after we had started shooting, I often initiated discussions on the kind of acting Bengali cinema needed. He used to participate because of my desire for these conversations. I had always noticed that whenever anyone had a question for him, he would try to answer with great honesty — but he never wanted to initiate such discussions himself.
I am not entirely aware of whether there has been — or is — such a deep bond between a director and one of his actors in the history of
world cinema. The frequency with which the word ‘I’ appears in these reminiscences strikes a discordant note. But what else can I do in this case but to convey my helplessness? Before we started on Apur Sansar, Manik-da had asked me to recite a poem in order to run a voice-test. I had never told him that I was an elocutionist. But he may have heard from someone else that I used to recite poetry regularly in college and university. So I recited Rabindranath Tagore’s Banshi. Judging by an everyday person’s dreams and real-life experiences, one has to say that this particular poem is quite cinematic. After recording the elocution in Technicians’ Studio, Manik-da listened to the recording in the sound van later. He asked film-director Niren Lahiri, who was also with him, ‘What do you think?’ I knew Niren Lahiri already. ‘It’s good, quite good,’ he replied at once. ‘Yes, isn’t it?’ said Manik-da in his famous baritone, with an air of ‘what a talent I’ve unearthed!’ All my life I felt that he had always treated me like his own discovery, combined with a feeling of possessiveness — the way a father-figure always tries to shield his children from all dangers. But his possessiveness never curtailed my freedom. This became even more clear afterwards — when I started working with other directors too. I used to ask him, Manik-da, should I act in this particular film? He used to guide me, which was of immense help to me. Especially at the beginning of my acting life, this magnanimous assistance was extremely useful. This was a sign of his generosity, for he could easily have washed his hands of such important matters — it’s your business, my friend, you’d better decide for yourself.
Tapan Sinha sent for me for his film Kshudita Pashan (The Hungry Stones). As usual, I asked Manik-da whether I should accept the offer. ‘Of course, of course, you shall act in his film,’ he had said at once. I’m reminded of an interesting story in this context, which Tapan-da himself told me afterwards. After the release of Apur Sansar, Tapan-da had met Satyajit Ray at a party. Congratulating Manik-da for the film, Tapan-da had praised my acting, whereupon Manik-da had said in his trademark baritone, ‘Yes, excellent, we’ve finally found one after all this time, Don’t you think?’ Then the two friends had burst into laughter.