Aparna Sen's initiation into cinema as an actor happened at the young age of 14 — an event she remembers as "a tremendous amount of coincidence". It was the summer holidays, and her mother (like most Bengali mothers) had persuaded her into reading Rabindranath Tagore's Golpo Guccho (a collection of short stories) as an assignment. Soon after, as Sen lay in her bedroom reading Samapti on one such sultry afternoon, she thought to herself how wonderful it would be if the story were to be adapted into a film, imagining herself in the role of the bright-eyed Mrinmoyee.
Clearly, the stars had aligned, as the phone rang only minutes later, and even before Aparna had answered it, she knew who was on the other side. "I don't know how I knew it, but I just did. And there he was, saying to me in his booming voice, 'Ami Satyajit Ray bolchhi. Chidu achhe?' ('This is Satyajit Ray speaking. Is Chidu home?')". Her father, the late filmmaker and critic Chidananda Dasgupta (nicknamed Chidu), was a friend of Satyajit Ray's, and had founded the Calcutta Film Society with him in 1947.
By the time he had hung up, the actress knew what conversation her father had had with his friend. "He told me that Manik Kaka (Satyajit Ray) was making a film on Samapti and wanted to cast me as Mrinmoyee. Even though we already knew I'd become an actor on growing up, he told me that they're letting me do this only because it's a Satyajit Ray film and a Tagore story, and that I shouldn't get my hopes up since a look-test was still going to happen," she recalls.
Aparna Sen in Teen Kanya (Samapti)
The actress, however, was a little disappointed on learning that she wasn't required to recite poetry or read out lines from the script to showcase her acting chops for this test. "They just put me in a saree, pulled my hair back in a bun, pasted a nose-pin on my nose and probably put some kajal too. Then, I was asked to look up, look down, look sideways; that's all. I think Manik Kaka just wanted to check my angles," she says, digging up six-decade-old memories of her debut in the Teen Kanya anthology released in 1961.
Satyajit Ray, born on 2 May, 1921, changed Indian cinema as the world knows it. Celebrated Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who also happened to be the auteur's friend, had once famously likened a life devoid of Ray's cinema to an existence "in the world without seeing the sun or the moon" — a gross anomaly.
"I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it (Pather Panchali). It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river. People are born, live out their lives, and then accept their deaths. Without the least effort and without any sudden jerks, Ray paints his picture, but its effect on the audience is to stir up deep passions. How does he achieve this? There is nothing irrelevant or haphazard in his cinematographic technique. In that lies the secret of its excellence," Kurosawa had gone on to say. And it is in this very 'relevance' — a now-overused term denoting the currency used to determine one's social capital — that Ray's century-old existence and legacy continues to thrive, primarily as a political commentary on the world and its dogged greyness.
As a graduate of the Ray school herself, Aparna Sen's regard for her friend-turned-mentor is rooted in his fierce advocacy for one's freedom of expression and dissent. As a result, the two often and rather unsurprisingly, agreed to disagree, even on projects where they collaborated. In case of Ray's Pikoo (1980), a short-film based on his short-story Pikoo's Diary, Aparna Sen's character Seema has been portrayed as an adulteress through the eyes of her son, the eponymous character.
In an interview to Cineaste Magazine, the director mentioned how the film — originally made for France 3, a French television channel — is very "complex", and is a "poetic statement which cannot be reduced to concrete terms".
"One statement the film tries to make is that, if a woman is to be unfaithful, if she is to have an extramarital affair, she can’t afford to have soft emotions towards her children, or, in this case, her son," Ray said. According to him, "the two just don't go together". He believed it was imperative for the woman in this situation to be "ruthless", and perhaps Seema wasn't so unrelenting after all. "She’s being very Bengali. A European in the same circumstances would not behave in the same way," he said.
The actress, however, contests his views, which she believes were firmly rooted in his "Brahmo ideals of adultery". Despite the fact that her character cries after watching her son paint in the garden, Sen believes she was vilified. "The reason he gave me was that it's because she was cheating on her son. When I said no, she was cheating on her husband, he said it's the same thing," the actor recalls. She found this rationale unacceptable, even though she never argued about it with him.
For Aparna, the freedom of sexual choice is fundamental to life, even when exercised within the confines of a marriage. And adultery is not an act of villainy, as she conveys through her National Award-winning film Parama (1985), starring Rakhee Gulzar. "Not that he made me a villain, I show pangs of remorse also. But even so, he couldn't treat adultery with sympathy. He never showed why she was an adulteress; it was all sex, and nothing else. It could be that she was not fulfilled in some way, but none of that was shown," she rues, before adding that perhaps the story inherently had little scope for exploring such nuances on account of being framed by a young boy's perspective.
"He was so Brahmo in so many ways," she laughs, on looking back at Ray's reaction to her film Sati (1989), in which the scene of a cow giving birth roused his disapproval. "Apparently he was quite embarrassed, and had said, 'Uff, ei Reena (Aparna) ta na!'"
Another one of Ray's leading ladies, Madhabi Mukherjee, also remembers being at odds with the auteur on several counts, including "the political nature" of his films. "I didn't like the fact that his films were always so political, which is why I eventually stopped working with him," the 78-year-old actress says. Her memories of their first encounter, however, are still vivid and rather cherished.
Having spotted the actress in Mrinal Sen's Baishey Shravana (1960), and subsequently on several magazine covers, Satyajit Ray was "keen to see her performance". "Mrinal's film proved that she had quite a reserve of talent, and I offered her the leading role in my film Mahanagar," Ray said in an interview.
For Mukherjee, the proposition brought to her by Satyajit's production manager and sound recordist seemed too outlandish to be true. "They came to my place and informed me that he wanted to meet me at his place. Back then, I used to live in North Kolkata, and travelling all the way to South Kolkata to meet him would mean paying a hefty amount for a cab ride. I wasn't financially well off, so I told my mother that there's barely anything likeable about me, and that I should pass this up. It would only burn a hole in my pocket. But my mother insisted I go," she recalls. Soon after, their conversation was interrupted by the two men, who returned to inform Mukherjee that they'd made a "grave error", and would like to pay for the cab ride.
Satyajit Ray and Madhabi Mukherjee
"I was extremely embarrassed, and was wondering if they'd heard me! There was no way I could wriggle out of this, so I went to meet him wearing my usual simple saree, only to be told that I need to wait and come back later, as he was busy with his outdoor shoot for Abhijaan. It reminded me of the conversations people have while fixing arranged marriages," the actress laughs. Another two rounds of meetings later, Mukherjee was finally handed the script for Mahanagar, a film based on Narendranath Mitra's short-story Abataranika.
Set in 1950's Calcutta, the story revolves around the life of Arati (played by Mukherjee), a home-maker compelled to take up the job of a saleswoman in order to meet the piling financial needs of her family. Often touted as one of Ray's best, the film, undoubtedly, was far ahead of its times.
"Back in those days, the norm was for women to stay at home and not step out, since the world outside was for men. But had Arati, or any X, Y, Z in her place, not stepped out of her home to do her job, she would not have discovered herself or her self-confidence," Mukherjee says. Having met quite a few Aratis in real life, the actress was not daunted to play one on screen. However, she does recall a minor hiccup during the film's shoot, when a bad bout of conjunctivitis had left her eyes swollen. "I felt so terrible about the timing of the infection, but I later realised it wasn't visible in the film at all," she heaves a sigh of relief.
Weighing in on the film and its female lead, Aparna Sen believes Mahanagar is among the first and finest feminist films to be made in India. She remembers interviewing Ray for The Economic Times, for which she quizzed him extensively on the women in his literature. She asked him if he felt that a particular female character from one of his Feluda stories was "strong", to which he replied in the affirmative. "He said he believed that women are morally and mentally stronger, because they're physically weaker than men," she says, adding that even though she has a "problem" with this sentiment, she does agree that women are more resilient than men.
"Sarbajaya's character in Pather Panchali is such a strong one. So is Aparna (played by Sharmila Tagore) in Apur Sansar. The way she adjusts with her husband's poverty, despite being from an affluent family, shows just how strong she is. Similarly, in Mahanagar, Madhabi's character Arati is shown as an equal to her male counterpart; not a superior, but an equal," Sen says. With Arati transcending her social conditioning to take a moral stand for her Anglo-Indian colleague who had been wronged at work, Ray firmly establishes his nonconformism.
Madhabi Mukherjee in Mahanagar
"It was rather unusual for its times, and that is what I love about it. The fact that the story wasn't man-hating, and shows a rare and equal partnership between the man and the woman, is something that we don't see much in films even today," the actor-turned-director says. She, however, admits that her Manik Kaka did not always eulogise women, and depicted them as corrupt too.
"But that's okay; women can be corrupt. The idea is to humanise them, and that is exactly what he did," she says. Sen believes his ability to defy the male gaze can be attributed to his "androgynous" streak. According to her, all great artists have this inherent androgyny, "which makes them sensitive to both male and female emotions. There's a perfect balance of the yin and the yang in them."
For Aparna, Ray turned into a mentor figure only much later in life, even though he had been around since her childhood. "I didn't know he was noticing me. When I was a child, we would usually meet at social gatherings or some relatives' weddings, or at the film society screenings. But I'd never gone up and talked to him," she says. The director had initially thought of casting Sen as Aparna in Apur Sansar, but changed his mind on seeing her at her younger sister's birthday party. "He realised I was too young to play the role, as I was probably 11 going on 12 back then. As a result, he cast Sharmila instead, which proved to be great news for the film industry since she was brilliant in it."
The actor, however, has a bone to pick with her Kaka, whom she accuses of having guided her a little too thoroughly on the sets of Teen Kanya. "I didn't get the chance to show my talent!" she laughs. "However, there was this one time during a scene with Chorki, my squirrel in the film, who was supposed to run away while I held her in my hands," she recalls. The squirrel would usually wriggle out of her grip, except on that day, when shooting for the scene, Chorki decided to stand surprisingly still on her palm. In order to make the squirrel move, Sen had to improvise on camera, to which she received a nod of approval — and a hearty laugh — from her director. "That meant a lot to me," she says.
Circa 1976, their relationship took a turn towards friendship, with Ray inviting Sen to be one of the jurors at the International Film Festival of India. Terrified of public speaking, the latter first thought of turning down the offer, only to be convinced into accepting it later by Satyajit. "I told him that he'll have to tell me what to do, to which he said that I already knew what I had to do, having grown up watching world cinema. All I needed was a little exposure, he thought."
Eventually, their bond assumed the shape of a mentor-mentee equation, as Ray went from discussing his personal struggles while making his first film, to talking about issues with his script of Jana Aranya with Sen. "I never gave him solutions, because he wasn't seeking any from me. But the mere fact that he would even discuss it with me was a matter of great honour. It was also the time when I was going through my first divorce, and I would talk to him a lot about my personal life too," she tells me.
Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata
For Madhabi Mukherjee, her memories of him are underlined by his respectable, "reserved and measured" demeanour — "a man of utmost beauty and self-discipline," is how she defines him. After the last scene of Mahanagar was shot, Mukherjee remembers being surprised on learning that the filmmaker wished to work with her again. "I thought that's something I should be telling him," she says. A couple of days hence, Ray called her and asked her to re-read Rabindranath Tagore's Nashtanirh, the novella on which the film Charulata (1964) is based.
For Ray, the actress required "very little guidance" from him on his sets. In his own words, Madhabi was so "intelligent and so quick on the uptake", that directing her even for her complex role in Mahanagar was a breeze. By the time Charulata went on the floor, Mukherjee had blossomed into a more mature artiste. "(When) she played the role of Charu... I had even less difficulty with her. I don't think she required a second take or a third take; it was mostly first take which was okayed. And she absolutely scored heavily with her performance in the film," Ray said in his interview. Their third and final collaboration was in the film Kapurush in the year 1965.
But for Mukherjee, what really stood out about the man were his efforts to "create an audience for cinema", something she believes went largely missing in the past couple of decades. "All of his films are important. If you miss any shot or dialogue while watching one of them, you miss out on a lot. Nobody attempts to hold on to the audience's attention that way anymore," she says.
Satyajit Ray and Suhasini Mulay, his assistant director on the sets of Jana Aranya
For Sen, who admits to have "hankered to be in his films" on being dissatisfied with the mainstream cinema she was part of, the filmmaker became her subject of study as she observed him at work. Her curiosity in the process of filmmaking made her shadow Ray on his sets of Jana Aranya (1976), in which she was also cast in a cursory role. "When I started taking photographs, I would often take them to him when I'd have some gaps during my shoots. I'd watch him editing on this outdated device called the 'Moviewallah' — I don't know how they used it. So, on one of these visits, I'll always remember what he told me on seeing my photographs; he said, 'No, we'll have to take this girl seriously now.' He liked what he saw. It was high praise coming from him," she says.
The actress takes note of the pivotal role he played in making her directorial debut — the National Award-winning 36, Chowringhee Lane (1981) — come to life, as he was among the first ones to read its script. "I had been asked to put it away in a drawer by people, since it was in English, and I was told I wouldn't get any producers. But one day, he called me and asked me to meet him. He told me the script was very good and that it 'had a lot of heart' by thumping his chest really hard," she remembers, adding that it was Satyajit Ray who had suggested Shashi Kapoor as a producer for the project, even more so since she had already decided on casting his wife Jennifer Kendal in the film.
Satyajit Ray and Shashi Kapoor
"He gave me some valuable advice, and asked me to get good assistant directors on board, as he thought I might need help with the technicalities. He told me how he had problems while shooting for Pather Panchali. I did take his advice, even though I had been in the profession long enough to know about most of its technicalities," she says.
Four years later in 1985, when the maestro went on to make his National Award-winning Ghare Baaire, the actor was crestfallen to learn that she hadn't been chosen for the role of Bimala, which ultimately went to Swatilekha Sengupta. Even though she never expressed her disappointment to him, he had "very sweetly" said that she had every right to be upset with him. "Reena'r toh obhimaan hotei paare," he'd said. "I had even forgotten about it later on," Sen admits.
But what she cannot seem to forget was his disappointment with the world and its eroding morals in the final few years of his life. His movies on the metropolis held a mirror to this rot.
"When he started out, he was a young filmmaker with dreams of an India that was still being shaped post-Independence. But as he gradually witnessed the country attain the shape of what it eventually became, he turned increasingly depressed and angry with the corruption, and all of that came out in his films," Sen trails off. She believes he would've been deeply unhappy and disturbed had he been alive today, and assumes he died only months before the Babri Masjid's demolition for a reason. "He wouldn't have been able to take it," she says.
Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen
As the film fraternity gears up for Satyajit Ray's centenary celebrations this year, Madhabi Mukherjee believes it's time to revisit the lessons left behind by him and his peers, and realise them in praxis, failing which might render his legacy as a "royal flop". Her words remind me of the last scene of Mahanagar, where in the film's most poignant moments, Arati and her husband Subrata (played by Anil Chatterjee) reconcile to take on the world with renewed vigour.
On learning that his wife had quit her job over her colleague's unjust firing, Subrata says he's not upset with her call. "Rojgaarer taagide amra bheetu hoye gechhi, Arati. Kintu tumi toh howni. Eta ki kom holo?" ("Earning our daily bread has turned us into cowards, Arati. But that didn't stop you from standing up for what's right. Is that any less of an achievement?") he tells her, thereby simplifying the answer to a conundrum that continues to riddle a world without Ray.
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Editor's note: The article was originally published on 2 May, 2020 and is being republished in light of Satyajit Ray's centenary.