Sharmila Tagore talks to SUBROTO SIRKAR on her long association with Satyajit Ray whose birth anniversary was observed on May2.
IT was more than 40 years ago, and I was barely into my teens then, but yes, I do remember clearly my first day of shooting with Satyajit Ray. The film was "Apur Sansar", the scene the one where I, a new bride, cross the threshold of what is to be my home in Calcutta. And it was shot at the New Theatres studio, in Tollygunge. Looking back, I believe Manik da (which is what I soon started calling him) deliberately chose that particular shot for my initiation: a young woman entering an unknown world, both in the reel and in real life. I'd read the script, of course, and he'd told me what to do, but that day he stood behind the camera, which was being handled by Subrata Mitra, gently saying: "Come forward. Look up. That's fine. Cut."
He didn't actually direct you. He'd discuss the scene before hand, tell us what he expected us to do maybe, in certain instances, he would himself demonstrate what was required and let us do our work. Importantly, being a tall person, he would always come to your eye level when explaining something: either he'd bend low, or kneel in front of you. There was a time, when shooting "Nayak", when we were going over a scene where the hero, quite drunk, looks out of the rail-carriage door at the train tracks. Manik da surprised us by giving a splendid demonstration of what he wanted Uttam Kumar to do, and I'll say this, Uttam da, Calcutta's established matinee idol, couldn't do it nearly as well. I also believe that, after working in this film with Manik da, Uttam Kumar became a much better actor.
In the five films I did with him, only once did I have to do a re-take. He was a perfectionist, you know, and wouldn't actually shoot until satisfied that the scene would go exactly the way he wanted it to. In doing this, he was also aware of our limited film stock and the budgetary constraints anyone working in Bengali films then had to be careful about. I don't think it's possible for any outsider to quite appreciate these circumstances, but they helped bring out the best in him, made him improvise.
I believe the idea of `bouncing lights' was originally his, though cameraman Subrata Mitra worked hard to evolve and perfect it, simulating daylight conditions, which Calcutta studios did not naturally provide.
If I were asked, what aspect of his craft fascinated me the most, I'd say it was Manik da's ability to get the most out of you, with the least effort. On the sets, or on location, he always appeared firmly in charge, he seemed to be able to control his environment. In my opinion, "Charulata" and "Devi" were the two best films he made "Charulata" because it was so perfect in all respects, "Devi" because it was a very complex subject to have attempted and accomplished.
And if I've said it before, I'll repeat it: my role in "Devi" will be remembered as the finest I've ever done, remembered long after all my other films are forgotten. I wasn't a professional actress at that time, and that I performed so well was entirely because of Manik da. "Devi" is a very difficult film for Western audiences to understand, for many Indians, too, for that matter unless one is familiar with the background. Even now, I just wonder when I imagine my role, a young woman who had absolutely no control over her own life.
When I chose to go away to Bombay and entered Hindi films, he never ever said a word about it, let alone any sign of reproach. And whenever I was in Calcutta, and dropped in to see him, it'd be Manik da himself who opened the door. It became something I'd look forward to, on my trips to Calcutta: Manik da's towering figure at the door, the familiar words of welcome in his wonderful, deep voice.
You know, he had innate musical sense; unusually, he could read music. And I don't think many people know of another trait of this many-faceted genius: that he could whistle beautifully. He never spoke much, when we were at work. In a way, despite his impressive personality, he was something of an introvert, and basically a shy person. Not that he ever missed a trick!
Satyajit Ray ... a multi-faceted genius.
I remember, shooting "Seemabaddha", one day he just glanced at me, in a way I immediately realised he didn't approve of my hairstyle. He didn't need to raise an eyebrow. By that time, I was aware of the nuances of his expressions.
What I found fascinating about him was the range of his knowledge: he knew so much about what we were discussing or going to film. This was at the heart of his greatest strength, his eye for detail: absolute, perfect detail.
Of course it's true, he preferred his actors and actresses to be a bit cerebral. He was demanding as a director, but I wouldn't agree that he worked you too hard. I always found working with him a pleasure, because he was such a gentleman.
But no, Manik da was never a father figure to me. Over the years, he became a very good friend; perhaps it'd be more accurate to say he was my mentor. If there was a situation where I needed guidance, he was the one person I'd have gone to for advice. Only, when I did find myself in such a position, he was there no more.
The writer is a journalist based in Kolkata.
Send this article to Friends by