The producer of Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), Suresh Jindal, in his book on the making of the film describes the reaction of two actors to the offer of working in the film. Richard Attenborough told Satyajit Ray, "I would be happy to recite even the telephone directory for you". And Shabana Azmi told Jindal, "If Ray asks me to hold a jhadoo for just one shot, I will gladly do it". The actors' respect for Ray was matched by the director's respect for his actors. Suresh Jindal also describes how, when Shatranj Ke Khiladi's shooting was postponed for eight months because of Sanjeev Kumar's heart attack and Amjad Khan's accident, Ray wrote a 3-page letter to Barry John explaining and apologising for the delay. Barry John, who had just a small one-scene role in the film, was quite overwhelmed by the gesture. Back in 1955, like much else in Pather Panchali – such as shooting on location or shooting in natural light – Satyajit Ray's use of non-professional actors was also ridiculed by his contemporaries in the Bengali film industry. But eventually, the director became celebrated for getting the best out of child actors as well as non-professional actors. He also went on to introduce actors such as Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore and Dhritiman Chatterjee to the screen (not to mention Jaya Bhaduri who did her first role in Mahanagar). Some of this marvellous facility with directing actors was because of Ray's approach towards films, both as a writer and a director. 'When I write my own story, I use characters and milieus that I am familiar with... Psychology is of supreme importance to me. The movement from a certain state of character to another state of character – this total inner change fascinates me". Thus fascinated by the characters he was portraying, Ray was of immense help to his actors in a very practical way. Rabi Ghosh used to say, "Manik da can make a cow act"! Ray himself felt: "Since it is the ultimate effect on the screen that matters, any method that helps an actor achieve that desired effect is valid". This is how Sharmila Tagore explains her experience of being directed by Ray. (Remember that Ray found young Sharmila when she was 14. She had come to his house wearing a frock, and his wife Bijoya felt she wouldn't do. But he intuitively recognised something in the child and asked his wife to dress the girl in a saree and do her hair differently. And Sharmila transformed into Apur Sansar's Aparna, her debut role) : "He talks to you, and while he is talking to you he is looking intently at you. And then he reads the scene out to you at your eye level. It's always eye contact. Then he lets you do it. If he feels it is not right, he doesn't use descriptions like "Be more passionate" or "more dejected". He tells you to do it a little more slowly..." In another interview she had said: "He used to say, "Look left, now slowly look down, now pause here"... This was perhaps the best way to direct a 14 year old girl! The other legendary female actor that Ray gave us as the eponymous Charulata and as Mahanagar's Arati – Madhabi Mukherjee – used Durga puja idol-making as a metaphor for her experience: "I was a lump of clay from which he first sculpted an idol, and then gave it the power of vision". "A Satyajit Ray script is so clear and natural that no discussion is necessary". Another thoughtful appreciation of Ray's contribution to the art of acting on screen comes, fittingly, from Soumitra Chatterjee who worked with him in a range of roles in 15 films: from Apu in Apur Sansar, to Narsingh, the violent taxi driver in Abhijaan, to the highly intelligent detective Felu-da, to Amal, the friendly brother-in-law Charu falls in love with in Charulata. Before the Apu Trilogy, says Soumitra, actors mostly came from theatre to films and had a staginess to their craft. With Ray's films, Bengali actors began trying to be cinema actors. "I had always thought of myself as a stage actor. I was afraid that I would overact (on screen), that I would project my voice too much... But after I saw Pather Panchali, all my notions about film were revolutionised". Interestingly, Marie Seton, Ray's first major biographer had opined: "Not even Soumitra Chatterjee has ever seemed to be as talented an actor when appearing in the films of other directors." Both Rabi Ghosh and Sharmila Tagore have called their "Manik da" one of the finest actors himself, describing how the director could demonstrate expressions, delivery, timing, pauses... everything. Which is exactly what Ray seems to be doing in this photo by Nemai Ghosh, as he directs Barun Chanda and Sharmila Tagore during the shooting of Seemabaddha (1971). The director as actor.
First published by Musui Art Foundation
Juhi Saklani is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and cinema lover.