Satyajit Ray was tired. He and his colleagues had seen and rejected some 30 havelis and palaces that had been suggested to them as suitable for the location of Jalsaghar. They could not afford to create such grand sets and they needed a dilapidated Zamindar's palace which would ideally have a river and its sandy banks close by. Sitting 150 miles from Calcutta in a tea shop, having just rejected their 30th palace, dispiritedly discussing the problem, they found that the chai-shop owner too had a suggestion for them. He urged them to go to a village, Nimtita, 60 miles away, where on the banks of the river Padma stood just the palace they needed.
Initially sceptical, the team decided to try one last time. They reached Nimtita and, as if by some miracle, the ideal palace in the perfect location stood before them! Ray said that the palace had the same "worn and tragic dignity" which he had dreamed of. Right ahead of it, the Padma flowed. East Pakistan lay on the river's far side. Its shifting courses had left behind sand banks which would be mined by the nouveau riche businessman in the story. Even the gardens and stables of the haveli had been eaten up by the river.
The current occupant met Ray cordially, agreed to the plan, and told him stories of the palace's days of glory. His grandfather, Upendra Narayan Choudhury, had been a patron of music just like the Zamindar in Jalsaghar.
After returning to Calcutta, a happy Satyajit Ray telephoned the author of Jalsaghar – Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya – to tell him the good news. "Nimtita!", exclaimed the writer. "That's extraordinary! I haven't been there myself but I have read about the Choudhurys in a history of Bengal's zamindars, and it was the music-loving Upendra Narayan Choudhury who was the model for my raja!"
Upendra Narayan who had mutated into the Biswambhar Roy of Jalsaghar was played by Chhabi Biswas on screen. "Our greatest actor", Ray called him. There are several unconfirmed stories about how Ray deliberately made Chhabi Biswas repeatedly climb stairs to get the right angry expression on his face, or how the thespian grandly put the director in his place telling him, "I can do many different kinds of walk, would you like me to show you all of them?"
But the only thing we know for sure from Ray's interviews is that he thought Biswas gave a "superb performance", that he had to put up with Biswas's drinking ("He was absolutely fresh in the morning but in the evening he was insufferable"), that the two had dinner together frequently on location. And of course, that Ray cast him twice again, to magnificent results, in Devi (1960) and Kanchenjunga (1962).
Biswas died in an automobile accident in 1962, and Ray wrote in 1966: "Jalsaghar, Devi, Kanchenjunga, were all written with Chhabi Biswas in mind. Ever since he died, I have not written a single middle-aged part that calls for a high degree of professional talent."
(A screenshot from Jalsaghar, showing the performance of Begum Akhtar in the Zamindar's music room. The Jalsaghar was the only part of the film that was created by art director Bansi Chandragupta as a set, because the original palace at Nimtita did not have a grand enough music room.)
First published by Musui Art Foundation
Juhi Saklani is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and cinema lover.