In what was the first film for both of them, Soumitra Chatterji and Sharmila Tagore got together to turn the screen into a luminous poem. 14 year old Sharmila (a distant relative of Rabindranath), had only done some school plays and dance performances till then. 22 year old Soumitra had acted on stage and had auditioned but failed to get young Apu's role in the earlier Aparajito – at 20 he was already too old for that film. For 33 minutes of Apur Sansar, the two newcomers played a young couple, unexpectedly married, soaking in the blissful early days of love, intimacy and friendship, till tragedy intervenes in their story.
This part of the Apu saga was not written in such detail in the original novel by Bibhutibhushan. It was Ray who once again crafted long stretches of dialogue-free sequences, replete with close ups, gestures, sounds, music, details, and the very human moments that had made Pather Panchali so lyrical. In Apur Sansar, we are in Calcutta, not in a village; there are slums, not fields; there are no spacious outdoors but a cheap terrace-room (in Tala, north Calcutta); and the train passing by does not evoke magic but urban grime and noise. Yet, in its own way, this part of the film shows two children once again trying to make sense of their world, enjoying their desire, loving each other and the small pleasures life affords them – just like Pather Panchali did.
Having been rejected for Aparajito, Soumitra, then a radio announcer, used to nevertheless go to watch Ray's shootings. He narrates: “One day, I was there to watch a scene from Jalsaghar being shot… As I was about to leave, Ray said, ‘Let me introduce you to Chhabi Biswas, you haven’t met him, have you?’ He said in his customary baritone, ‘Chhabi da! This is Soumitra Chattopadhyay; he’s playing Apu in my next film Apur Sansar.’ The penny dropped! The chandelier on the sets of Jalsaghar began to sway in front of my eyes; my feet left the ground”.
The young Soumitra, unconfident of his looks(!), started his career in cinema on 9 August 1958, shooting in a bottle-labelling factory where Apu looks for a job but is horrified by the conditions. He would go on to work with Ray in 14 films.
Little Sharmila who had seemed unsuitable to Ray when he first saw her wearing a frock, was immediately accepted by him after Bijoya Ray dressed her in a saree and bindi. She was chosen after about a thousand candidates had been found unsuitable."Would I show her how to act?", she asked. "I said she had nothing to worry about".
But her first shot was a difficult one. She arrives with her newly wed husband from her rich family home to his tiny room. Left alone for a while, tears well up in her eyes and she breaks down at the window. "I had told Sharmila on her first day that she would be starting with her most difficult scene, so that all that followed would appear simple... I told my assistants that the sound of her sobbing would have to be dubbed later as I would be shouting directions to her right through the shot. There were no rehearsals. I urged Sharmila to sob to her heart's content... this went on for a good couple of minutes. After sometime, when Sharmila was asked to slowly regain her composure, she did so with considerable conviction..."
[Image: Apur Sansar booklet. Courtesy: Musui Art Foundation] First published by Musui Art Foundation Juhi Saklani is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and cinema lover.