‘In Ray’s Cinema, They All Shone the Brightest’
Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines, published by Rupa Publications recently was launched in Kolkata this month. In a conversation with Learning and Creativity, the author Amitava Nag, who is Editor in Chief of Silhouette Magazine and a film critic and scholar of repute, speaks about how the book embarked on it journey to pay tribute to Bengal’s superlative actors who bloomed to their fullest in the cinema of Ray.
Satyajit Ray’s Heroes & Heroines
Paperback: 248 pages
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (20 January 2019)
Satyajit Ray’s cinematic journey began with casting non-actors in his maiden film Pather Panchali, that went on to become one of the greatest films ever made. Reason? “Ray had a certain distaste for the traditional method of acting in Bengali cinema in those days and that was probably one of the primary reasons (the other may be budgetary constraints in taking professional actors) he chose to cast mostly non-actors in Pather Panchali.” Well, he also went on to write scripts with particular actors in mind – Paras Pathar with Tulsi Chakraborty, Nayak for Uttam Kumar, Kanchenjunga, Devi and Jalsaghar for Chhabi Biswas.
While books and reams have been written on the films and craft of Ray, Amitava Nag’s Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines chooses to explore the people who brought his films to life on the silver screen. What made Ray decide a particular actor for a role, or rather a non-actor at times? Why did he cast Tapen Chatterjee as Goopy although his favourite Soumitra Chatterjee was keen to do it? Why does Ray’s cinema predominantly portray male characters in important roles much more than female characters? How did he make seasoned actors unforgettably real people?
On the flip side, what did a role in a Ray film mean to an actor? Nag studies the oeuvre of each of the leading actors and also the significant character actors and then examines how the roles they essayed in Ray’s films added new colours to their canvas.
We caught up with Amitava Nag to quiz him about his new book, published by Rupa.
Antara: The first and most obvious question would be why Ray when there are so many books already on him? As you have said in your introduction, the aim to document the phenomenal actors and their superlative performances, some of whom are not known to people outside their native languages made you write this book. But why choose Ray as the umbrella?
Amitava: You are true, there are so many books on Satyajit Ray. Apart from the Mary Seton and Andrew Robinson ones, there is an excellent one by Darius Cooper, another by Suranjan Ganguly and obviously by Chidananda Dasgupta. However most of them have been silent about Ray’s handling of his actors.
My primary objective of this book is to write on the different actors who have brightened Bengali cinema. Actors like Chhabi Biswas, Tulsi Chakrarborty or even for that Madhabi Mukherjee and Rabi Ghosh – and for all of them there is almost nothing in English. When I spoke to many publishers I could understand that even if they are respectful of these actors, they feel that there is no ‘market’ for their work in the pan-Indian audience. I then thought of having a book where I can collect all of them and discuss their acting moments and glory.
Who can be the best binding factor? None other than Ray in whose cinema they all shone their brightest.
Antara: What were the biggest challenges you faced when planning or working on this book?
Amitava: That Ray was not around. There were a few clarifications to be made. In Ray’s cinema there is an excellent exposition of restrained acting and yet Ray had been at times quite harsh about his actors. In two cases, I have mentioned both in the book, he lamented of not having actors with the same caliber as in Bergman’s cinema and that he used actors as puppets. I necessarily didn’t agree with those comments, nonetheless they were interesting observations. I would have loved to ask him why he felt so.
Antara: Tell us about your journey of writing this book. Many of the actors documented are no more. How challenging was it to unearth authentic research material on them, especially those who were character actors?
Amitava: I have a good collection of articles, comments, reflections on and by these actors. I have used them profusely in the book and tried to stitch them in the narrative progression of the analysis.
Antara: You begin your explorations with Chhabi Biswas – the phenomenal actor who perhaps never ventured out of his native Bengal. There are films he has carried on his shoulders alone. In Ray’s Jalsaghar and Kanchenjunga, we cannot imagine anyone else essaying those roles. Or even Kabuliwala or the partly comic Shashi Babur Sansar. Do you think limiting himself to Bengali films restricted his oeuvre and can be considered a loss for pan Indian cinema?
Amitava: I don’t think it is a limiting thing for him as an actor. The limit is of the audience who don’t look out to films in other languages. Because if we go by the logic you referred then someone may blame him for not acting in English films as well! 🙂
Antara: When writing on Soumitra Chatterjee – a repertoire with Ray which can make a book on its own, did you find it challenging to decide how to limit your exploration within the given space? More so, since you have written a book on him, what would you consider his most significant roles in the 14 Ray films he did?
Amitava: In my earlier book Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee, I tried to put forward this idea that Soumitra Chatterjee is much more than just a Ray actor. Thinking him as just a Ray actor is a mistaken premise which many of my non-Bengali film critic friends also tend to commit too often.
Personally I love Apu in Apur Sansar, Amal in Charulata and Felu-da in the 2 detective films as his most remarkable Ray films.
Antara: There is a fair mention of people who have essayed characters that are not lead roles but hugely significant ones – for instance, Santosh Dutta, Jahar Roy, Rabi Ghosh et al. Then why title the book as Heroes and Heroines?
Amitava: That is a good question. I guess this title makes it more attractive. Honestly, I don’t have a satisfactory answer to it.
Antara: Shubhendu Chatterjee, Dipankar Dey and Victor Banerjee essayed significant roles and diverse ones too in Ray’s films. But you have not explored them as deeply as the others. Any particular reason?
Amitava: I think in the context of the book they couldn’t have got separate chapters for them in Ray’s cinema. Also they don’t fall under any specific character profiles.
I was actually uncertain if Mamata Shankar deserved one as the ‘daughter profile’ but then I did forego it.
Antara: You did meet a lot of people who have worked with Ray. Tell us about those interactions. Did their observations surprise you at any time?
Amitava: People mostly have eulogized Ray to the extent possible! May be he deserves that adulation. There were two distinct difference of opinion though with respect to his handling of actors – one group emphasized that he himself would act out roles and the concerned actor needed to just follow that. Rabi Ghosh and Subhendu mentioned this. Then there are others like Soumitra, Madhabi, Shabana or Om Puri who emphasized the liberties they enjoyed acting in Ray’s films.
Antara: I am intrigued by how you explore the two superstars – Uttam Kumar and Sharmila Tagore. While on Uttam, you dedicate a few pages to his rise to stardom, his amazing success with Suchitra Sen, etc, before moving to Nayak and Chiriyakhana, on Sharmila your focus remains almost purely on her films with Ray. Comment.
Amitava: Uttam Kumar’s positioning in a Ray cinematic oeuvre was important from both Ray and Uttam’s points of view. It is such an interesting topic to understand Uttam’s rise to stardom and his taking the battered Bengali psyche along with him, the excesses included. How Uttam fitted in Ray’s scheme of things, also, how Ray allowed Uttam, mainly in Chiriyakhana to exude his star-like charisma even within the ambit of Ray’s school of acting?
For Sharmila, she was found by Ray and then nurtured as a star in Hindi cinema which has a completely different dynamics altogether, and then coming back occasionally to be the conscience for the slightly-fallen man. This journey is different and probably slightly irrelevant in the context of this book.
Antara: Madhabi Mukherjee personifies Ray’s assessment of women in the social construct as you say. Would you say these 3 women – Charulata, Arati and Karuna best project Ray’s comment on the latent power in women?
Amitava: And also Sarbajaya and Indir Thakrun. But definitely these three, for sure. Interestingly after Madhabi, the women characters became less important and intriguing in Ray’s cinema. You match it with his stories which he started writing round about the same time, you will not find a single significant woman character. So, there you go!
Antara: Ray did not have the kind of range of actors Bergman did but his casting was flawless – even getting non-actors to put in natural grounded performances. Do you think lack of the kind of actors Bergman had access to or the technology that Hollywood enjoys have in any way proved deterrents for Ray? Or their absence made him create cinema that is unique with universal appeal.
Amitava: Ray’s cinema at its best didn’t suffer from any of the drawbacks that you mentioned. Coming to that Bergman comment, Ray very rarely showed violence on screen, nor did he have extreme close-ups in general. I guess his Brahmo upbringing shaped his psychology to observe life from a distance instead of being passionate about emotions, may be the way Ritwik Ghatak had always been. I think Ray never wanted his camera to intrude the way Bergman wanted. No, never.
Antara: Which is the next book you are working on?
Amitava: I am working on a collection of Bengali writings on cinema. These are my previously published ones in magazines and newspapers, so there is no theme as such but random writings. I hope this collection to be published later this year.
I have also written a biography of sorts on Tapan Sinha who I feel has been neglected conveniently in spite of making quite a handful of superlative films. I don’t know when that will be published, may be later this year or may be in the next.
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