When Satyajit Ray said 'no' to my request for a role and put paid to my acting career
Even those with a fleeting acquaintance with ’Manik Da’ as the celebrated film director Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) was known in Bengali film circles, came away overwhelmed from the experience.
He was ’Manik Da’ to all and sundry and to Tollywood’s film fraternity. Apart from being a filmmaker, his versatility was mind boggling. He was truly a renaissance man who wrote science and detective fiction, was an artist, illustrator and caricaturist besides being a music composer and a costume designer. He also edited Sandesh, a childrens magazine, and himself wrote stories for children. The legacy of creating music and absurd poems was carried on for three generations from Upendra Kishore Ray Chowdhury and Sukumar Roy to Satyajit Ray, the third generation genius in the family.
My first exposure to Satyajit Ray was vicariously through my elder brother Amit who watched Pather Panchali when he was a boy of just five and, who in later years recalled how he had cried copiously while viewing the film, especially after the scene that portrayed the tragic death of Durga with Apu and the rest of the family leaving the village to seek a better life in the city.
That was my earliest recollection of the Ray film which bagged the best award at the 9th Cannes Film Festival in 1956 for the best human document. My first contact with him was when I was studying at St Xavier’s College in 1971. He was at the time completing the shooting of Ashani Sanket, a film based on the Bengali famine of 1943. I called on him at his Bishop Lefroy road residence and sought to play a role in the film.He told me to call him later and find out if he had a role he could offer. After much trepidation, I had called him after a week or two but his response was a firm and disappointing 'No'.
I was overwhelmed with frustration and disappointment and gave up thinking of a career as an actor. I was determined to take up a writing career though, which eventually brought me face to face with him in 1990, barely one and a half years before his untimely demise in April 1992.
Earlier in 1978, when the premiere of Shatranj Ke Khiladi was held at the Lighthouse Cinema, Dhiresh Chakraborty, the film’s distributor hosted a cocktail and dinner at Park Hotel on Park Street. Ray handled the Press with his charismatic charm and obliged me with his signature on the photo taken by late Sital Das. He was also kind enough to look at my questions which I had put down at the instance of the director and wrote out the replies in his own handwriting.
This was partly facilitated by the fact that we had a family connection with his wife Bijoya Ray, as my grandfather, eminent barrister BC Chatterjee, was her maternal uncle. His presence was intimidating and he was of course a tall, towering figure. But he made me feel very much at home, spoke about our family connections and recalled that he had met my maternal grandfather during the early 40’s at the Rays' residence at 21 Ballygunge Circular Road, which has now become the Punjab Club.
Unfortunately, the Mumbai-based magazine Cinema-India International edited by TM Ramchandran for which the interview was to be slotted, wound up at short notice. After taking permission from Ray, It was finally published as a cover feature under the headline ‘I Am No Longer interested in Winning Prizes’ in a prominent English daily of Calcutta in 1990.
Ray was seriously ill in March-April, 1992 and fighting for his life in a city hospital when ironically screaming newspaper headlines one days informed readers ’Ray Wins Oscar: Oscar Team Arriving in Kolkata to honour Ray.’
Around this time I had a strange dream in which I saw an urchin flying a kite with Ray's image on it. African drums rolled and and scenes from Ray’s films, Pather Panchali, Jalshaghar, Teen Kanya.,Aranyer Din Ratri, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne flitted past one after another. When the last film reel Agantuk is showcased, a saffron-clad sadhu emerged to pull at the string and in no time the kite came crashing down and I woke up and found myself drenched in sweat.
It was a privilege to spend the little time I had with him, which still left me overwhelmed.
( The writer is a Kolkata based former journalist. Views are personal)