‘That exact face in his mind’: Barun Chanda remembers Satyajit Ray

Print edition : November 05, 2021

Barun Chanda, a file picture. Photo: The Hindu photo archives

BARUN CHANDA with Ray and Sharmila Tagore during the filming of ‘Seemabaddha’. “In the case of casting first-time actors, or non-actors, Ray would always try to get someone who came more or less from the same social milieu as the character in the film.” Photo: COURTESY: SANDIP RAY

Interview with the actor Barun Chanda.

After his starring role in Seemabaddha (1971) as the pleasant, mild-mannered private-sector executive whose camouflaged ruthlessness takes him up the corporate ladder, Barun Chanda did not act in any film for at least 20 years, even though he attained instant recognition all over the world after Seemabaddha was released. When Ray cast him, Chanda was working in Clarion, a top ad agency based in Calcutta and an offshoot of D.J. Keymer (a British advertising agency where Ray worked until after Pather Panchali was released). After the film was made Chanda went back to his day job. A close friend of Ray’s family and one who interacted with Ray very closely, Chanda, in an exclusive conversation with Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, talked about the great director’s unique choice of actors for his films. Ray would take non-actors in starring roles, like Chanda himself in Seemabaddha, Dhritiman Chaterji in Pratidwandi (1970), Pradip Mukherjee in Jana Aranya (1975), Tapen Chattopadhyay in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). “He had to have that exact face that was in his mind; it did not matter if the person never acted before.”


At the outset, I would like to point out that, technically, Seemabaddha was not my first film. I was there in Pratidwandi, even though my face was not revealed and my voice was dubbed by Satyajit Ray. I was the political dada who was giving advice to Siddhartha [the protagonist in Pratidwandi played by Dhritiman Chaterji] in a restaurant. I had to go to Bombay for some work at the time Ray was doing the dubbing for the film, and he could not wait, so he used his own voice instead of mine. Much later I realised I was mentioned in the credits and was very flattered about it.

Before I talk about Ray and his choice of actors, I would like to tell you a small story that can serve as an example. I had very easy access to the Ray family and was very close to boudi [sister-in-law, Ray’s wife Bijoya Ray] and Sandip. Around three years after Seemabaddha was made, boudi told me out of the blue, “You know, one day at dinner Manik suddenly announced that an unknown person will be selected for Seemabaddha.” She admitted they were very crestfallen, for they were quite sure that the role would go to Soumitra [legendary actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay who collaborated with Ray in 14 films]. Such was boudi’s disarming frankness that no one could take umbrage at what she said. She told me, “I asked Manik, what made you select this boy. He said, it’s not that Soumitra would not be able to do that role, it’s just that I want someone from the corporate world, who knows his way around boardrooms. That is why Manik selected you.” In the case of casting first-time actors, or non-actors, Ray would always try to get someone who came more or less from the same social milieu as the character in the film.

‘Like tea brewing’

When he cast someone in a role, he would often keep that person under observation, a lot like tea brewing inside. This affected the writing of the dialogues too. Nowhere in Sankar’s [Bengali writer Sankar, author of the novel Seemabaddha] book does anyone say those lines—“Your height, your smile…” Ray, after studying me, added these lines, thus making it a perfect fit—as if that role was meant for me alone. The character is tall, dark and handsome and has a fantastic smile, very charming on the face of it. It actually took him two years to decide on my role in Seemabaddha.

Also read: Critical insider: Satyajit Ray's cinematic trilogies

I was very disappointed when Sundar [Dhritiman Chaterji] was selected over me for Pratidwandi. That is a role every youngster would want. It’s got so much of flamboyance and angst. That was again Dhritiman’s first film. In fact, all the main roles in the three films clubbed as the “Calcutta trilogy” were non-actors. He made films with a particular effect in mind—and tried to see from the perspective of the audience as to whether the person playing the role fitted the character in the film. Ray was at that time at the zenith of his creative powers, and he not only had the courage to make such choices but also loved the challenge of working with non-actors. In fact, Aparna Sen recently said that in one of her interviews she had asked Ray which actor he had found easiest to work with, and he answered “Sundar”. One expected him to say Soumitra Chattopadhyay, whom he has used in so many films. He was a fantastic judge of personalities and knew that he could mould a person into a role. It did not matter if that person had never ever acted before. Ray had that kind of bravado and supreme confidence—as though he was saying, “Leave that to me, I will make him act” [smiles].

Tarun Majumdar [legendary Bengali film director of such timeless hits like Dadar Kirti] also liked to cast non-actors. But unlike Majumdar, Ray never believed in organising workshops for his actors. Ray liked to keep film-making simple. He would assume that his actors were intelligent and would understand the characters they were playing. He would read out the script, and if anyone had any questions he or she would ask. He would allow actors to interpret the role in their own way. Let me tell you an incident, to illustrate what I am trying to say: One day Ray called me over just before the shooting began, and said, “Barun, I want to make certain things clear right now. I have selected you for the role of Shyamalendu and I take it that you have understood the role. I will give you the liberty to do it your own way, but if I ever see that what you are doing is going contrary to my vision of the film, then I will have the right to intervene and you will have to follow me.” I was extremely surprised that he felt he had to say this to me. He was the captain of the ship, the boss. It is taken for granted that people will have to follow him. You can communicate your point of view, but he is not bound to accept it. It really came as a nasty surprise, because I wondered whether he thought I was going to contradict him. Then I thought maybe somebody did answer back. I really have no idea as to what prompted him to say that.

I remember during one scene with my sister-in-law [played by Sharmila Tagore], I was using my fingers to enumerate the number of options that were available to Shyamalendu to avert an impending crisis, and Ray suddenly stopped us and said, “Barun, what are you doing with your fingers?” I explained to him that this was a corporate gesture, and that I had seen my mentor in my workplace, Subrata Sengupta, do it often. Ray thought about it and allowed me to do that gesture. Even if he did not like it, he let it be because he believed that I knew what I was doing. So, it all came down to his choice of character.

Also read: A Century of Ray

When Ray read a book, certain faces would emerge in his mind for the characters he was encountering in the pages. So, when he made a film based on a book, he would always be looking in real life for that match. That was actually the first requirement for him. In fact, after seeing Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves [1948] during his stint in D.J. Keymer’s London office—a film which is full of non-actors in different roles—Ray made up his mind to work with people not necessarily from the film industry. Imagine the confidence!

Search for Indir Thakrun

There is an interesting and funny story, which has not found mention in Ray’s My Years with Apu. Ray, after much searching, had managed to get a lead on someone who would apparently be perfect for the role of Indir Thakrun, the octogenarian aunt of Apu and Durga. It turned out to be Chunibala Devi, a forgotten actress from the silent era, who had also performed on the stage. Chunibala Devi at that time happened to be living in a red-light area with another woman, who referred to her as “mother”. Ray, of course, does not say in his book that it was a red-light area. But there is another version of the same story. According to that version, accompanying Ray in search of Chunibala Devi was his production controller, Anil Chowdhury, who claimed to have some knowledge of the geography of the region. When they arrived there, some of the women recognised him and hailed him by another name—one that he had obviously given them. He must have turned vermillion [laughs]. Ray apparently ignored the whole incident. I do not know how much of this colourful story is apocryphal, but it is definitely a fact that Ray had gone to a red-light area in search of Chunibala Devi. When he found her, he was spellbound. It was as though the woman had come straight out of the book—and the book had an elaborate description of Indir Thakrun.

Then we come to the role of Sarbajaya [Apu and Durga’s mother]. Karunadi [Karuna Banerjee] was the wife of Subrata Banerjee, Ray’s colleague in D.J. Keymer. Karunadi was a very elegant lady who, according to Ray, had only acted a few times on the amateur stage. [Karuna Banerjee had also been in one film, Mahakavi Kalidasa, in 1942 under a masculine name, Kanu Banerjee]. However, Ray felt that he could tone down her sophistication and transform her into a village woman for the screen.

Also read: How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

Then there was finding the right Apu and Durga. That was a huge task. He advertised in the papers, sent emissaries everywhere, but could not find a single face that matched the one in his mind. I believe it was Ashish Barman [Ray’s assistant director in Pather Panchali] who told him of a family friend whose daughter might be fit for Durga’s role. After meeting her, for the first few minutes Ray just observed her—her mannerisms, etc. He asked her parents if he could take some pictures of her on the roof and they agreed. She was obliging, but very quiet. Probably it was her time to play and this giant of a man [Ray stood 6’6] was asking her questions and taking pictures. He then asked her, can you make a face? And she pulled a face as though it was the most natural thing in the world for her to do. That was when he found his Durga.

A chase story

Apu was actually Bijoya Boudi’s discovery. At that time the place where they lived overlooked a small playground, and it was there she pointed out a boy who seemed just right for the role. Looks-wise, it was a perfect match, but that little boy gave Ray a lot of trouble as he just could not act. But to the great credit of Ray, you never realise that when you see the movie. That was the genius of Ray, not the little boy. For the slightly older Apu in Aparajito [1956], how Ray got his actor is like a “chase story”. Ray and Bansi Chandragupta [Ray’s production designer] had gone to a station in search of a location to shoot a sequence, when suddenly a whole lot of schoolboys appeared and both of them suddenly spotted the face they wanted for Apu. They boarded the train with the schoolboys. That little boy did not disperse with the others at Howrah, but took another train home, and Ray and Bansi Chandragupta continued with him. They struck up a conversation with him on the train and asked him if he would like to act in the sequel to Pather Panchali; the boy agreed and believed that his mother would allow him. Pather Panchali had already made Ray a huge star and the boy’s mother was only too happy. I narrated this story to point out the extent that Ray would go to in order to get his actor. He had to have that exact face that was in his mind; it did not matter if the person had never acted before.

In fact, while he was delighted with the performance of the non-actors in Pather Panchali and Aparajito, he was a little disappointed in the acting of Kanu Banerjee, a highly respected stage and film actor who played the role of Harihar, Apu and Durga’s father. Many years later, Ray said that he wanted Kanu Banerjee to act in a manner as though he was doing two things at the same time—like talking and simultaneously working with his hands. But Kanu Banerjee was not comfortable doing that.

Finding Goopy Gyne

Another case that comes to mind is Tapen Chattopadhyay, whose name is practically synonymous with Goopy Gyne. He had no background in cinema at all and worked in the advertising department of Sandesh. Tapen Chattopadhyay was also a qualified engineer. But Ray found in his face the kind of naivete and simplicity needed to play Goopy. Soumitra was extremely eager to do that role and was constantly after Manikda, saying “Why can’t I do that role? Allow me to give it a try at least.” But after the film was released, Soumitra himself admitted that no one but Tapen could have played Goopy.

Also read: ‘A man who knew too much’: Goutam Ghose on Satyajit Ray

In his later films, when his health was failing, Ray could not take on the challenge of getting non-actors to perform and he was taking established names in his films. We see that more or less from Ghare Baire [1984] onward. It is also undeniable that there was a perceptible decline in the quality of his films—particularly the last three. Had he been physically better, the world would undoubtedly have seen many more incredible movies from the master.

After Seemabaddha I had at least 10 offers to star in different films, but I did not want to do any of them. I also did not want to chuck my job. Besides, there were established stars—Uttam Kumar, Soumitra, Biswajit—and it would not be feasible for a new actor to be choosy about his roles. As a professional actor I would have had to take whatever came my way and I was not willing to do that. Unfortunately, directors like Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Mrinal Sen and Ray himself never called me back. I would have loved to have worked with them.