Sharmila Tagore on working with Satyajit Ray

Interview with the veteran actor Sharmila Tagore.

Published : Oct 19, 2021 06:00 IST

The fans of Hindi cinemarememberher for Kashmir ki Kali , Aradhana and Amar Prem . Although these films were superhits, there was much more to Sharmila Tagore’s acting than mainstream Hindi cinema. She actually started her career with Bengali cinema, having caught the eye of the incomparable Satyajit Ray when she had hardly entered teenage. Beginning with Apur Sansar (1959), she went on to work with him in four other films and remains to this day a kind of spokesperson for his films worldwide. From Los Angeles to Singapore, she is remembered for her role in Ray’s Devi (1960). Having worked with the legendary film-maker so early in her life left an indelible imprint on Sharmila Tagore. Here she talks of Ray, whom she refers to as Manikda, and how he preferred his actors to be like a clean slate for him to gently mould them to his vision of cinema.

“Satyajit Ray taught me how to appreciate cinema,” she recalls. Excerpts from an interview with Ziya Us Salam :

When you signed up for ‘Apur Sansar’ with Satyajit Ray, you had barely entered teenage. For a girl so young, it must have been a difficult decision to decide on a career in cinema at that time.

Well, it was not about a career at all. I was a schoolgirl then. Manikda got in touch with my father and asked him if I would be interested in working in his forthcoming film, Apur Sansar . My father readily agreed because Satyajit Ray was already a world-renowned film-maker. Middle-class Bengalis loved his films. Aparajito [1956] had already won a prestigious award at the Venice film festival. In fact, Manikda, as I called him, was not going to make Apur Sansar because Aparajito had done badly at the box office. However, because it received the coveted award, he decided he would complete the trilogy with Apur Sansar ; Pather Panchali [1955] and Aparajito had come earlier. After my father agreed, Manikda called me to his house. I went with my mother and my little sister. He took some pictures. He asked his wife, Mankudi, to dress me up. I had to wear a sari, tie my hair in a bun, put on a little bindi. And he was happy with the look.

I believe you had to leave the school because your principal did not agree…

Yes, I did have to do that. At that time there was a huge prejudice against cinema. People from good families did not act in cinema. It was way back in the 1950s. Ms Das, the principal, was very conservative and said: “If you want to work in films, then you will have to leave school.” My father was quite adamant. He said it was a wonderful opportunity and honour to work with such a director. Nobody in my family objected to my working in Ray’s film.

Also read: A Century of Ray

I used to live with my grandparents as my father had a transferable job. I loved living in a joint family with my cousins, uncles and aunts. I loved my life there. Unfortunately, because of the film, I had to leave that house. I moved to Asansol, where my father was posted, and enrolled at the prestigious Loreto Convent. I had to make a transition from a Bengali-medium school to an English school. At Loreto, we were already studying books prescribed in the syllabus like Three Men in a Boat , Mill on the Floss , Twelfth Night , etc. My teacher, Mother John Baptiste, JB, who taught us English, history and health science, gave me a lot of personal attention. If I answered with monosyllabic words like “no”, or “lovely”, “wonderful”, then she would say: “Such words are not allowed. You have to speak in full sentences.” I remember feeling so embarrassed because I had the words but not the grammar. By year-end, with help from JB, I managed to catch up with the class.

How did you prepare for the role? You had no formal training.

Of course not. I had only done some school plays. I had no formal training. I was learning Kathakali dance at that time and was also a member of The Children’s Little Theatre (CLT) led by Samar Chatterjee. I had performed on stage in many plays as a part of CLT and had gone to places like Bombay, Delhi to perform on stage. So, I was not really nervous about performance and didn’t suffer from any performance anxiety.

I also used to listen to Bengali plays on radio every Friday. I was quite a voracious reader. I used to read Tagore, Bankimchandra and Sharatchandra in Bengali. My sister had also acted as “Mini” in the Bengali version of Kabuliwala . She became the heart-throb of the Bengali audience at the age of five. I had gone to the studio with her a couple of times. So, in a way I was familiar with the process of film-making.

By way of preparation, Manikda gave me a bound script, not just my scenes, but the whole film. There was a sketch next to each dialogue. I was asked to read it but not learn the dialogues by heart. There were no workshops. On the sets, there were only a handful of those who were needed, just a few people, and work went on calmly. Manikda never raised his voice. There was no tension. I was very comfortable and at ease. I did not even know I was working in a classic at that time. Whatever he asked me to do, I found it very easy to do. I understood what he said and what was asked of me.

It must have been easier to imbibe the emotion of a girl all alone in a big city with a strange man.

Manikda’s concept of a nuclear family in the film was quite unique for that time… girls did get married at a very young age, but either stayed back with the family or stayed with their in-laws. Living alone, just the husband and wife, was not the custom then.

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

Coming to your next film, ‘Devi’, it was a complex role for a teenager. Did you read up about ‘Devi’? Or was it all Ray’s vision?

Like I already said, we were not encouraged to think too much about the role, besides reading the script. He wanted us to be very flexible and pliable so that he could mould us as he wanted. He did not want us to come with our own interpretation. Just before the shot, he would explain how he wanted it done.

How did you understand the nuances of such a complex character?

Well, like I said earlier, Manikda was so clear about the scenes and how they should be enacted. We had no problem giving shape to his vision. His directions were always clear and precise. Also the framing, the lighting of the film, helped.

In Devi , the lighting was dark, so ominous at times. It created an atmosphere which weighed on me. While shooting, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of heaviness and sadness. I could feel Doyamoyee’s oppression. The atmosphere on sets definitely helped my performance.

[In the film] Doya is very close to her nephew. They are both children. They share a childlike love with each other. But with her change of status, Khoka becomes scared of her. Doya is moved out of her room. She is completely isolated. There is no one she can talk to. The audience knows, and can feel her isolation. She is unable to reason or defend herself.

I believe there was an interesting incident during the shooting: one of the onlookers took you to be a real devi.

Yes. In the scene where I was being worshipped, one old man prostrated himself in front of me. It was very shocking. Shooting for weeks on end in a dark, brooding environment made me tired and somehow made me merge into the character of Doyamoyee. Unlike Apur Sansar, on the sets of Devi I was mostly on my own. Everybody’s behaviour was a little aloof. Looking back, that aloofness was perhaps necessary for my performance.

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

Doyamoyee becomes a victim of religious orthodoxy. She is too young and too conditioned by the existing traditions to question what is asked of her. Confused and disoriented, she is too timid, tradition-bound and young to assert her will for self-preservation. It is not long before the relentless assault of being worshipped, and her gradual disconnect with all things familiar, disturbs her sense of reality. As Ray proceeds to unfold the doom that is now Doya’s fate, Doya is treated in big close-ups, lit beautifully by Subrata Mitra, which continue to haunt, long after the film is over.

Are they your personal favourites too?

My personal favourite is Mahanagar [1963]. It was his first completely woman-centric screenplay. I admire Arati’s transition from a housewife to a working woman, and her natural acceptance of her changed status and her ability to wear her growing confidence quietly. Arati is a not a textbook feminist; she gently contests socially constructed gender stereotypes and negotiates her own emancipation within the bounds of domesticity. I like that very much; how she does not neglect her family but helps them to stay and grow together. Arati’s gradual transformation is so deftly dealt with by Manikda, and I really admire how he defines her character. And of course, Devi and Charulata (1964) are also very beautiful, very classical.

How was the audience response to ‘Devi’, considering it was a sensitive subject and very much ahead of its time?

In Bengal, it did not do well at all. There was a lot of backlash. Some alleged that Manikda was mocking Hinduism, exposing its superstitions and its backwardness. But that was not what Manikda’s intent was. He was most certainly criticising the excesses. He was not against Hinduism. He was against orthodoxy and its superstition and blind faith. Bengali society then was orthodox and conservative, and the film was rejected by the Bengali audience. But the world embraced it. In international forums, Devi has always been celebrated. It continues to remain relevant because such practices are still prevalent in many pockets of the world. The West may not have entirely understood the religious symbolism, but they certainly understood the emotive language of the film.

Talking of ‘Devi’ and how the little girl was denied the right to lead a normal life, did Satyajit Ray invest his women characters with agency of choice? Were they powerful women or just helpless victims?

Ray’s women characters struggle with countless odds: the young, tradition-bound Doya’s capitulation before the fanatic will of the family patriarch; economic freedom as in Mahanagar ; the freedom of choice in marriage ( Kapurush , Samapti ); transgressive erotic desires (in Charulata , Seemabaddha , Aranyer Din Ratri ); and the struggle to retain dignity in an unequal and patriarchal world ( Aranyer Din Ratri , Mahanagar , Nayak ). These women are exceptional in the way they articulate their emotional, sexual and intellectual longings. Ray gifted his women protagonists the liberty of the female gaze, which defied the cliché that the male desire is visual, whereas the woman’s is sensory. His cinema broke away from the patriarchal status quo where the male gaze was dominant and the woman was treated as an object.

Also read: ‘He lived life cinema’

You worked with him in five films. Do you not think you were very fortunate to have worked with him so early in life?

Absolutely. For me he meant a new beginning, I owe him a great deal. It opened many doors for me. I don’t know how else my life would have panned out. Perhaps, I would have studied dance at Santiniketan. I will really never know. As a young girl, I was exposed to arts, books and music. Working with Satyajit Ray has been a huge step forward. He introduced me to the world of cinema, and taught me how to appreciate cinema.

What changed in the later years of his professional life?

After his heart attack, he became a little chair-bound. He had difficulty shooting outdoors, but he continued his activism through his art. Manikda’s final film, Agantuk , was a culmination of the master storyteller’s philosophy and belief systems. It was as if Ray himself was speaking through the protagonist, Utpal Dutt. Legend has it that on the final day of shooting Agantuk , Manikda threw his hands up in the air and said: “That’s it. That’s all there is. I don’t have anything more to say.” Not long after, he passed away peacefully in his beloved city.

Why do you think he never quite embraced Hindi cinema even after ‘Shatranj ke Khilari’?

I think the cost and not having a grasp of the Hindi language inhibited him. Although Javed Siddiqui wrote the dialogues extremely well, Manikda felt he was not in control. Shooting in Eastman colour was also very expensive. He made sure his films were made within a certain budget so that he could recover the cost. He felt he owed that to his producers.

He, however, made a Hindi film from a short story of Munshi Premchand called Sadgati. Manikda composed the music, wrote the dialogues with Amrit Rai. Smita Patil, Om Puri and Mohan Agashe delivered flawless performances. It was indeed a masterpiece.

He had also announced his plan to make a film with Jayaprada.

I don’t know about that. He did say Jayaprada had a beautiful face, and he admired her perfect bone structure. Whether he wanted to work in a film with her, I don’t know. He may have.

Also read: Cinema, for Satyajit Ray, was all about salvation

How did he react when you opted to do ‘Kashmir ki Kali’?

He was quite amused. He never said anything to me.

He did not advise you to not go in for so-called commercial cinema?

No, not at all. He didn’t ever say anything. In fact, he was happy. He gave me my Filmfare award for Aradhana . And he made the effort of flying to Bombay for the event. He was quite happy for me. He was very liberal and not at all judgmental. He remained very fond of me; we always remained in touch.

Were you able to visit him in his last days or when he was in hospital?

I did an interview with him when I was working with Eyewitness. Unfortunately, the video cannot be found. I wish I was given a copy. I would have treasured it. I was thrilled to ask him questions. A former colleague is trying to find out if someone has a copy. I fervently hope so. It would be of immense value to me.

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