Book review: The Players in Satyajit Ray’s Cinematic Universe

Ray’s restraint in his casting calls is also the reason why his actors went on to become the embodiment of his vision but also an entire generation.

Published: 17th February 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th February 2019 10:28 PM   |  A+A-

Soumitra Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata

Express News Service

Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines
By: Amitava Nag 
Publisher: Rupa
Pages: 248
Price: Rs 295

It has often been said by many filmmakers that nearly 90 percent of directing is casting. Amongst the handful of Indian filmmakers who not only came up with great characters but also managed to find actors to bring them to life, Satyajit Ray remains peerless.

The manner in which Ray created his cinematic universe with Pather Panchali, where he got a sense of realism that was never seen before in Indian films and went on to introduce two of India’s most important actors—SoumitraChatterjee and Sharmila Tagore in Apur Sansar—or later cast Amjad ‘Gabbar Singh’ Khan, one of the biggest baddies in Hindi cinema, as the genteel Nawab of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah, in Shatranj ke Khilari, casting has been the fulcrum of Ray’s cinema.

There have been many biographies of Ray and nearly every single one of them has shed great light on Ray’s creative process and Amitava Nag’s Satyajit Ray’s Heroes & Heroines is a welcome addition to the literature on Ray. As a single volume, it lovingly uncovers Ray’s enigmatic prowess in making good actors deliver great performances and become unforgettable for audiences across the globe. Unlike other auteurs such as Akira Kurosawa and Alfred Hitchcock, Ray’s actors manage to stand on their own as characters but at the same time display a distinctive touch of the master.

If one looks at the films that Toshiro Mifune did for Kurosawa, or Cary Grant or James Stewart and Ingrid Bergman did for Hitchcock, there is a very clear difference between the actor and the filmmaker; one can’t mistake Grant in North By Northwest for Hitchcock, and in fact to the uninitiated viewer Cary Grant in Charade (1963) could have been directed by Hitch and not Stanley Donen. While in Ray’s oeuvre a Soumitra Chatterjee, Dhritiman Chatterjee, and Madhabi Mukherjee have their uniqueness intact and at the same time, they unmistakably are Ray’s heroes and heroines. 

Nag’s lucid style sheds light into the way Ray went about infusing life into both the characters he wrote and the actors he chose to play them. It’s a natty volume where you get to read how Ray transformed screen legend Chabi Biswas, who lacked a musical sense, into a connoisseur of classical music in Jalsaghar in a matter of minutes by instructing him to lift one finger of his right hand while he was listening to musical strains. Biswas had no idea why he was doing that but later during the mixing Ray coincided the physical movements with the precise beat of the music.

Ray’s restraint in his casting calls is also the reason why his actors went on to become the embodiment of his vision but also an entire generation. Ray had originally met Soumitra Chatterjee when he was casting for Apu in Aparajito but found him a tad too tall. Later after Chatterjee had a bout of chickenpox, Ray summoned him and after taking a look at him asked him to the lead Apu in Apur Sansar.

It is Ray’s brilliance how got the best of Madhabi Mukherjee’s expressive eyes where they could effortlessly transition between different emotions and in the three films that they did together—Charulata, Mahanagar, Kapurush—she became the main female face of Ray’s cinema. Satyajit Ray’s Heroes & Heroines packs in a lot and like Sharmila Tagore mentions in her endorsement, the book interestingly chronicles ‘some of the significant protagonists who brightened Ray’s cinema.’

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