Have you managed to create any moments or not,” auteur Satyajit Ray had asked actress-filmmaker Aparna Sen in 1981 when she had just finished making her debut feature “36 Chowringhee Lane”.
For Aparna, that was when the penny dropped. Those words stood out as a piece of treasured advice from the master who had egged her on to go against the grain and start making films in English in India.
“Without him I doubt that my first film ’36 Chowringhee Lane’ would ever have been made. It was he who after reading my screenplay thumped his chest so hard and said ‘It’s good, it’s got a lot of heart. Go ahead and make it’. When I asked him how, he said ‘Well, to start with, you will have to find a producer’,” recalled the National Film Award winner on Saturday.
Aparna said it was the Oscar-winning filmmaker who suggested actor Shashi Kapoor as the producer.
“It was he who assured me it was time to start making English films in India when I expressed doubts about my screenplay in English. After I had finished the film, he asked me how it had turned out. ‘There were a lot of mistakes,’ I began doubtfully. Then he interrupted me in his booming voice and said, ‘Of course, there are mistakes. What do you expect from your very first film?’.”
“Have you managed to create any moments or not?’,” Aparna quoted Ray as asking her.
“There was a lesson learnt that very day. A film is not just a series of technically perfect shots without any mistakes. It is about moments that will touch the viewers’ heart, moments that they will take back with them,” Aparna said at a lecture organised by Society for Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives.
To Aparna, Ray was both a mentor and a friend (later on in life). She knew Ray personally as a friend of her father, Chidananda Dasgupta, a noted film scholar and critic.
The 70-year-old made her cinematic debut in 1961 as an actress in Ray’s “Teen Kanya” anthology (“Samapti” portion of the anthology). She was 14 then.
As a mentee, there are moments that Aparna cherishes as “piece of masterly direction” during the making of “Samapti”, especially when Ray portrayed the transition of Mrinmoyee (Aparna’s character in the film) from a girl to a woman.
“I remember him directing me here for the last close up where Mrinmoyee is at peace having realised that she loves her husband. Ray said to me in English ‘Put the tip of your thumb in your mouth and think of lovely wonderful things’. A piece of masterly direction to a 14-year-old who might have felt awkward and embarrassed and even confused with the idea of romantic love that was spelt out,” the filmmaker recounted.
Commenting on Ray’s emotional development as a director, Aparna debunked criticisms against Ray “selling India’s poverty abroad”.
“Ray was a product of the urban educated middle class and yet for his first film (‘Pather Panchali’ in 1955) he chose rural poor as his subject. The film won 11 international prizes, including the inaugural Best Human Document award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival,” Aparna recalled.
“Ray had famously been accused of selling India’s poverty abroad. On the contrary, he was giving a face to the facelessness of that poverty, investing it with dignity and making the poor the equals of the audience and letting the audience identify with their less fortunate brethren and feel keenly with their joys and sorrows.”
What intrigued Aparna as a director was the absence of villains in Ray’s first two decades of filmmaking.
“We hardly come across villains in Ray’s films in the first two decades as a director, except perhaps for Umapada in ‘Charulata’ (1964). There are no villains, no blacks or white in his earlier films. In ‘Pather Panchali’, Sarbajaya appears to be cruel to Indir Thakrun in her indifference, yet not only do we forgive Sarbajaya, we empathise with her as well because of the many trials she herself is going through,” she said.
“Incidentally, ‘Charulata’ is probably the first Bengali film where we find the woman awakening to her sexual desires unapologetic, unafraid and guiltless,” she added.