He was born eight years after the birth of Indian cinema on May 2, 1921, which is now in its centenary year. Satyajit Ray – virtuoso filmmaker, internationally acclaimed and the only Indian director to win an Oscar – passed away on April 23, 1992. A few days after his death anniversary, we walk down memory lane with actor Dhritiman Chatterjee, who was among the priviledge few to begin his career with the ace filmmaker
For any actor, bagging a lead role in one’s debut film is a dream come true. And you had the privilege of debuting with none other than ‘the’ Satyajit Ray.
Yes, that’s right. I was working with an advertising agency but was interested in films as a collegian. In fact, my friends and I planned to start a film magazine, so we kept in touch with directors like Shyam Benegal and Satyajit Ray. At that time, I learnt from a common friend that Ray was looking for a new face to play the protagonist in his film Pratidwandi. That friend brought us together for the project.
Was it daunting to play the lead in a film directed by Ray?
No, not at all. In fact, as a student of cinema, not formally, but out of interest, I knew his work and style of filmmaking. So when I met him, we were already on the same page. Ray was also in the habit of having long chats with his actors. These discussions were informal but very detailed and would acquaint the actors with the roles they were to portray and the entire story of the film in general. That’s why it was not unnerving.
What was he like with newcomers? Was he impatient or easygoing?
I never really asked him what he thought of me during the shoot or whether he ever felt impatient with me. When Ray wrote his scripts, he did it with a specific cast in mind and he would make sure he finally cast these actors in these respective roles. It was therefore easier for the director as the character was exactly what he had in mind. I would have to say he was quite easygoing. In fact Ray was one of the most easygoing filmmakers the Bangla film industry has ever had.
He had two ways of directing a film. With some actors, he allowed them to improvise and gave them the freedom to enact a role in a slightly different way to what he may have had in mind. He would do this if he thought it was the best for the scene. But with others, he would often ask them to stick to the brief.
Tell us about your experiences while working on Pratidwandi.
I was quite in tune with the film since it was about a certain time period and situation that Kolkata was going through. There were a lot of issues the film dealt with – the political situation in the city, the Naxal movement that was rife at the time. There was also this social unrest with widespread unemployment, mainly of the educated middle class. I was familiar with the situation so it was easy for me to translate it on screen.
What was the initial reaction you received after Pratidwandi released?
I got a very good response from filmmakers. The Bangla film industry was going through a transition at the time. There were new techniques being introduced and many actors also being introduced. There was this whole new breed of actors. It was a new phase for the industry. Pratidwandi became a cult, especially with the youth, since young people were very excited about it. After that, I got a chance to work with some very eminent filmmakers including Mrinal Sen, Malay Bhattachrya, Ashoke Vishwananthan and Aparna Sen.
Ray was also a prolific writer. Did he write his own scripts, or believe in bound scripts?
He wrote all his scripts himself and edited pretty much most of his films. He composed the music for all his films. He did the cinematography for his films, he was actively involved in the costumes, the way the sets looked, the lighting, everything. He was a very meticulous planner and an involved filmmaker. He would even storyboard his films before they went on the floors.
Did he have a special team of actors/technicians that he was comfortable working with?
After Pratidwandi, which released in 1970, he didn’t work with me for a long time. In fact, my next film with him was Ganashatru, which released in 1989, and of course Agantuk after that, which was his last film in 1991. The only actor he worked most was Soumitra Chatterjee. He launched him too. And why just him, he even launched Sharmila Tagore and Aparna Sen too. But I think Soumitra was his favourite actor. I know that he worked with the same set of people as long as he could. He was very comfortable with certain people and he liked working with them. He really believed in his team of technicians and was very thoughtful towards them. He took it almost as a social responsibility to be the provider of a regular income of his technicians. He never hopped from one technician to another. He had a team of very loyal members.
You were an ardent student of Ray’s work. Did you notice a change in his style of filmmaking while you shot for Pratidwandi?
Yes, I did. The film was based on a turbulent time during the late ’60s or early ’70s. The critics claimed Ray was not responding to the situation through his films. That was absolutely untrue. He was a director who was very contemporary for his times. And I noticed how he changed his style of filmmaking in Pratidwandi. He moved from the sets and used hand-held cameras to shoot the film to showcase the urgency that was lingering on the streets of Kolkata.
There were new styles like unusual camera angles, jump cuts, edgy framing and so on. He basically moved to the locations with his crew. In those days, it was possible to do these things. You know, like board a bus in the middle of the day and film people. This is unthinkable today. But the way the film was shot and edited during post production, was very different from his earlier works.
Would you attribute the ‘X factor’ in his films to the fact that Ray would interact with a lot of foreign filmmakers and was conscious about what was happening across the world?
Yes. Very much. He was quite social that way. Almost every evening, his living room would become a hot spot, where people and ideas would converge. Our discussions revolved around cinema, music, anthropology, literature and even politics. It was pretty much like the discussions and soirees that were famous at Shyam Benegal’s house in those days. Most directors then were aware of what was happening in the world. They read a lot and were well informed and discussed these issues.
Did Ray use the opinions expressed during these discussions in his films?
For a while he did. You have to understand that his films were never uni-dimensional. He would use a simple story to portray a subtle message. But viewers had to be capable to uncover that message. He was a very good storyteller and not only would he narrate these stories in an interesting manner but also narrate very interesting stories. This obviously reflected in his filmmaking.
Ray’s films had a universal truth about them, but his ideas were very contemporary. For instance, like I mentioned earlier, Pratidwandi was about the late ’60s and early ’70s but the film was about Kolkata then. In fact, that film was the first part of Ray’s famous Kolkata trilogy. Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya were the other two films. Even Shatranj Ke Khiladi, which was set in the 19th century, carried modern lessons that could be drawn from it. His films were never without a social context. They always had a modern social context, even if it was not set in contemporary India.
Of the three films you did with Ray, which one is most memorable and why?
All of them! Whether it was Ray or any other director, one of the things I was interested in was to experience the way they would work. Whether Ray or Mrinal Sen or any other director, it was a unique opportunity for me to observe and take home lessons in the way they would work.
I played a negative role in Ganashatru. It was an anti-establishment, angry young man kind of role. It was Ray’s version of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy Of The State and was a difficult role. It was also the first time I was doing something of this kind so I was apprehensive about pulling it off. But I did, thankfully.
Your first film was with Ray and his last film was also with you. Did he change as a filmmaker and a human being in the interim?
There was certainly a change in him but I don’t know why. It was during the ’80s that he took ill. He wasn’t able to make films. He made his last three films during that time. Even the audience could tell that something was different. He was very confined to his sets. There was a certain anger or disappointment in him that began to show in his films. We would talk to him about it but he would brush it off, saying he was saddened by political corruption.
Dhritiman Chatterjee shares his working rapport with his colleagues
On Mrinal Sen
He is a very dear friend. He was into making political films. If he liked you as an actor, he would let you offer suggestions during the process of filmmaking. I am fortunate to have a friend in a director like him.
On Uttam Kumar
I worked with Uttam Kumar in Jadu Bansha by a great filmmaker Partha Pratim Chowdhury. He was a director who made modern films about Kolkata. I had very few scenes with Kumar but I observed that he was a very serious and committed actor. He was absolutely focused on the sets. He was not very friendly with his co-stars and confined himself to his make-up room and would come out only to give a shot. He was a great singer and had a large circle of friends who he liked to entertain when he was at home. He was a very easygoing actor but very disciplined on the sets.
On Aparna Sen
Aparna and I were contemporaries in college. 36 Chowrangee Lane, which was her directorial debut, was made in English. While there were Indian films that were made in English in the ’30s in Kolkata, no one had attempted an English language film in a long time. The biggest boost came when we found a financer and a producer in Shashi Kapoor. That film had its areas of uncertainty since it was the first film that Aparna was making, but she told me she had to have me and Jennifer (Kendal) and a few other people who she could be sure of. This would leave her free to tackle her other responsibilities as a director. I think we found a great cinematographer in Ashok Mehta, who was a very helpful cameraman. But even though she had the jitters as a first time filmmaker, she was very self-assured.
On Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Black just happened out of the blue. My casting agent told me Sanjay wanted me to act in a role for his film. So I did Black, and it was quite fun working for the film. Sanjay is a stickler for discipline on the sets.
On Mani Ratnam
Since I live in Chennai sometimes and Mani is also a Chennai filmmaker, I was the first choice to play the role. The role in Guru was quite apt and so I agreed to be on board.
On Sujoy Ghosh
For Kahaani, Sujoy told me it was not a very large role, but an important one. He is a very non-intrusive guy and gives his actors a lot of space. But he is very involved with his technicians like his cameraman and cinematographer, and would even have his editor on the sets.
On Sriram Raghavan
I was very fond of Sriram’s film Ek Hasina Thi and I always wanted to work with him. You can see how well he knows cinema by watching his movies. You can spot the difference and tell that this guy knows his cinema to the ‘T’. His films may not have done well at the box office but he is a powerhouse of talent. So when he asked me to work in Agent Vinod, I agreed.