Aparna Sen appeared in four films directed by Satyajit Ray, starting with Samapti, the third chapter in the triptych Teen Kanya in 1961. Sen went on to appear in Aranyer Din Ratri, Jana Aranya and Pikoo. She knew Ray as “Manik Kaka” even before she began working with him. Ray and her father, the film critic and director Chidananda Dasgupta, were among the founding members of the Calcutta Film Society in the late 1940s.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s exhaustive study The Cinema of Satyajit Ray includes interviews with the director’s collaborators. In her conversation with Chattopadhyay, Aparna Sen rewinds to Teen Kanya and reflects on her equation with Ray and her ability to balance deep respect with disagreements on his cinematic choices. Here is an edited excerpt from the interview.

‘Samapti’ and ‘lovely, wonderful things’

You were fifteen years old when you played the role of Mrinmoyi in Samapti. How did Ray explain the complexities of the character to you?
I was fourteen, in fact, when I started Samapti, because we started shooting in 1960 and I turned fifteen later that year, on 25 October. Ray didn’t explain anything to me, nor did he ever delve into the psychology of the character. It wasn’t a very complex character anyway. Mrinmoyi didn’t have to do anything that I couldn’t understand.

The most complex part was where she changed from a girl into a woman. He filmed that scene beautifully in three close-ups of Mrinmoyi, where he kept changing the lights. In the last segment, where Mrinmoyi had come to terms with herself and realised that she did love her husband, Ray did not explain anything. He just asked me to put my thumb in my mouth and think of ‘lovely, wonderful things’. I was old enough to understand what he meant, of course! Most of the time, I was just following instructions and I used to wish rather wistfully that I would get a chance to show him that I could act.

One day, I did get the chance and that day has remained very memorable to me. In the scene being filmed, I was supposed to have my squirrel, Chorki, in my hand and show it to my friend Rakhal, who was sitting in the living room where his sister was being presented to Soumitra as a prospective bride. I was at the window, calling Rakhal and asking him to come out and play with me. But he didn’t want to come and wanted to keep sitting in the room. As I tried to tempt Rakhal by showing him my new pet, Chorki was supposed to slip out of my hand and into the room. I would then have to run into the room to locate Chorki and turn the place upside down in the process. Normally, Chorki would invariably try to slip out of my hand, but on that particular day, he decided to stay put. I didn’t want the shot to be rejected on my account. So I pretended to put it down on the windowsill so that Rakhal could see it better. Then I acted as if I had suddenly realised that Chorki was gone, and rushed out after it.

I remember Bansi Kaka – Bansi Chandragupta, the art director – shaking his head and saying, ‘Holona, holona (No, no! That didn’t work)!’ But Manik Kaka was laughing a lot. He stuck his head out from behind the camera and said, ‘I rather liked it!’ So that was that. The shot was retained in the fi lm. That was my one little moment of triumph.

There was this other time when I was supposed to cry. I was terrified and told everyone that I would never be able to cry convincingly. But after I did the shot, both Manik Kaka and Monku Mashi [Bijoya Ray] said, ‘Who said you can’t cry? Look how beautifully you did it!’ There wasn’t too much to do by way of acting, really. I did what he asked me to and I understood his instructions.

Aparna Sen and Soumitra Chatterjee in Teen Kanya (1961). Courtesy Satyajit Ray Productions.

Of course, there were some things that did come from me. For instance, I was supposed to write a letter to my husband, ‘Tumi phire esho (Please come back).’ Nobody had asked me to write as an uneducated girl would. But I wrote those words in an uneducated hand anyway. Ray probably liked that, as he didn’t cut the shot. Anyway, most of the time, when I did as I was told, it came through quite well. Actually, when Ray read out the dialogue before a scene, if you simply imitated him, 50 per cent of the job was done!

There’s been considerable lament among the female readership of Ray’s literature around the inexplicable dearth of female characters in his stories. But in his cinema, Ray had written and imagined strong female characters – Charu, Aparna, Mrinmoyi, Karuna, Anila – one could go on. Not just as a filmmaker but as a woman, do you think Ray understood the mind of a woman well?
My elder daughter, who is a die-hard Feluda fan even as a mother of two grown children today, used to bitterly complain to me as a child about the lack of female characters in the Feluda stories. Manik Kaka was aware of this himself. He told me that he received many letters from young female readers who complained about it. When I asked him in an interview about the reason for this lack of female characters

in his stories, he said, ‘If I have a little girl of Topshe’s age in the stories, what would her relationship with Topshe be like?’ This seemed to be a problem that he simply didn’t know how to solve. But I never quite understood where the problem lay, as there can be different kinds of relationships between two teenagers, not necessarily a romantic one.

But there was this one female character in one of the Feluda stories whom Manik Kaka described as ‘masculine’ because she could ride a horse and fi re a rifle. He seemed to have very clear-cut notions of what was feminine and what could be masculine. In that same interview, I asked him, ‘What do you think of women?’ He replied, ‘Since women are not physically as strong as men, I think that makes them morally stronger.’ That was rather difficult for me to understand. I never quite agreed with him on that point, as I think women can be just as immoral.

But Ray has created truly unforgettable female characters in his films. Arati in Mahanagar was a wonderfully strong character created by him. Even Sarbajaya, who brought up Apu on her own, showed great strength of character. In Jana Aranya, the girl who decides to be an escort was an equally strong character.

Madhabi Mukherjee in Mahanagar (1963). Courtesy RD Bansal.

Despite the difference in our ages, Ray and I became good friends after being on the jury of IFFI in 1976, and we used to discuss a lot of things. He would often call me up and discuss problems he was facing when writing certain scenes in his script.

One day, he called up and said, ‘How can the protagonist ask his friend’s sister to become an escort? It doesn’t seem right!’ I remained quiet. It was not my place to offer solutions. A couple of days later, he called me again and said, ‘I think I have found a solution. What if she herself insists? What if she asks the protagonist to stop interfering and ruining her business?’

That seemed to make perfect sense. I was gratified that he chose to discuss these things with me. I must confess that I still miss those discussions.

In Sandip Ray’s Phatik Chand, the character played by Kamu Mukherjee does not accept the reward money at the end. I had asked Ray, ‘Don’t you think it would have been more interesting if he had faced an internal dilemma? After all, he is poor, and all that money must have been very tempting for him! Don’t you think it could have given the character another layer?’ He said, ‘No, I never thought of it that way. The thought never struck me. It was a children’s film, after all.’

Was Ray open to criticism?
No, he wasn’t. I didn’t ever criticise him, though. When I discussed things with him, it wouldn’t be by way of criticism – it would be more of a discussion, just like the discussion I had with him on Kamu Mukherjee’s character in Phatik Chand. And he listened to me patiently. When I interviewed him, I did pose some uncomfortable questions, but in a very respectful way. That was not difficult, because I did respect him hugely. But even though my father was an old friend of his, if he wrote anything critical about his films, Ray would always hit back.

I have thought at length about this. Ray lost his father at a very young age and he was brought up by his mother. Perhaps the insecurities of his childhood, having to stay as long-term guests in his uncle’s home... these things left a deep impression on him. Perhaps it was due to these insecurities that he was not very good at taking criticism. Perhaps it was an act of overcompensation, an instinctive protectiveness for himself.

Mind you, he was very aware of his mistakes himself, but he never discussed them, except with the people he trusted most – his wife and his son. Why else would he talk of Charulata as the film where he had made the least mistakes? Strangely, he was quite protective of me as well when I faced criticism for the first film I directed.

I came to know of this at a film party. Someone said to me about 36 Chowringhee Lane, ‘It was good, but it was far too long.’ Later, Manik Kaka said to me, ‘How awful of him to say that! I didn’t like it at all!’ I said, ‘But it was a little too long, wasn’t it? He was just giving me his feedback.’ He said, ‘Still, it feels very bad to hear things like that!’ Do you see what I mean? Nothing was said about any of his films, but he was upset when I was criticised. That was just how he was.

Do you consider yourself a protégé of Ray?
Do you mean have I learnt a lot from him and his cinema? Oh yes, I most definitely have. I have written and spoken a lot about Manik Kaka and his cinema on various forums. When I wrote about the ten favourite films that I would take to a desert island with me, one of them was Apur Sansar, despite the fact that Aparajito is my favourite of the trilogy. In Apur Sansar, one identifies so completely with Apu and Aparna that when Aparna dies, one doesn’t even think about the child she has left behind. We are so engrossed in Apu’s grief, it has affected us so much, that it is only much later that we think of the child.

When I think about it, I feel Ray had mastered the art of making highly sensitive, artistic films that would also appeal to ordinary people. His great strength was in being able to make audiences care about the characters he had created. The observations I have made about Ray here in no way diminish him in my eyes. I do not believe in blind devotion, but there is no doubt in my mind that he is the greatest filmmaker we have had so far.

Satyajit Ray worked with outdated machines and limited resources, and yet managed to make films that shook the world. I have the greatest admiration for him. But it is because I have so much admiration for him that I also feel that one must not turn him into a god who is above all criticism. Just like Rabindranath Tagore. There is a predilection among Bengalis to turn Tagore into a god. But that, in fact, is a way of diminishing him, really. To my mind, accepting the fact that he was human and fallible but at the same time a genius is the mark of true respect.

Excerpted with permission from The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, Westland Publications.