“How did you prepare yourself for the role of Shyamalendu?”

During the shooting of Seemabaddha and after the release of the film so many people have posed this question to me. If it was asked during the shooting I usually ducked it. I would say I had made no preparations at all. Ray had chosen me for the role. It was his responsibility to do whatever he wanted to do with me. The truth was I had been prohibited from giving interviews to anyone by Ray himself.

But, it is largely true that other than learning how to drive a car, I had made no preparations whatsoever for the role of Shyamalendu. I never visited the Royal Calcutta Golf Club or the Tolly Club early in the morning to have a crack at golf balls. I didn’t go back to reread Shankar’s book, knowing very well Ray’s script was substantially different. And I couldn’t go back to his script, because it had been denied to me.

After that one script-reading session with Ray we’ve had no further discussions on the film or on my role in it, barring that one time when we had deliberated whether there should be more intimacy between my sister-in-law and me to make the final rejection more heartrending.

Satyajit Ray and Barun Chanda during the shoot of Seemabaddha (1971).

So, what did he do to actually to turn me into a different person – more specifically into Shyamalendu Chatterjee? Physically, only the most minor of changes. He gave me thick[1]framed glasses to make me look older; frames that looked somewhat like his own. I was fairly young then, just touched thirty. He got rid of my moustache as soon as I joined Peters. He had allowed it as long as I was a college lecturer in Patna. He also changed my hairstyle, pushing it back and holding it with jells to make my forehead look broader. These two changes as well as wearing zero-powered glasses made a visible difference in my physical appearance. But, other than these there was nothing much.

But, what about the mental or the psychological make-up? The Shyamalendu in the movie is soft-spoken, well-mannered and very gentle in nature. But the Shyamalendu in the movie is not me. In real life I was a lively guy, restless, bursting with energy. I rarely walked. I used to fly, levitate. I laughed a lot, but also had a short fuse. So, how did he ‘shape’ me into Shyamalendu?

Very recently I got up one morning and started to think about it. Well, it has taken me some fifty years to realize how he might have done it. I’m saying ‘might’ because I can’t say this with any degree of certainty. There’s no way of checking back with him.

Barun Chanda. Photo by Smita Dutta.

Initially my wife would visit the studios when she was free. I think, in all, she visited me only twice during my shooting. The first time was at the Calcutta Swimming Club. And the second time, at Indrapuri Studios. And then, Ray quietly intervened. He never asked her not to come directly. His ‘Brahmo’ upbringing wouldn’t allow him to do that. He just dropped a broad hint.

“Deepa doesn’t come to the sets when Soumitra is shooting.”

Deepa happened to be Soumitra Chatterjee’s wife.

Then, it was the turn of my colleagues in Clarion. Initially nobody objected when they came and chitchatted with me. They were allowed to come freely, specially Ray’s old colleagues in the studio. And because it took a lot of time to set the lights right, we would spend a considerable amount of time together. One fine day they stopped coming. I don’t know if Ray had specifically asked them not to. But, the fact is, their visits dried up.

This is what he did, then. First he cut me off my family. Then he cut me off my friends. He felt, and quite justifiably perhaps, that their presence would be distracting factors. That meant I was largely left to myself. True, Babu was there. But then, he was busy taking photographs. And after all he was just a kid then.

Prior to my selection, Ray had observed me from close quarters for almost one-and-a-half years. He knew I was a ‘natural’ for the role of Shyamalendu. All he needed was to allow the role to seep into my subconscious. By turning me into a loner, he was facilitating that process. Left to myself I had nothing else to do but introspect.

During lunch hours, Monku-di (Bijoya Ray) would usually show up. And she asked me to stay back and share lunch with them. As a result I never had lunch with the unit. Now, I had no idea that my preceding hero, Dhritiman of Pratidwandi, used to have lunch with the rest of the unit. Not only that, in the evenings he would often join them for drinks as well, which made him quite popular with the rest of the unit. But, in their eyes I had remained aloof, the typically executive type, hobnobbing only with the Rays and Sharmila. I don’t know if that was intentional; that I should chat with Sharmila so that I was more comfortable acting with her.

But, the truth is I had never felt awkward with her. The one person who made me nervous at all during the shoot was Haradhan Bandopadhyay. His booming voice and dominating personality overawed me.

One day when we were returning from an outdoor shooting, Ray decided to stop over at Lindsay Street for lunch at a place called Ferrazzini, which unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. As its name suggests it must have belonged to an Italian owner in the distant past, but at that time it also served Chinese food. And Ray was fond of Chinese. Here, too, I was asked to stay back and have lunch with Ray, instead of going back with the rest of the unit to Tollygunge.

Thus, in the eyes of the unit, including mine, I had become the executive, separate from the rest of the group. Perhaps that was intentional. Ray had, indeed, wanted me to remain a loner within the unit, removed from everybody else, except Rinku.

‘This is not my son’

Looking back, wasn’t the role of Shyamalendu meant to be that of a loner?

Ray also made sure that whenever I had any scene exclusively with Sharmila he didn’t have anyone who wasn’t directly needed on the sets. All visitors were shooed away, even his own friends and family. He felt that it would help us to enact the scenes better. As for the last scene in the movie, where Sharmila comes and sits at the edge of the sofa, takes off the wristwatch I had given her to wear and leaves, he made sure there was no one else on the sets other than he himself and the assistant cameraman who was needed to pull the focus. No wonder that particular scene looks devastatingly impressive till date.

On the evening of the launch of the film after the film had been shown, Ray had smiled to me and said, “Well done.”

That was all. There were numerous others who came up to me and warmly shook my hands, saying that I was perfect for the role. But, the greatest compliment came from my mother who, after the show was over, turned to me deeply disappointed. “This is not my son,” is all she said.

Excerpted with permission from Satyajit Ray – The Man Who Knew Too Much, Barun Chanda, Om Books International.

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Light of Ray: The Subrata Mitra-Satyajit Ray partnership led to cinema’s most unforgettable moments

In Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pratidwandi’, a ‘very contemporary’ hunt for work and meaning

Why Sharmila Tagore considers ‘Devi’ her best collaboration with Satyajit Ray