I have often regretted the fact that there were so few short story films. Surely, one would have thought, they have as much right to exist as an art form as their literary equivalent. In India – and more particularly in Bengal, which is my home – the short story is a flourishing literary form. The poet Tagore himself wrote well over a hundred – an output of amazing diversity which pretty well exhausts the whole gamut of human feelings.
There is, in fact, less dispute over the greatness of his short stories than of his poems, and the frequent comparison with Chekov is by no means an idle one. Both Postmaster and Samapti which comprise Two Daughters, as well as a good many others he wrote, bring the Russian master to mind.
I knew I would have to turn to Tagore sooner or later for film subjects. The centenary of the poet’s birth in 1961 provided an excellent excuse. Two Daughters was really as much a homage to Tagore as a fulfilment of a long felt urge to make short story films. The choice of these particular stories as against at least fifty other equally translatable ones was naturally dictated by my own temperament.
In re-reading the stories, my sympathies turned the quickest to Ratan, the wistful little waif of Postmaster, grown beyond her years, holding her grief with a stubbornness befitting an adult four times her age – and to Mrinmoyee, the rustic tomboy of Samapti whose marriage with a young scholar from the city gives rise to such hectic developments. Both these films provided opportunities for exploring the subtle nuances of human relationships that have fascinated me ever since my first film, Pather Panchali.
The main problem in Samapti, from the cinematic point of view, was to convey the fact of Mrinmoyee suddenly, almost magically, outgrowing her adolescence. Tagore conveys this in a single line of lyrical prose. One could do it with words in the film too, of course. “Mother, I think there’s something happening inside of me. I don’t want to go out and play with the boys anymore,” or words to that effect.
But such devices didn’t appeal to me; I strongly believe that the most crucial developments in a film should be conveyed as far as possible in predominantly visual terms. I write my own dialogue, and like doing it, but I still find grappling with visual problems a far more exciting task than finding the right words to put into the mouths of my characters. Thus it was that the squirrel motif in Samapti came into being.
Mrinmoyee and Ratan are both played in the film by newcomers. I discovered (I generally do my own talent scouting) – Chandana Bannerji in a dancing school taking her first lessons in Bharatanatyam. A pair of myopic glasses couldn’t hide the glint in her eyes, and the buck tooth showed with the very first words she spoke.
Aparna Das Gupta, who plays Mrinmoyee, was the daughter of a film critic friend of mine, and was doing her last term at school. The rest of the cast was mainly professional. As always, I found it helped to have the pros and the non-pros playing together. The non-pros feel flattered and elated to be put on a par with the pros, while the pros, faced with the competition of untutored ease and unnaturalness, find themselves suppressing their mannerisms.
Postmaster was shot in one week in a village only five miles beyond the city limits to the south of Calcutta. When the wind blew in from the north, it brought with it the faint buzz of city traffic. And yet, there were snakes and lizards around, and insects we barely knew the names of.
For Samapti, we had to move a hundred and fifty miles to the east. The river in the film, the famous Padma, runs between Bengal and Pakistan, and if you rowed out beyond a certain point, you would be trespassing on foreign waters. We chose the rainy season because we needed muddy roads for a certain key scene.
The river was in full flow fringed with muddy water. The Padma flowed. But we found the roads to be dry. It hadn’t, we were told, rained hard enough. We prayed for rain, but it didn’t come. On the last day of our shoot, we took buckets and hosepipes and garden sprays and set about watering the road with pondwater. We did this for four hours, and then we watched the parched earth soak up each bucketful in a monstrous, unquenchable thirst. And then the shower came, the best awesome downpour you can think of, and in less than ten minutes we had all the mud and slush and puddles we needed. And we had our shots.
Excerpted with permission from Satyajit Ray Miscellany – On Life, Cinema, People and Much More, edited by Sandip Ray, Penguin Random House India.