Satyajit Ray’s meticulous approach to filmmaking has been widely documented by his collaborators. Ray was one of the few directors to give Waheeda Rehman a bound script for Abhijan, the acting legend recalls in her book-length interview with Nasreen Munni Kabir. Made in 1962, Abhijan stars Soumitra Chatterjee as taxi driver Narsingh, who gets entangled with Rehman’s character Gulaabi.
NMK: In the early 1960s, soon after the release of Kaagaz Ke Phool, you were offered a part in Abhijan, which was released in 1962. The film was based on Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s popular novel. How did Satyajit Ray approach you?
WR: The editor of Filmfare, B.K. Karanjia, sent someone to my house with a letter from Mr Ray that said: ‘My leading man Soumitra Chatterjee and my unit believe that you are most suitable for the role of Gulaabi, the heroine of my next film. If you agree to play the part, we’ll be very pleased.’ I was very happy and could not believe Satyajit Ray had thought of me.
A few days later I called Mr Ray in Calcutta and the first thing he said was: ‘Waheeda, you earn a lot of money in Hindi films. I make films on small budgets.’
‘Saab, why are you embarrassing me? It is an honour for me. You have shown me much respect by asking me to work with you. There is no problem about the money. I prefer you don’t mention it.’
I explained to him that I didn’t speak Bengali, and he said the character he wanted me to play, Gulaabi, is from the Bihar– Bengal border and talks in a mix of Bhojpuri and Bengali.
Therefore the language should not be a problem for me. He also added: ‘Remember you can’t come to shoot for four days and then go back to Bombay. We have to film in one stretch, from start to finish.’ I agreed and assured him I’d work out my dates with my Bombay producers.
Soon after our call, I went to Calcutta and met Mr Ray. He gave me an audio tape of my dialogue to make it easier for me to memorize my lines.
NMK: What was your first impression of him?
WR: He had such a towering personality. He had a deep voice and a particular style of speaking.
I was a little nervous at the beginning of the shoot because I was working in an unfamiliar language and, after all, he was a world-famous director with such a huge reputation. But Mr Ray was reassuring and said: ‘I have more confidence in you than you have in yourself. You’ll live up to my expectations.’ I think it was his way of making me feel at ease.
Ray Saab was meticulous and explained everything in great detail. He sketched every scene and made detailed shot breakdowns, even noting the lens he planned to use. His storyboarding was extremely helpful. In those days no one had heard of storyboarding. He was also one of the few directors who gave me a bound script.
There was a scene in Abhijan where I am sitting in a ghoda gaadi [horse carriage] and a sethji is forcibly taking me away. Soumitra [Chatterjee] comes, I look at him and jump out of the carriage and run away. Before Ray Saab could say anything to me, I glanced at the sethji and jumped out. Mr Ray quickly said: ‘I was about to ask you to do just that. But you did it before I could say anything!’
NMK: Do you remember how many months the filming took?
WR: Months? I think the shooting was over in nineteen days. Soumitra had many more scenes than I did and perhaps had to work for a further week or so.
I remember a short scene in which I had to speak some lines, sing and do a little dance—not the Bharatanatyam or a filmy dance—just move my hands as I was talking to the hero.
I asked if a song had been recorded for me and Mr Ray said: ‘No, you will sing.’
‘But I don’t know how to sing, and my voice isn’t good.’
He said: ‘We’re used to the voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, but I want to hear Waheeda’s voice. Gulaabi is a simple village girl, and if her voice isn’t perfect, it will sound natural. That’s the effect I want. You’re forgetting that my films are realistic.’
He told me the entire scene would be filmed in one shot.
‘Come to the studio. Rehearse for a day and then we’ll shoot. You’re a dancer. Why are you getting nervous?’
‘Ray Saab, the dance is not difficult, but I also have to say my lines and convey the emotions—she is sad, she laughs and sings too.’ Soumitra was most reassuring and told me not to worry.
We rehearsed for about four to five hours in the morning and after lunch we finished the scene in two takes.
Satyajit Ray made films the way films should be made—from start to finish. So whether you’re needed on the set or not, you can spend your whole time thinking about your character. It’s not just about learning the dialogue and facing the camera, you must somewhat live the role and not always be acting it.
NMK: Did you ever discuss the possibility of Mr Ray making a film in Hindi?
WR: His wife would ask me to encourage him to do so. When I spoke to him about it, he said: ‘Some day I want to, but then you have all those lengthy songs and dances and all that.’ ‘No, make it according to your style.’
I think he was reluctant to make a film in Hindi because he did not know Hindi well and believed that was essential. ‘The most important thing is having command over the language. So I can tell if the actor’s tone is not right. One thing is certain—if I make a Hindi movie, I will cast you.’
Excerpted with permission from Conversations with Waheeda Rehman by Nasreen Munni Kabir, Penguin Books India.