Amitava Nag’s Heroes and Heroines

A few questions for the author on his new book.

14 min read

Amitava Nag is a lover of films and literature, writer, editor of Silhouette film magazine and author of Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee. His latest book Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines, provides an introduction to the regional actors of West Bengal, along with many anecdotes of how Satyajit Ray worked with them. It touches upon not only notable actors like Soumitra Chatterjee, Uttam Kumar, Sharmila Tagore but also lesser known ones like Chhabi Biswas, Tulsi Chakraborty and Rabi Ghosh. This book is a good read for anyone interested in Bengali cinema as well as for budding filmmakers wanting to learn techniques to work with actors. Here is an anecdote.

“Ray never gave instructions to the children in the presence of others. It was always whispered exclusively to each child so that what he wanted us to do was like a secret between just the two of us. We liked him so much that we wanted to please him.”

– Uma Sen, who played Durga in Pather Panchali

In this interview, Amitava chats with us about writing on films, the cultural specificities of cinema, and the questions he’d like to ask Ray should he appear in front of him!

Author Amitava Nag [right] reading excerpts from the book at the launch, alongside actor Barun Chanda [left] and veteran critic Shoma A Chatterji [middle].
In the introduction to Heroes and Heroines, you mention that “a dearth of quality material written on Bengali actors in English” is one of the driving factors for writing this book. What other aspects of Bengali cinema today do you think are often overlooked by English media?

Yes, I think apart from the triumvirate of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, mostly everyone else has always been termed as regional—be it actors or even directors. In the context of Indian cinema, this duality between the centre (read Bollywood films) and the margins (all other film-producing industries, termed as regional cinema) is appalling. The justification that is generally given is that books on regional cinema will not have a large enough market for the English publications to get into. I don’t necessarily buy that logic, simply because in absolute terms, the count of English-speaking audiences who follow these regional cinemas outweighs the print runs of the publishers by a few multiples.

In terms of English writing on Bengali cinema, whose writing do you admire the most, whose opinions are you looking forward to knowing?

I think there are only a handful who have written substantially and consistently on Bengali cinema in English. Chidananda Dasgupta’s name comes to mind first, followed by Father Gaston Roberge, and John W Hood. Then there is Shoma A Chatterji who has written relentlessly on cinema in general, and Bengali cinema in particular. And we cannot forget Satyajit Ray himself, who has written quite a few important articles on cinema.

Do you read Bengali writing on Bengali cinema? From your experience, do you find any striking differences in the perspectives of Bengali critics writing in Bengali and Bengali critics writing in English?

Yes I do, since I write in Bengali as well, not only poems and stories but also on cinema. I have read quite a few very important writings on Bengali cinema in Bengali. Unfortunately, I am not sure if that standard is maintained these days. I guess one main difference is that critics who had written in Bengali from the ’50s to the ’80s had a very clear understanding of the aesthetics of cinema, and the unique cultural aspect of the Bengali language—the myths, the social constructs, or the cultural lineages. Whereas those who mostly wrote about Bengali cinema in English language probably had to cater to a more global worldview, while still trying to reflect on the uniqueness of the language and its people. To explain further, there might have been a latent wish of these English writers to have their writings accepted by the bigger English-reading community.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan looks through Heroes and Heroines.

You mentioned in the acknowledgements about your ten-year-old son watching a handful of Ray films with you and startling you “with riveting questions which only a child can think of and ask.” His inquisitions made you “look at those films from a different perspective.” Could you give one or two examples of this?

A child generally thinks in binaries, good vs bad, happiness vs sadness and so on. My son Akash, like most of his age, was curious about a lot of things in these films that he watched. However, children of that age group find it difficult to relate to these films. Firstly, black-and-white is not something they have grown up watching. So such films create a sense of alienation for them in general. Secondly, in the age of Avengers and the star heroes, it is difficult to be glued to films which are slower in pace and action. Yet, as only children can relate in their own ways, he did communicate with the films and the characters. During most of The Apu Trilogy, he constantly asked me about the inherent happiness of Apu, in spite of the poverty. How could a boy or a man be happy when he isn’t rich? This question bothered him a lot. It made me introspect about Apu too, and helped me understand further Apu’s uniqueness. He was a dreamer, a romantic ideal, probably less real. He was more of a symbol of a time which was relatively non-corrupt. I could also understand later how the hero in Mahanagar is a subtle degradation of Apu, and the entire belief-system crumbled in The Calcutta Trilogy. This erosion of innocence is trivial at one level, but on another level, you start thinking about how not only economy, but one’s relation with external sources define the happiness quotient in an individual.

Later, in Ray’s short film Two, we find two boys—one rich and the other poor. Ray shows us how the rich boy is lonely in his world of plenty. This is a very common viewpoint. But then again Akash [my son] reacted to it in a different way. He thought this was more of a ‘grass is greener on the other side’ syndrome. I felt that Ray probably took a simplistic stance to convey his philosophy in this movie.

“The city heroes of the ’70s in all the three films (Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha, Jana Aranya) are angst-ridden, robbed of their innocence. They are the other side of Apu, the iconic Ray dreamer played to perfection by Soumitra Chatterjee. Apu’s personal losses couldn’t rob the gleam in his eyes or his tremendous zeal and goodliness. In the ’70s, with the social and economic shifts that the country, in general, and the city of Calcutta, in particular, were going through, that radiant innocent charm was difficult to hold on to.”

– Excerpt from the book

A quote from Mamata Shankar in your book mentions that Ray would read out the script to all actors during narration sessions. Based on your interactions with the actors who worked with Ray, do you happen to know how these sessions were structured? Did they involve rehearsals too? How much importance did Ray give to rehearsals?

Ray was great at handling actors. His script-reading sessions were attractive since most of the good actors would get their cues from these sessions straight away. Ray probably didn’t act out roles to most actors unless absolutely necessary. He would give suggestions and monitor the final take, in case the actor strayed from his perceptions. I don’t think he had extensive rehearsals as such, the way Tapan Sinha probably engaged actors new to his films.

“Since it is the ultimate effect on the screen that matters, any method that helps to achieve the desired effect is valid.”

– Satyajit Ray (excerpt from the book)

Barun Chanda, who acted in Ray’s Seemabaddha, speaks of his association with Satyajit Ray at the launch of the book.

“He would never criticise anyone publicly. Even if he wanted to take another shot, he would say we have to take another shot due to some technical failure, and since we are doing this again can we improvise a little.”

– Mamata Shankar, who acted in Ray’s Ganashatru and Agantuk

What is the one lesson you wish Bengali actors of today would learn from the ones mentioned in your book?

The most salient feature of acting in Ray’s cinema is the non-acting. Seldom you will find such an intricate pattern of acting style in films. That is why, the acting of a rank newcomer and a veteran side by side in the same film is never marked out. To explain further, Ray’s better films have many subtle cameos, all of whom add to the essence of visual pleasure, even though they may not necessarily be indispensable to the narrative progression of the film. In addition, in most of his shots, you will find the actors doing mundane actions while delivering dialogues, as opposed to many other films where you may see that the shot exists because the actors need to talk out their dialogues. Because of this technique, we get to know more about the characters and settings, and this makes the viewing so much more enjoyable. These are things which are not always present in the formal script. These extras make his films and the actors’ performances in them stand out from the rest.

“Look, whatever you do in front of the camera, you have to do confidently. Even if you do something wrong, do it confidently.”

– What Chhabi Biswas said to Soumitra Chatterjee when they first met.

Do you think cultural context is required to fully grasp the nuances of an actor? If yes, what do you think is the use of a foreign critic evaluating a regional actor’s performance?

To an extent, yes. But then again, film acting is essentially a craft. An actor’s success largely lies in executing the director’s vision. If one actor stands out from the rest, then the film essentially does not have a good standard of acting. A craft implies that there are techniques which are fairly uniform across ethnicity and culture, since the basic human emotions and their expressions are quite similar. It is in the building up to an expression where cultural diversities play a role. So, we can make out that Toshiro Mifune or Marcello Mastroianni or Max von Sydow‘s acting is special in how they carry the characters under their skin and become the roles they play. Similarly, a foreign critic will understand how Chhabi Biswas or Soumitra Chatterjee or Madhabi Mukherjee transform into the characters they play in Ray’s cinema, even though they may not completely understand an Indian zamindar or a Bengali youth or a middle-class Bengali housewife of the 19th century. It is the director’s job to introduce the character through the script, the set, the costume et al. The actor needs to play it out with their abilities so he or she fits into that milieu and remains consistent throughout the film.

Soumitra Chatterjee, Ray’s ‘blue-eyed boy’

“The moment I entered Mr Ray’s room he told me, ‘Oh-ho, you are a bit taller than my conception of Apu.’ I was amazed by his single-minded focus on the subject. Evidently he was so immersed in the film that this was what he said to me at our very first meeting! He then talked to me in a general way, asking what I did, etc. But I was not cast as Apu in Aparajito!”

– Soumitra Chatterjee, who played Apu in Apur Sansar

For a critic analysing a film in a regional language, how important do you think it is to read regional literature? Why or why not?

Reading of all sorts, both fiction and nonfiction, both in one’s vernacular language and otherwise is required. Not only for analysing films, but for understanding any art form. In today’s world of video art, new media, and installations, to understand an artist’s vision you need to keep yourself abreast of a lot of things, including technology. Art evolves, and the critic and the artist need to as well.

While writing a book about the actors in Ray’s films, it’s quite possible that some might get left out or readers might feel some actors should have received greater focus than others. Did you anticipate such criticism while writing the book and take any steps to avoid it? Did you have any beta readers to give you feedback as you worked on your manuscript?

I tried to cover most of the actors and actresses who played prominent roles in Ray’s films. There were some who acted in minor roles, I haven’t included them. For example, Aparna Sen acted in two scenes in two films, apart from her debut short Samapti as part of Teen Kanya. That is why I excluded her from a lengthy discussion in the book. However, later I thought I probably could have had a separate chapter on Utpal Dutt.

I have friends with whom I shared the table of contents and occasionally a few chapters. But those were all casual readings, None so serious as a beta reader.

Imagine you managed to meet Satyajit Ray and got to ask him only three questions, what would they be?

Haha! Very tricky and quite tough. I would surely ask him how and when a film started playing in his head, from the concept or story, to the complete film. He was one filmmaker who relied heavily on the frames that came to his mind. I feel he arranged the images one after the other entirely in his head for most of his films, even before shooting began. I would want to know how that process emerged and evolved.

The second question could be about the careful shaping and branding of his own personality. How and when he understood the need to create an international brand that was his very own—you won’t find someone like him before or after, even now. He is so Indian in his films, yet so international in his personality. If you listen to his interviews, you will find his very distinct, impeccable, immaculate diction, which is neither accented nor Indian. Where did he get it? He lost his father as a child and was brought up in Calcutta and Santiniketan. In those pre-spoken english, pre-YouTube days, it is interesting how he nurtured himself. He is so different from his contemporaries.

Finally I would ask him why was he, in general, quite miserly in his appreciation of his cast and crew.

In a rare interview in 1978, Ray had been, uncharacteristically, a bit harsh towards his actors when he said, “I envy Bergman’s stock company in Bengal, or even for that matter, we don’t have professionals of that caliber, no one like Bibi Anderson or a Liv Ullman. They are brilliant virtuoso performers and Bergman can devise parts for them, where they can show the subtlest of emotions and the strongest outbursts of passion. We don’t have actors of that calibre. So, stories like Persona or Scenes from a Marriage are out. My films are more like… I use the analogy with painting…Bonnard, where the human figure has not much more importance than the table, the fruits, the flowers, the landscape, the window, the door… It’s all sort of a blend, very close to some Japanese directors.”

You mentioned in the introduction that you identified yourself with Apu as countless other Bengalis did. Tell us about another character created by Ray that you personally identified with the most.

Ray successfully created characters who were representatives of their times. The heroes of The Calcutta Trilogy all represented their ages. Apu was a dreamer like many adolescents. Growing up, we loved to think of ourselves as the Apus of our times. Pather Panchali was a great novel by Bibhuti Bhusan Banerjee and I was in love with Apu reading the novel first. Later, when I watched Ray’s trilogy, I could identify with the character all over again.

I don’t think there is any other Ray character that I identify with as such. I would probably want to be like the detective Felu-da, a character which Ray created as a writer and later made a couple of films on—Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath. Felu-da, who could be thought of as Ray’s alter ego, is the quintessential educated Bengali, a type we no longer find. He is sharp and intelligent, sensitive and well-read, he can’t be bought.

Sometime later the bell rang. Siddhartha’s father rose to answer the door. Ray stopped him. “Why don’t you see who it is, Siddhartha,” his voice was sonorous, but his tone sounded gentle. Siddhartha rose and walked to the door… Ray later said that he wanted to check out Siddhartha’s ease in doing something as simple as opening a door in the rather uncomfortable setting of someone else’s house.

– Ray’s first meeting with Siddhartha Chatterjee, who played Topshe, Felu-da’s sidekick in Sonar Kella and Jai Baba Felunath.

At the book launch

Given Ray’s stature as a director, it’s inevitable that people who worked with him could end up eulogising him. During your interactions for this book, did you come across any thoughtful criticism of Ray’s methodology or approach to cinema from the people who worked with him?

Not much. People who worked with him were mostly in awe of his working style and his command over the medium. Quite justifiably, they were not in a position to comment on the content of the narrative or the location and so on, since that was taken for granted by them. Critics may comment on these aspects since they are on the other side and are not influenced by his directorial stature.

“Satyajit Ray was always subtle, and at times, a bit passive in his criticism of the State or the social and human condition, that was largely man-made. His famed compatriots in Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen were more vocal, more direct and always scathing in their aggression.”

– Excerpt from the book

You are the editor-in-chief for Silhouette film magazine. How has being a film magazine editor impacted your writing on cinema? For instance, when you think of a topic, do you find yourself thinking who might be a more suitable person to write it than you?

It is an interesting question. When we formed the magazine in 2001, it was from an urge to write about cinema. There weren’t many spaces which would accommodate new writers. I think I am a writer first and an editor next. Being an editor made me more precise as an author. After writing an article for other magazines, I would pause to think if it would be approved by Silhouette’s editorial team. At Silhouette, we started out being quite strict. Some of my articles were rejected as well! So even when I started writing for others, the editorial yardstick of Silhouette acted as a sentinel.

Coming to the second part of your question, when we had theme-based issues earlier in print, then we definitely needed to draw up a list of writers who would do justice to the theme. It was never about me writing or not. As an editor, you need to ascertain that you are not being biased about one author (you)! There have been issues that featured no articles by me, simply because I wasn’t suitable to write on that theme.

As editors of a film magazine ourselves, we’d love to know more about your journey with Silhouette!

We started off Silhouette in 2001 as a film society, a magazine was one of its offerings. All of us discussed and came up with this name. In a silhouette, you can see the outline of a figure but you can’t necessarily make out the expressions that are embedded in it, thereby opening up the image to multiple possibilities. We wanted Silhouette to be such a platform for readers to form views and opinions; we only wished to provide them with an outline for debate and discussion.

We had some very successful issues centering on themes of Iran, Korea and China at a time when cinema from these countries weren’t that oft discussed in India. It was a very enjoyable time for us. Slowly we have moved the magazine to the Internet for the last few years. We have softened our stance a bit due to the change of medium which means we now mostly have slightly smaller articles and probably less academic. We also included a very rich section on articles on Film music, mostly Indian. Being on the web helped us to make the magazine more of an Audio-visual one with available and shareable clips of films. We have some other plans in the future by exploring and expanding the digital platform.

Do you have plans to write any other books on Bengali cinema or Bengali film personalities? (You mentioned in an interview that you’re working on a biography of Tapan Sinha and a collection of your Bengali writings on cinema.)

Yes, the book on Tapan Sinha is in a very advanced stage. So is my first collection of Bengali articles on cinema. I am expecting both to be published this year. I am in the process of finalising another manuscript for a collection of articles in English. However, none of these collections have articles solely on Bengali cinema. In the future, I may be writing more on different aspects of Bengali cinema, not on personalities alone.

Lastly, tell us your top five acting moments in Ray’s films.

This is a very difficult question. There are many to choose from. The first one is definitely the scene in Pather Panchali—Harihar returns home to find that Durga has passed away. The muted grief exploding into a musical resonance is very touching. I do like the last scene of Apur Sansar, when Apu finally could take Kajal with him. He had to trick his son and tell him that he is a friend. A very touching scene, I get goosebumps every time I watch the ending of this film. Then there is the remarkable scene in Charulata, Charu is reminiscing her childhood days in the garden—Madhabi Mukherjee is at her sublime best. The opening scene of Nayak is a personal favourite as well; we are introduced to the hero Arindam, who is confident and slightly arrogant, played with finesse by Uttam Kumar. In Ray’s cinema, the general acting scheme is orchestrated with such impunity that singling out top favourites is difficult. However if I am compelled to, the fifth one will be the memory game sequence in Aranyer Din Ratri, for the sheer mastery of composition.

…a good actor is like a bird. You can see it fly high, glide effortlessly and make swift plunges and alterations. However, you would never hear the mechanics behind the flight of a bird. It is that seamless. Whereas the flight of an aeroplane is always accompanied by heightened noise made by its different parts—you cannot afford to ignore the fact that the plane is actually flying. A bad actor, like an aeroplane will always make his or her craft visible to the audience to the point of being an eyesore. The power of an actor lies in concealing his craft and to remain sublimely quaint.

– Soumitra Chatterjee

Pictures provided by Amitava Akash Nag. They may not be reproduced without permission.

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