Harmonizing the Shadows: Chhabi Biswas in Jalsaghar

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Chhabi Biswas in Jalsaghar

We share the remarkable collaboration between legendary Indian actor Chhabi Biswas and renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray, focusing on their work together in the film “Jalsaghar” on the occasion of Chobi Babu’s death anniversary.

“Ananta, ata ki mash rey?” (Ananta what month is it?) roared the voice of Chhabi Biswas in the opening scene of Jolshaghar.

After the unexpected commercial failure of ‘Aparajito’ Satyajit Ray was in desperate need to make a film that would make money at the box office. It was then that he decided to study the mind of the average Bengali middle-class movie-going audience to understand what they usually looked for in a film viewing experience. Incredulous, as it may sound, he figured that it would be “Song and dance with a dash of comedy”. He made up his mind and decided to cater to both of these demands of the Bengali audience. In 1958, he made two films – the pathbreaking comedy “Parash Pathar” (The Philosopher’s Stone), and “Jalsaghar” (The Music Room) – a film richly accentuated by songs and dances.

Jalsaghar (The Music Room) in the words of noted English critic John Russell Taylor was an “an atmospheric piece”. It occasionally reminds one of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which narrated the decline of a wealthy American Midwestern family in the late nineteenth century. The peroration of a stubborn and self-absorbed Bengali zamindar, Jalsaghar depicts the passing of the age-old feudal social order in early twentieth-century rural Bengal giving way to another one that is bourgeois and perhaps harsher, albeit more conforming to the future.

When Ray first envisaged making Jalsaghar, his first choice for the critical role was none other than Chhabi Biswas. Chhabi Biswas, or Chhabi Babu, as he was popularly known in the Tollygunge film industry, was one of the most powerful, charismatic actors of his generation, and he was synonymous with the quintessential, aristocratic Bengali patriarch. Chhabi Biswas was the perfect fit as Biswambhar Roy, the protagonist of Jalshaghar. However, Ray approached the actor with a reasonable amount of circumspection (and apprehension, if I may add). Interesting anecdotes of how Chhabi Biswas could be extremely difficult to deal with as an actor had always reverberated throughout the Bengali film industry. Hearsay was, he didn’t take too kindly to fledgling directors, and Ray would, in all likelihood, be counted as one (despite his global acclaim as the maker of Pather Panchali). It was also quite a known fact that he was never punctual on the sets and that he never bothered to learn his lines and that he could be excruciatingly difficult when it came to application of make-up. After working with Chhabi Biswas, Ray had to reluctantly admit that the stories circulated about the actor were, by and large, accurate. For instance, if he was needed on the sets at 10 a.m., he would invariably show up not before 11.30 a.m. What added to the woes of Ray was, Chhabi Babu tended to fall sick quite often and had to be excused from shooting after completing just half a day. As for dialogues, it was doubtful if he ever read the given script.

And he was indeed impossible when it came to handling make-up. There is one remarkably hilarious incident that transpired on the sets of Jalshaghar. In a certain flashback scene featuring Biswambhar in his youth, Chhabi Babu grandly arrived at the set in a completely loud and gaudy makeup. Ray was completely appalled at this and asked the actor the reason behind such “Jatra” like makeup, to which the actor replied with nonchalant conviction – “You wanted a youthful make-up, didn’t you?”. This did little to convince Ray, who retorted – “But, so much paint on your face and lips? The eyebrows, so deeply penciled? This would be more appropriate for a young damsel than a man.” But, the mercurial Chhabi babu wasn’t willing to concede and said, “Oh! It’s probably due to insufficient light in the make-up room.” Brighter lights had to be arranged for in the make-up room, but it didn’t lead to any significant change in his make-up, which forced Ray to grudgingly proceed with the shoot without any change.

In his own words, “When we were shooting, I found out that there were two things terribly missing in him. Firstly, he didn’t know how to ride a horse and secondly, he had almost no sense of music. Andrew Robinson in his book ‘Satyajit Ray- The inner eye’ expanded on Biswas’s lack of musical sense and commented that Ray did insist, though, that Chhabi Babu learn how to fake the playing of an esraj so that he could be seen accompanying his son’s singing of the scales. Ray said ‘He did a very convincing job—I don’t know how—through sheer grit, I think.’ He also asked Biswas to do something much simpler – to lift one finger of his right hand while he was listening to the strains of dancing.

Ray and Biswas, had very strong personalities and many ponder how they gelled so well and delivered such outstanding cinematic work. Ray was always willing to forgive all these challenges while collaborating with Chhabi Biswas primarily for two reasons. First and foremost was Chhabi Babu’s undeniable, prodigious talent. By his mere presence, he completely dominated a particular scene. He had that kind of magnetic screen presence, an unmistakable aura. For the role of an aristocrat, he was ahead of his peers by the proverbial mile.

Secondly, it was his ability to deliver the goods. Through his craft, he enabled the director to shoot in half a day what other actors would produce in one-and-a-half days. And if he didn’t ever go through a dialogue sheet (which he mostly didn’t), he more than compensated for it through his ability to memorize long passages of his role by simply listening to it being read out to him a couple of times.

He was an exemplary professional and a wizard of timing. Lastly, he always seemed to have this uncanny ability to use pauses and silence to optimum effect. Ray once fondly recollected a remarkable story to illustrate this unique feature of Chhabi Biswas’ repertoire – his masterly execution of the ‘dramatic pause’. Ray was shooting Chhabi Babu in Jalsaghar at the time and there was a scene on the verandah where Biswas was to deliver a prolonged monologue. Ray’s unit was having a last monitor before the final take. As Biswas was delivering the monologue while walking up and down the verandah, he seemed to pause at one point, which was followed by an eerie silence. The pause seemed to continue and the entire unit was anxious that the legendary actor has forgotten his lines. It was then that Sailen Ghosh, Ray’s senior assistant director couldn’t restrain himself any longer and blurted out the line. Chhabi Babu was furious at this intrusion. He turned around and quipped “I know, I know, I know … you don’t have to prompt me.” Ray candidly said, “Actually, Sailen didn’t realize Chhabi Babu hadn’t forgotten his lines at all. It was just a dramatic pause.” Ray said in an interview with James Blue: “All actors are afraid of pauses because they can’t judge their weight … it’s only the greatest professionals who know the real strength, the power, of pauses. For me pauses are very important, something happening, waiting for words, and when the words come you have that weight.” Needlessly to say, he was alluding to the genius of Chhabi Biswas when he stated this.

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Looking back on his association with Biswas, Ray later said: “In the beginning, I was a little unsure as to how to handle him. I gave him a considerable lot of freedom. Not always with good results. And then I started controlling him more and more and he became more and more friendly and it became a wonderful relationship. He is so unique, that there are certain parts for which there are no actors anymore. And those stories I can no more do because he is no longer there.”

Ray sincerely rued the fact that Chhabi Babu had acted in only ‘three-and-a-half films’ of his: as lead actor in Jalsaghar, Devi, and Kanchenjungha, and as a guest artiste in Parash Pathar (incidentally he didn’t charge a dime for the latter). The director had planned several other projects with Biswas in mind, especially a comedy which seemed to have reached an advanced stage of preparation. However, the actor’s untimely death in a road accident at the age of sixty-two compelled him to abandon those projects for good (One might recall, Ray took a similar stance of never making a movie on Feluda after the demise of ‘Jataayu’ Santosh Dutta). He unequivocally stated that he could never imagine anybody else in Chhabi Babu’s shoes.

In the three short years that Ray was able to work with him, he had formed only the highest opinion of him as an actor, keeping aside all his idiosyncrasies and angularities. In his own words, “Jalsaghar, Devi, Kanchenjungha, were all written with Chhabi Biswas in mind. Ever since he died, I have not written a single middle-aged part that calls for a high degree of professional talent. To me, his untimely death is an immeasurable, irreplaceable loss.”


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