Prasanta Paul narrates how the human being in Soumitra Chatterjee removed the fear and nervousness of a young journalist as he was preparing himself to interview master director Satyajit Ray
The set in South Kolkata’s Indrapuri studio was in the thick of “… Action… Cut… Silence.” Master director Satyajit Ray was calling the shots again in No 6 Floor of the studio.
It was early April, 1990. Ray was in the midst of shooting his new year special “Shakha Prashakha”(Branches & Creepers) with Soumitra Chatterjee in a pivotal role.
In fact, Ray was almost embarking on his own unpublished script-cum—story “Shakha Prashakha” before “Ganashatru”(Enemy of the People) but for the doctors who advised him against any exhaustion that the shoot of his films always entailed.
An ambulance parked in the studio, Ray’s favourite arc-lamp haunt, is a grim reminder to the visitors of his frail health.
It was in this studio, my first brush with the movie maestro Ray and his most favourite actor Soumitra Chatterjee took place.
A lot of trepidation was preceded by a week’s intense study on Ray’s art and filmography besides clippings of interviews with Chatterjee who agreed to speak to me and introduce me with the renowned director.
Once inside the floor of the studio, photography was a strict `No’, I had been cautioned earlier when I applied for an audience with Chatterjee and Ray during a break in the shoot.
Hence, the camera was quietly packed inside my bag as I perched myself up on a little chair outside the gate of the sprawling floor, waiting for the break.
Break for Ray usually meant lunch time and sharp at one in the noon, the auspicious time (Mahendra Kshan in Bengali!) arrived and I was called in.
The imposing personality of Ray, let not speak of his voice (it’s just mesmerizing) made me squeeze like a mice.
But lo! There was Chatterjee appearing from almost nowhere to be my saviour. As Ray was helped on a cushioned chair after my brief introduction to him, Soumitra da( as I called him) took me aside.
“What do you know of the film `Shakha Prashakha ?” was the first question that he asked me. When someone came to remind him that his lunch was getting cold, he told him he could afford to be little late as his `take’ was already over.
Without taking any air, Ray’s hero began unveiling facts and figures about the film, signaling me to write. “The film is sort of 27th comeback film of Ray Saheb; it acquires significance from the fact that after about a decade, Sri Ray has chosen to rely on his story instead of other sources.”
“The last film that Ray directed on the basis of his own material was `Joy Baba Felunath(Hail, The Father Felunath) in the beginning of the 80s.”
However, the media at that time was extremely curious about many other details which had been kept under the wraps. And the crucial among them pertained to the main theme of the story.
Of course, Ray did not tell me nor I had the courage to insist him on telling me. Like every Ray film, the iron curtain prevailed on this occasion too.
Soumitra da first revealed the possible clues to me about the theme and he whispered “It veered round the possible interactions of four sons of an industrialist.”
Much later, it transpired that the story talks about an aged patriarch( played by Utpal Dutt) who overhears the distressing details about his sons’ lives as they gather around his sickbed.
The manner in which Soumitra da (Ray’s one and only Feluda) befriended a young journalist like me within such a short time during the short break was simply amazing.
The script of the film, Soumitra da revealed, was authored in fragments nearly a couple of decades back; it was thoroughly overhauled, with characters undergoing complete changes in the present version to ensure modernity.
“I mean starting from ‘A’ absolutely…” Soumitra da was quite emphatic. In fact, Ray, I was quite confident, must have authorized him to speak to me first about the film before I could start interviewing the stalwart.
And the time allotted to me was barely 10 minutes. Aware that the young journalist in me would be prone to errors if not properly backed with facts, Soumitra da shouldered the responsibility of providing me some vital clues about the film.
Several layers of the thread in the film, he continued, made the story a difficult one. The script was replete with such references to contemporary events as happenings in East Europe, the massacre (at Tianamen Square) in Beijing, dominance of black money and rampant corruption in public life.
“At places, the dialogue is certain to prick the conscience of many, you see”, ‘Feluda’ indicated. I kept listening to him with rapt attention and was left speechless.
Why on earth an actor of Feluda’s stature would take so much trouble and that too, without taking any air? I was wondering all the time; the more he spoke, the more overwhelmed was I.
Once his briefing ended, I felt as though someone had injected me with a vial of courage and confidence. The interview that followed with Ray was smooth and extremely exhilarating. But that was a different tale I could talk about later.
“Hey, how was it(interview)?” Feluda’s smiling query was still writ large in my memory. “Excellent” was my brief reply, full of reverence though.
Even as I made vain attempts to profusely thank him, his signature smile said it all… ‘No need to be so formal.’
In course of my journey in media in the next two decades, I did meet him quite a number of times. The actor apart, the man in Soumitra Chatterjee never failed to accord me proper recognition which only speaks volumes about how he kept his stardom away from day to day life.
Actually, Feluda deliberately effected a conscious break in dramatic and stylised acting which Suchitra Sen, his contemporary heroine, had made her hallmark.
Nor did he favour Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen’s notion of stardom. Even as both the stars, with great affection, advised Chatterjee to create an aura around him to gain stardom, Feluda opted to stride a different path that was ordinarily extraordinary.
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The author has served no less than Al Jazeera and German TV, and India’s Parliamentarian magazine among others! To his credit goes a deep-rooted empathy for social issues and humans. He has wide experience in covering the northeast of India. His coverage on the 2020 Amphan cyclone in eastern India has easily been the best around the world