Article

How Satyajit Ray discovered Sharmila Tagore


She was a 14-year old schoolgirl; he, a legendary filmmaker. Yet, on first sight, Satyajit Ray knew there was something special about the girl standing before him.

Shriram Iyengar

On 16th February 1961, wearing a natty tuxedo and a top hat, US president John F Kennedy walked into the Dupont theatre of Washington DC for a film by a highly lauded Indian auteur named Satyajit Ray. It was the screening of the final part of Ray’s esteemed Apu trilogy, 'Apur Sansar'. While the president, one of the most handsome men in the world watched, a docile young girl set the screen on fire with her eyes. Sharmila Tagore was all of 14 when she made her film debut in the master's film. Her journey would make her the heartthrob of a million men, and the muse of some master directors. But her acting career was down to the one man who put India and its stories on the global stage, Satyajit Ray.

In 1958, Satyajit Ray was at the peak of his powers. His auteuristic skills had by now earned him a begrudging respect from filmmakers in India, and around the world. A product of Shantiniketan, Ray believed in an aesthetic that was quite unique in Indian filmmakers of that age. It would come to be personified by his 'Apur Sansar' heroine. A heroine he would have to literally scour Kolkata to find. He had already been driven to his wit's end to find the right 'Aparna' for his 'Apu'. Ray wrote in his memoirs, “We put an ad in the papers asking for photographs of girls between the ages of 15 and 17 to play Apu’s wife. More than a thousand replies came, but not one of these deserved to be called for an interview”

A colleague of Ray's suggested Sharmila after having watched her in a school play. It was a serendipitous connection. Speaking of the incident, Ray would write “Once again, we were beginning to despair, then word came about a girl called Sharmila who had appeared in a dance recital for the Children’s Little Theatre. She was related to the poet Tagore and was thought to be quite talented. We got in touch with her parents and asked them whether we could take a look at their daughter for a possible key role in a further episode of ‘Apu’.”

It was not easy. Sharmila belonged to a family that was worshipped in Bengal, the illustrious Tagore's. Sharmila's maternal grandmother was the granddaughter of Kanakendranath, son of Gaganendranath Tagore, who was the nephew of the great Rabindranath Tagore. To ask for a daughter of such an illustrious family to act in films, an industry still viewed suspiciously, could have been construed as an insult. But such was Ray's pedigree that Sharmila Tagore's father could not deny. He brought his daughter to Ray's flat. With his wife and DOP in attendance, Ray examined the young girl for her part as Apu's new wife.

The director would write “She wore a little yellow frock, which made her look like she was in her early teens, which in fact she was. Dressed like that, it was difficult to imagine her as Apu’s bride. Her shoulder-length hair was not right for Aparna — and yet she had the right features. My wife all too plainly showed her disinterest, but something about the girl’s eyes told me not to reject her outright.” The instinct proved to be right. Ray asked his wife, Bijoya Ray, to dress up the young girl in a simple sari. And the transformation shocked the great director himself. “The magic worked! Dressed like that, she was Aparna to the fingertips. She herself behaved differently after the transformation took place. She was then only 13, but now looked over four years older.”

 

 

Sharmila's performance as Aparna would earn her rave reviews. Critics would laud her 'expressive eyes' and 'oriental features'. But many forget that it was Sharmila Tagore's innate actress that managed to provide substance to those features. Describing his actress' ability and conviction, Ray wrote in his memoirs “There were no rehearsals. I shouted directions, urging Sharmila to sob to her heart’s content once she had lost control of herself,” Ray wrote. “After some time, when Sharmila was asked slowly to regain her composure, she did so with considerable conviction.” It was a sign of the consummate actress who would go on to do films like Satyakam, Anupama, Mausam, Amar Prem in Hindi, and Devi, Nayak, Aranyer Din Ratri in Bengali. Her talent would stun audiences who walked into theatres for her beauty. For Ray, it would prove to be quite the find. Sharmila has herself accepted the role of Satyajit Ray as a mentor in her early years in the industry. She would refer to him as “my mentor who introduced me to the wonderful world of cinema.”

Eventually, when Sharmila Tagore married Indian cricket captain, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Ray stumbled upon the most unique gift of all. In her memoirs, Bijoya Ray, writes that her husband decided to gift Sharmila the 16mm reels of Apur Sansar! After all, it was where it all began. Satyajit Ray’s poetic subtlety would touch Sharmila even in her life. ‘Apur Sansar’ was to be Ray’s gift to the magical actress, just as Sharmila Tagore was Ray’s gift to Indian cinema.