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How Satyajit Ray discovered Sharmila Tagore – Birthday special


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

Shriram Iyengar

On 16 February 1961, wearing a natty tuxedo and top hat, US president John F Kennedy walked into the Dupont theatre in Washington, DC, for a film by an acclaimed Indian auteur named Satyajit Ray.

It was the screening of the final part of Ray’s Apu trilogy, Apur Sansar (1959). While the president, one of the most handsome men in the world, watched, a docile girl set the screen on fire with her eyes.

Sharmila Tagore was all of 14 when she made her acting debut in the master's film. Her cinematic journey was to make her the heartthrob of a million men, and the muse of some master directors. But her launch was down to the one man who put India and its stories on the global stage: Satyajit Ray.

In 1958, Ray was at the peak of his powers. His auteuristic skills had earned him begrudging respect from other filmmakers in India, and around the world.

A product of Tagore's Shantiniketan, Ray believed in an aesthetic that was quite unique among Indian filmmakers of that age. It would come to be personified by his Apur Sansar heroine. A heroine he would literally scour Calcutta to find.

Ray had already been driven to his wit's end to find the right Aparna for Apu. As he wrote in his memoir, '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 then suggested Sharmila after having watched her in a school play. It was a serendipitous connection. Speaking of the incident, Ray wrote, '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.'

7 films that underlined Sharmila Tagore's versatility – Birthday special

It was not easy. Sharmila hailed from a family that was worshipped in Bengal, the illustrious Tagores. Her maternal grandmother was a granddaughter of Dwijendranath, older brother of Rabindranath, while her father was a grandson of the painter Gaganendranath Tagore, a nephew of the Nobel laureate. To ask a daughter from such an illustrious family to act in films, an industry still viewed with suspicion by many, could have been construed as an insult.

But such was Ray's pedigree that Sharmila's father Gitindranath could not deny him. He brought his daughter to Ray's flat in Calcutta. With wife Bijoya and cinematographer Subrat Mitra in attendance, Ray examined the girl for her part as Apu's wife.

The director wrote, '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.'

His instinct soon proved right. Ray asked Bijoya to dress the girl up in a simple sari. And the transformation shocked the great director. '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 gave substance to those features.

Describing his find's ability and conviction, Ray wrote in his memoir: 'There were no rehearsals. I shouted directions, urging Sharmila to sob to her heart’s content once she had lost control of herself. 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 such classic films as Anupama (1966), Satyakam (1969), Amar Prem (1972) and Mausam (1975) in Hindi and Devi (1960), Nayak (1966) and Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) in Bengali. Her talent would stun audiences who walked into theatres drawn by her beauty.

For Ray, it would prove to be quite the find. Sharmila has herself accepted the filmmaker's role in her early years in the industry, referring to him as “my mentor who introduced me to the wonderful world of cinema”.

Eventually, when Sharmila Tagore married India's dashing cricket captain Mansur Ali Khan, nawab of Pataudi, Ray stumbled upon the most unique gift of all. In her memoirs, Bijoya Ray has written that her husband decided to gift Sharmila the 16mm reels of Apur Sansar! After all, that 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.

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Indian cinema