Article Bengali

Why did Satyajit Ray choose Barun Chanda for Seemabaddha? The veteran actor recalls

On Satyajit Ray’s 27th death anniversary today, a look at a valuable discussion that throws some light on the filmmaker's thoughts behind maintaining certain temperaments in his films, choosing newcomers, interacting with them and making them absorb his own world of creations.

Roushni Sarkar

Visionary filmmaker Satyajit Ray is credited with giving a break to some of the finest artistes of Bengali cinema, and veteran actor Barun Chanda is one of them. Chanda played the lead in Ray’s Seemabaddha (1971).

On 27 January this year, film scholar and author Amitava Nag launched his book Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines in the presence of Chanda and award-winning film critic, author and contributor Shoma A Chatterji.

The book traces the journey of various actors and actresses who delivered some of their best performances in Ray’s films. It offers a little segment on Chanda as well.

However, to give a fuller picture of his own experience of working with Ray and share his understanding of the legendary filmmaker’s work ethic, Chanda narrated various interesting anecdotes and shared his insights in a discussion following the book launch.

Barun Chanda

On Ray’s 27th death anniversary (the filmmaker died on 23 April 1992 in Kolkata), we look back at the valuable discussion that threw light on Ray’s thought process behind maintaining certain temperaments in his films, choosing newcomers, his ways of interacting with them and eventually making them absorb his own world of creations.

The author and the actor analysed several moments from Ray’s works in reference to the book, and arrived at the conclusion that overt emotional outbursts are rare in Ray’s films. Chanda pointed out that the reason for such a conscious stand was that “though he never went to any session of the Brahmo Samaj, he was one to the core”.

Chanda believes the tendency of Brahmo Samaj members and sympathizers of not expressing anger is stronger than even that of the British with their famed stiff upper lip. He believes Ray could never compose sequences of violence fully in his films. “Abhijaan (1962) is such a fantastic film, but the fighting sequence between Soumitra’s [Soumitra Chatterjee's] character and the taxi driver, followed by Rabi Ghose’s excitement, is quite laughable,” the veteran said.

Chanda is related to the late Chidananda Dasgupta, one of the major critics and scholars of Ray’s works. Dasgupta and Ray used to work in the same advertising agency before Ray began making films. They were among the co-founders of the Calcutta Film Society. And one of the many artistes to be given a break by Ray was Dasgupta's daughter Aparna Sen.

Chanda recounted an anecdote that Dasgupta used to tell: “They used to go to the Indian Coffee House from the office. While walking, if there was an altercation on the road, Ray would ask him to change direction and take a different path in order to avoid it.”

Shoma Chatterji mentioned that Ray would resort to suppressed violence to magnify the psychological process behind it rather than focusing on the outburst itself. In this context, she referred to significant sequences from Panther Panchali (1955) and Nayak (1966). “I still think there were certain restrictions because of his mindset, upbringing and ideological beliefs that played important roles in his directorial [ventures],” Chanda said.

The discussion then shifted to the domain of Ray’s method of directing his actors. Nag enquired of Chanda whether Ray dictated to all his artistes with full control to maintain the standard of performance in his films. Chanda said that was not the case.

“After the reading session of Seemabaddha, one day he called me to his place and said, 'Listen, Barun, since I have given you the role of Shyamalendu, I am considering that you are competent enough to play the character. However, if I ever feel that you are bringing into the picture something contrary to my vision then you will have to do that my way',” the actor recounted.

Chanda believes some artiste must have tried to act against Ray’s wishes and hence he felt the need to make himself clear before he started work on the film. “It was almost like a verbal pact between us and I was quite surprised by it,” the actor remembered.

Chanda recalled that in the entire shooting process, only once was Ray dissatisfied and resorted to batch shooting, ie shooting a sequence multiple times from various angles. At the same time, there was a sequence in which Ray did not mind incorporating a physical gesture exercised in the corporate world, which was adopted by Chanda but was unknown to Ray himself. The director insisted on knowing more about corporate culture from him and eventually made him write a text for an advertising story featured in the film.

“I was on cloud 9 to think that Manikda [Ray] was taking ideas from me and I would not mind saying that I also secretly wished for my name to go in the credits, but that did not happen,” said Chanda in a modest declaration.

Chatterjee asked whether Chanda’s profession was one of the main factors for Ray to choose him for the character of Shyamalendu, who plays a sales manager in a British fan manufacturing firm in the then Calcutta.

“Oh, yes! Initially, Bijoyadi [Ray's wife] and everyone else were kind of sure that Shyamalendu would be played by Pulu [Soumitra Chatterjee]. However, one evening at dinner, he announced that Soumitra was not going to play the character and everyone was quite taken aback,” said Chanda. “He never explained to me why he chose me, neither did I ask as it would have been an audacity on my part and I was grateful simply that he chose me.”

Chanda had a very good rapport with Bijoya Ray, who later told him: “I assume Manik wanted somebody who is at home in the corporate world, one who is exposed to the conference room and all the complexities of the field and who is also used to wearing a suit and shoes.”

Interestingly, Chanda’s first interaction with Ray was through an interview that he managed to organize on behalf of The Statesman newspaper, then Calcutta's largest circulated English daily. Chanda wanted to meet the internationally acclaimed director, but his pride prevented him from making the attempt and risking the rejection he would see various other visitors facing every day.

Chanda's seniors at his office would insist that he go, but he requested one of the editors of the leading newspaper house to provide him the opportunity. Much later, when Ray learnt about that incident, he laughed his heart out, Chanda said.