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Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

'Days and Nights in the Forest': Sharmila Tagore remembers Satyajit Ray

“Cinema’s characteristic forte is its ability to capture and communicate the intimacies of the human mind”, said Satyajit Ray.

As the second leg of the Ray season continued at BFI, many of us went in with a familiar excitement for a special Ray favourite, Days and Night in the Forest (Aranyer Din Ratri, 1970).

The evening was made more special with actor Sharmila Tagore introducing the film and remembering her mentor.  Ray had cast her at the age of 13 in 'Apur Sansar', she remembered.  One of his assistants had spotted her outside her school and then followed her home. When the phone rang, it was Ray wanting permission from her father to cast her.

“Although working in films was not considered a good thing then, my father who had seen Ray’s films and heard about him, agreed to let me work. But my school did not.

The principal thought I would be a bad influence on my class friends and so I had to leave the school and join Loreto Convent, move from a Bengali medium to an English medium school which was quite traumatizing", recalled Sharmila.

 

“In the first shot in Apur Sansar, I had to open a door, cross the threshold  and enter into Apu’s terrace room.  For me it was literally walking into a new world and I was heavily directed.”

The actress was then cast in Devi, her favourite Ray film, a dark psychological drama in which she plays a young bride in a feudal family who is worshipped as a goddess. 

The film was Ray’s overt comment on religious extremism and he faced a lot of criticism at the time.  Although not a box office success the film is frighteningly relevant whenever religion threatens to obscure reason.

Sharmila discovered while working with Ray that acting was what she liked most.  Ray would schedule the production during the summer holidays so she had no further problems in school. 

Sharmila recalled appalling conditions in Calcutta studios, with load shedding ( cuts in electricity),  no air conditioning, studio floors with potholes – all of which convinced Ray to work in real locations.

Also, he started taking on more work himself, handling camera, set design, costume, music - all of which must have added to the stress and caused his heart condition,  explained Sharmila.

"He would sit beside his camera and chew on a handkerchief watching intensely while the shot was being prepared.”
Sharmila and her co-star Soumitra Chatterjee continued to be part of Ray’s favourite actors and they were next cast in 'Aranyer Din Ratri'.

By then Sharmila had established herself in Bombay and was shooting for Shakti Samanta’s 'Aradhana'.  She recalls with humour how she dropped the Hindi film and went to Bengal to work with Ray for the month long schedule.

The iconic song “Mere Sapno Ke Rani”  was about to be filmed with the toy train in Darjeeling.  With Sharmila absconding, Samanta had to shoot the section with Rajesh Khanna separately and then film her part later at Filmistan Studios.

'Aradhana' of course, went on to be a phenomenal success and all was forgiven. To Sharmila goes the unique credit of inhabiting both worlds. 

She reigned as Bollywood queen for two decades whilst continued to work in Bengali cinema and Ray.  The roles of intelligent, urban women who morally questioned the protagonist’s world repeatedly went to her in the city films (Days and Nights, Company Limited, The Hero).

A film based on Shankar’s novel finds Ray at his most ironic and observant.

Having turned to the contemporary city of Calcutta, in which Ray lived and worked with 'Mahanagar' (The Big City) – the auteur continued with a city trilogy examining urban life, youth and swiftly changing values.

'Days and Nights' offers a critical portrayal of four young friends who travel from Calcutta to the forests for a week end.  They treat the villagers with contempt and assume a naturally superior stance to the tribals. 

Bribing the caretaker in the forest guest house, paying Santhal women to clean their rooms, flirting with the Tripathi girls, the fault lines and hierarchies between the friends also get exposed.  The haughtiest Ashim, (Soumitra) who sports a car and an accent, is constantly put in place by the bright, introvert Aparna ( Sharmila).

The film raises pertinent questions about sexuality – the available Santhal girl (Simi Garewal) and the suddenly desirous widow Jaya (Kaberi Bose).

Some scenes are classic cinema moments now, the long memory game played by the friends till at last Aparna bows out allowing Ashim to win.

The fair scene in which several events happen and in the lingering sunset (as the light naturally drops) Aparna tells Ashim about her Mother’s death and her loneliness.

A comedy of manners with its share of laughs,  a  memorable, mellow ending, the film has always been popular with a Western audience.

The spontaneous audience response on the evening of its screening at the British Film Institute proved once again that a film made forty three years ago still held compassionate truth that touched and moved.

- Sangeeta Datta

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