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Apu-Aparna and a Ray of memories

Sharmila Tagore and Soumitra Chatterjee at KLM 2014, held in association with The Telegraph, at Victoria Memorial on Tuesday. (Anindya Shankar Ray)

There’s something about the Apu-Aparna pair that can bowl over any gathering every time they get together, whether for an adda or a book launch.

Sample this: Sharmila Tagore, standing on the Kolkata Literary Meet stage in Victoria Memorial on Tuesday evening smiles and looks at a seated Soumitra Chatterjee whose book Master & I is about to be released. “You have to stand up…” Sharmila urges Soumitra, who happens to be her first co-actor, with a whisper while Soumitra remains unmindful in his own thoughts. “Danrao Soumitra!” she says a little louder this time. The words catch the actor’s ears and he springs to his feet as Sharmila smiles a proud smile and unveils his book. The audience, privy to their endearing exchange, breaks into a chuckle.

It was a session that saw a packed house despite the sudden winter chill on the evening of Day Four of KLM, held in association with The Telegraph, titled Manik Ratan which was about the two actors being mentored by Satyajit Ray.

With Chinmoy Guha, a professor of English at Calcutta University steering the session, Soumitra recited a poem he wrote for Ray that went “Baisakher bishokriya jaakey sparsha korte parchhena”. The conversation that followed was peppered with anecdotes, one-liners and honest admissions that dated back to the time Sharmila-Soumitra met their mentor for the first time.

“I was 13 when Manikda called up my parents and came to our house to meet me. He was looking for a school-going girl to play Apu’s wife and he got me to do a kind of screen test. At first he got a few photographs of me clicked and then he got me to wear a sari, tie my hair in a bun and put make-up on my face, then got me to look left, right, up and down to check my angles on camera. That was my first meeting,” recalled Sharmila.

Soumitra joked that he did not have it that easy. “Tomakey dekha matroi pochhondo hoyechhilo. Amake pochhondo hotey onek test ditey hoyechhilo! A friend’s friend was Ray’s assistant and he was looking for someone to play Apu as a young man in Aparajito. I went to this place on Lake Avenue. The moment I stepped into the room he remarked, ‘Oho, you are too tall.’ After that he spoke to me for a long time and later I realised that to test someone new he would talk a lot to them to understand their personality, diction….”

Sharmila recounted switching from a school-going student to a village girl at 13 “which came easy because when someone over-instructs you it creates artificial tension in your mind. Manikda was never like that”. Soumitra remembered constructing a “psycho-biography of Apu”.

Sharmila, who admitted to feeling “envious” after reading some of the chapters in Master & I, “because he would speak so much with Soumitra”, she wanted to know, “Have you ever had adda with Manikda?”

“Occasionally,” responded Soumitra.

Sharmila laughed as she took on the question of whether working with Ray helped or hindered her Bollywood foray. “What used to amuse me is when I was shooting for a Hindi film, the director would at times say, ‘Don’t talk so slow, this not a Ray film’ and directors in Bengal would tell me, ‘Don’t animate so much, this is not a Bombay film. So I was an outsider and an insider in the same industry.”

Towards the end, both Soumitra and Sharmila let out a secret desire about the Ray film they desperately wanted to do but could not. “I wanted to play Goopy Gayen. I pleaded with him but could not argue when he told me that I did not match what he had imagined Goopy to be. And Tapen (Chatterjee) played the character so well, it was as if he was born to play Goopy! I couldn’t even complain later,” he laughed.

Sharmila rued, “I wanted to do Ashani Sanket and Charulata,” and added with a mischievous grin, “Seeing Madhabi (Mukherjee) in Charulata I didn’t have any doubts but Ashani Sanket, I think I could have done better!”