The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Rewind to a Ray classic

Three not-so-young men return to the forests for a fascinating trip down memory lane. Samarjit Guha catches up with them on the outdoors of Abaar Aranyenow: The three senior citizens take their place in the mild sun of the North Bengal forest. Ribbing each other good-naturedly, the trio takes a fun-filled trip down yesterday lane. Amidst laughter and backslapping they sail through a ‘shot’ effortlessly. “It’s more like real life than cinema,” says Goutam Ghosh, from behind the camera. Then, oblivious to the sounds of the shutterbug, the three disappear among the trees of Gorumara. Just an occasional guffaw from the grand old men breaks the silence of the autumn afternoon...

then: Cut to 33 summers ago. The base camp at Palamau is silent after a hard day’s shoot, under the stern gaze of Manikda (Satyajit Ray). As night falls, five young figures (four leading men and Sharmila Tagore) traipse out of their bungalows and head towards the forest. To the beat of tribal drums, the revelry carries on till the early hours. Long days of work and long nights of play…

For Soumitro Chatterjee, Samit Bhanja and Subhendu Chatterjee — three of the four who’ve picked up Abaar Aranye from where Aranyer Din Ratri left off — nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. The spirit is always willing; the flesh is often not. The skill in front of the camera remains redoubtable; the energy on the sets is no longer boundless. The smiles are as charming as ever; the hairlines have receded and greyed…

Reminiscences can wait, the next shot has been called. On cue, the three open a dialogue: “Do you remember Miss India' Ha! Ha! Ha!” (The reference is, of course, to a ‘centre of attraction’ from the days and nights spent in the Daltongunj forest in 1969). The second shot is okayed without a hitch, this time to applause from a crowd that had gathered.

The spotlight — and media attention — may firmly be on Tabu’s Bengali debut but Abaar Aranye is actually about the ground that the three characters Hari (Samit), Sanjay (Subhendu) and Ashim (Soumitro) have covered in the three decades that have passed since their last retreat into the forests.

The personal journeys seem intertwined with the professional for Pulu (Soumitro), Shubu (Subhendu) and Bubu (Samit). As the three who’ve been co-actors for over 35 years now step into the sylvan locale for the sequel of one of their favourite films, the years seem to roll back without a bump.

Far from the cob-webbed claustrophobia of Tollygunge studios, in the quaint little bungalows dotting the base of the Himalayas, the fatigue of rapidly-passing years and the frailties of health take a backseat.

Catch Soumitro slipping into his sneakers for a brisk morning walk before a lengthy shooting schedule. Sniffing the balmy October air, he says: “Ah! If only Robi (Ghosh) was here, things would have been more fun.” He goes on to narrate an incident (definitely not printable) that involved “Robi, Bubu and others” on the sets of Aranyer Din Ratri. For a moment, the audience is stunned into embarrassed silence before breaking into a laughter that rolls on and on.

But even the most hilarious recollection has the ring of an ode to mortality. Each tale is an acute reminder of the time that has flown by and the friends that are lost forever.

Good films and bad films; hope and heartbreak; birth and death — these men have seen it all. Post-Aranyer, they have come together on the sets of Parineeta, Datta, Maan Maryada, Shapath, Amriter Swaad, Amrito Kumbher Sandhane…But there’s a magic about the sequel that is “something else”.

Not even chemotherapy sessions in a painful battle could keep Samit Bhanja, the youngest of the three, out of the cast roster. “It’s ages since we did something like this. In 1969, while filming Aranyer… Puluda, Robida, Shubuda and I were a foursome, exactly the way you see the three of us now. Only, we were all much wilder, constantly playing pranks on each other. Robida used to be the butt of our jokes… We were the younger generation then,” he says, with a wistful gaze at the new kids on the cine block — Jishu Sengupta, Rajatabho Dutta, Chaiti Ghoshal and Saswato Chatterjee.

Both Soumitro and Subhendu are “most concerned” about their comrade’s health and are ever-ready to lend a helping hand — whether Samit is struggling to get out of the car or having trouble with his lines. The melancholic feeling that this could so easily be their last film together is unmissable.

But the sun manages to shine through each time it seems the clouds will never lift. Wiping his specs, Subhendu needs only a flimsy pretext for a flashback. Spotting a lensman who had accompanied the original cast during the shooting of the Ray masterpiece, he starts off: “Do you remember how we scared Robida'… How we would tiptoe out of our bungalows to avoid being caught by Manikda to mingle with the tribals.”

With a wink, Samit adds: “Things were different when we were heroes… We would often eye the women, but all in the right spirit. There was so much music all around, with Rinku (Sharmila) often dancing with Puluda, while I played the dholok. Such sessions would go on till the wee hours but we would never dare be late for work the next day.”

During a break in shooting, the three friends settle down for another adda. This time, the impending arrival of Sharmila from London is the topic of discussion. “In those days, she was one of us, yet to make it big in Bollywood. But Rinku has not changed much and so we hope to have more fun in the next schedule, when she joins us,” says Bhanja.

The younger lot looks on in wonder. “We are amazed at their energy levels. And they just sail through their shots,” chorus Jishu and Saswato.

Tabu, too, is touched: “Such friendships exist only on paper elsewhere. Whenever I see the three chatting and then delivering perfect shots, I am envious. Our generation possibly has never seen anything like this.”

And soon, even this will be gone. Therein lies the passion and the pathos of Abaar Aranye.

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