By Dilip Basu and Dayani Kowshik
Clear Choices: Casting in Ray's Films
Ray had clear ideas as to what almost every character, certainly the main ones, ought to look like in his films. In his early period, he visualized the faces of main characters in sketches before making a film. In his later films he usually turned to actors he had already worked with before. In short, Ray was very clear as to what kind of faces he wanted for particular roles.
The little boy Apu in Pather Panchali is one role that Ray had a clear vision of before shooting. Based on description of the boy in the novel by Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee, Ray and his team members searched for the "right" face until Mrs. Bijoya Ray located a child in their old Calcutta neighborhood. The boy proved difficult, but Ray, taken by his looks, insisted on using him as Apu. Eventually, Subir Banerjee got used to Ray's playful approach to acting and did a wonderful job as Apu.
The story of how Ray and his unit found Chunibala Devi to play the old aunt in Pather Panchali is similar. After a long search and trying several older actresses he found the octogenarian Chunibala, an all but forgotten stage actress from the 1920s. Sometimes Ray would approach someone he saw on the road, by chance, that he thought fitted the character he had in mind. Ray spotted Ramani Sengupta from a distance on the ghats of Banaras while doing location shooting for Aparajito. Although Sengupta's somber personality intimidated him, Ray asked him whether he would be interested in acting the role of a grand uncle in the film he was about to shoot in the sacred city. Sengupta's answer was "Why not?" It turned out that not only had Sengupta never acted; he had never seen a movie in his life!
Ray always seemed to be interested in people and their faces. Saeed Jaffrey, a noted international actor in many British and American films once ran into Ray in an airport lounge in 1967. Jaffrey introduced himself and told Ray how his life-long dream was to work for him. Ray smiled. About ten years later Jaffrey got a call to play the role of Mir Roshan Ali in Chess Players.
Then Ray made a few films with some specific actors in mind. Without Chhabi Biswas, Ray said he would have not made Jalsaghar, Devi or Kanchanjungha. In the veteran actor Tulsi Chacravarti (Prasanna, the grocer-cum-school teacher in Pather Panchali and the main character, Paresh Chundra Dutta, in Parash Pathar), he found an incredibly expressive face that accompanied an equally incredible acting ability.
In his later films Satyajit Ray turned to professionals from screen and stage while recasting some he had used before. He gave two reasons for this change in his casting practices. The first was his realization that professional actors and actresses in India's commercial cinema who often appeared in "silly" roles had talent for "serious" ones as well. The acid test was Uttam Kumar, Bengal's all-time great matinee idol. Ray was often asked why he had not used the popular hero of contemporary Bengali cinema in any of his films. He did so in 1966 in Nayak, a film tailor-made for Uttam Kumar about the inner story of a great star's troubled life. In Chess Players, his cast included prominent Bollywood stars Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan and Shabana Ajmi. In Sadgati he cast Om Puri, Smita Patil and Mohan Agashe. Both these films were in Hindi, and the Mumbai audience was an obvious source of his casting choices. In two earlier films, where he did not necessarily need to turn to Bollywood, he had used the noted stars Waheeda Rehman in Abhijan and Simi Garewal in Days and Nights in the Forest. Ray had received some criticism for going out of his way to cast stars from Mumbai in important but minor roles these two Bengali films. In retrospect, one can see why Ray chose them. It was Ray's infallible instinct to match the character with the face.
Some of the actors who had started their careers with Ray went on to become famous stars. The list includes Sharmila Tagore, Soumitra Chatterjee, Aparna Sen, Victor Banerjee, and Dhritiman Chatterjee. Aparna Sen has also distinguished herself as a director. Sharmila Tagore became a hot Bollywood star after working for Ray. Madhabi Mukherjee, who starred in three of Ray's major films in the sixties, did not work for Ray later, but went on to become a prominent Bengali screen actress in the seventies and eighties. Soumitra Chatterjee is, of course, in a class all by himself: he was Ray's all-time favorite and acted in fourteen of his films.