Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would work with Satyajit Ray. When (costume designer and writer) Shama Zaidi called me to say he wished to cast me in Shatranj Ke Khilari, it took some time for it to sink in. Then, in a very quiet voice, almost a whisper, I said yes and asked no questions. Apparently, Mr Ray was reluctant at first to cast me because he felt I was too young to play Mirza’s wife, but thankfully he changed his mind.
A few days later, when the film’s producer, Suresh Jindal, called me, it didn’t even occur to me to ask to see the contract. Though I hadn’t actually met Manik-da at that point, I knew he had seen Ankur because in Our Films, Their Films, he wrote, “...in two high pitched scenes, Shabana Azmi pulls out all the stops to firmly establish herself as one of our finest dramatic actresses.” My heart still skips a beat when I think of his reaction to my work.
I finally met Manik-da in Tehran sometime in 1976, when I was a member of the Tehran International Film Festival jury. I expected we might talk about my part but he did no such thing. It was an intimate dinner at somebody’s home, and later when I got to know him better, I realised he would have seen it as inappropriate to talk shop at a social gathering.
I had no other interaction with him subsequently and on the scheduled date, I went directly to Kolkata. When I arrived at the Indrapuri Studio in Tollygunge, I saw Manik-da standing outside the set with a few people. I shook his hand and he said, “We will do the longer scene first... get into costume and I will come and see you.” I found that a bit odd but followed his instruction. When I put on my heavy costume, I felt my posture changing and unconsciously I sat up upright. When he came into the make-up room, Manik-da said, “Ah, now you will be able to absorb better the anguish of a begum. In the pair of jeans you traipsed in, your casual posture would have been that of an urban teenager!”
He didn’t try to intimidate me but there was such an aura around him that I could not but be in awe! My scenes required only a three-day shooting schedule, and when I did my first take, he said, “Very good.” He then walked up to me and added gently, “Can you break it up into part complaint, part anger, part hurt?” That one line from the master made all the difference.
As the years passed, we occasionally spoke on the phone. Once in a way I would go to meet him over tea. There were books everywhere—on the shelves, on the desk and even on the floor! Tea was a ceremony. He drank only Lopchu and it would arrive on a tray with the kettle covered with a tea cosy, with milk and sugar on the side, exactly how my mother, Shaukat Kaifi, served it in our home
There was nothing plebeian about him. Not for nothing is he often referred to as a Renaissance man...
I was thrilled that he called me after seeing Khandhar and Paar. He said he found the story of Khandhar quite improbable but liked my presence in the film. In Paar, he liked both Naseer’s (Naseeruddin Shah’s) and my work and spoke about the scene at the railway station where Naseer loses an important piece of paper. He said it was very well shot.
I would ask him repeatedly to cast me again but he would laugh and say he could only do so in a Hindi film and he entertained no idea of making another. I will always regret that I did not get to work with him again.
Part of our centenary special on Satyajit Ray.