When Satyajit Ray was casting for Apur Sansar, I was 13. I remember he came home to see me and talk to my parents. He called me over to his house as he said he wanted to take some photographs. His wife, Bijoya, made me wear a sari, tied my hair up in a bun and put a little bindi on my forehead. I still have the photographs that he took that day.
When we started working together, Manik-da wanted us to read the script but not to learn the lines by heart. On set, he did not instruct us actors together, except of course in the memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri, or when there were many of us in the same shot. Otherwise he would come close to us—and being tall he would have to bend down slightly—and then proceed to have a one-on-one, explaining scene by scene.
Manik-da allowed some actors to improvise and some not. Rabi Ghosh was encouraged to say whatever came to him on the spur of the moment. In Aranyer Din Ratri, when Kaveri and I come across the embarrassed group of young men in their shorts bathing with water from a well, the soap-covered Rabi-da says, “I am in the Riviera.” That line wasn’t in the script. Whereas Manik-da didn’t allow Soumitra (Chatterjee) to improvise at all in Aranyer Din Ratri. Even Sanjeev Kumar told me in Shatranj Ke Khilari, Saeed Jaffrey could improvise, but if Sanjeev Kumar had raised his elbow even a little higher, Ray would ask him to do it exactly as instructed. But he always said “Excellent!” after a take. There was a lot of energy in him. You were very aware of his presence behind the camera. And you had absolute trust in him.
My favourite Ray film is Devi. The girl’s face really haunts you long after the film is over. Although I was young at that time, I was, as they say in Bengali, “paka”—not precocious, but older than my age. I recall Manik-da did not allow anybody to talk to me on the sets of Devi. That heavy garland, the incense, sitting still for hours while Subrata-da lit certain scenes—resulted in a kind of distancing from reality. I remember one day, an elderly gentleman, who I guess was a junior artist, prostrated himself on the ground in front of me and starting worshipping me as though I really was a devi.
Think of the budget that Akira Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman had. Yet Satyajit Ray was on a par with the best in world cinema, despite his limited budget and technical constraints. We actors are privileged to have worked with him in so many films that are now regarded as timeless classics. It was all Manik-da. I miss him.