How Barun Chanda Wooed Satyajit Ray Into Casting Him As The Hero Of Seemabaddha, Film Companion

The following is an excerpt from Barun Chanda’s book, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, published by Om Books International

How did I become Ray’s hero? Indeed, this is one of the two questions I have been asked a thousand times. The second question is why I didn’t act in any film for nearly twenty years thereafter. To take up the first question first.

Our office had in the meantime shifted to Free School Street, virtually next door to one of our most important clients, Dunlop Tyres. Ironically, the author of Seemabaddha, Mani Shankar Mukherjee, happened to work there as an assistant public relations manager. Ray, too, had changed his residence by then, from the Lake area in South Calcutta to Bishop Lefroy Road, a short, but very exclusive street, the habitat of foreign dignitaries and judges.

On rare occasions, I would catch a glimpse of Ray in our office. He had probably come there on a personal matter, perhaps to have a word with the managing director. But that happened only once in a blue moon. There was no way I could barge into the MD’s room, interrupting whatever they were conversing about, and start blabbering about my fledgling acting ambitions.

So, I went and approached one of the directors of Clarion, Subhas Sen, who seemed to be an affable gentleman, always with a twinkle in his eyes. I pleaded with him to take me to Ray’s place just once. His ready smile came into action, ditto the twinkle in the eyes.

“So, you want to be an actor?”

I nodded silently.

“But for that why do you need to be chaperoned by me? All you need to do is to go over to his place and say you work in Clarion and he will receive you cordially.” Noticing the doubt on my face he went on to add smoothly, “Believe me, Barun, it’s as simple as that.”

But, I wasn’t convinced. So, I went to his namesake, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, the poet. He used to come to our office once every week, to do translation work. Those days the master ‘copy’ or text for any product advertisement, or campaign, was inevitably done in English. How would our anglicized clients come to understand them otherwise?

Subhash-da, as everyone in the office affectionately called him, was at that time joint-editor of Sandesh, along with Ray. Sandesh, probably the earliest of children’s magazines in the country, happened to be the brainchild of Satyajit Ray’s grandfather, Upendra Kishore Roychoudhury. And after his demise, Ray’s father, Sukumar Roy, the author of the all-time favourite Bengali children’s nonsense rhyme book, Ha Ja Ba Ra La, had taken charge of the magazine.

To my great dismay, even Subhash-da declined to accompany me. I didn’t know who else to approach.

Then, suddenly a thought struck me. Why not go and interview him? While I interview him he would have ample time to size me up. He would actually be interviewing me, albeit without asking questions. If after all that he didn’t call me for an audition, well then it’s too bad. At least I’d know I had tried my best and failed.

In Clarion we used to have a chap called Dubby Bhagat, working as a copywriter. While working with us, Dubby was also moonlighting for JS, or Junior Statesman, probably India’s first youth-oriented magazine. Desmond Doig used to be the editor of JS at that time. So, I badgered Dubby into taking me to Desmond. Desmond, a highly talented person himself, listened to my request with interest. When he heard I wanted to interview Ray, he readily agreed. Perhaps, it was because the magazine had never interviewed him before.

How Barun Chanda Wooed Satyajit Ray Into Casting Him As The Hero Of Seemabaddha, Film Companion

I was elated to say the least. This is what I had been wanting all this time: a valid, legitimate reason to go and meet him. I didn’t have a phone at home. Those were the days when getting a phone connection was probably more difficult than owning a new Ambassador car. Both carried a waiting period of years.

So, I called him up from office. Obtaining Ray’s number wasn’t a problem. Our receptionist had it. As the call came through, I heard a deep, baritone voice answer the line.

“Ray speaking.”

I gave him my name and explained to him why I had called. He agreed to my proposed interview and gave me a date. Most probably, it was a Saturday or Sunday, a free day for me.

I made elaborate preparations for the interview. To impress Ray I borrowed a Garrard, 5-inch spool recorder from a friend of mine, learnt how to operate it, then left for Ray’s residence. Before leaving I had jotted down the questions that I wanted to ask on a sheet of paper, but refrained from carrying it with me. The idea of reading out questions from a prepared note in an interview was somewhat abhorrent to me.

Having reached Ray’s residence I paid up the cab, then raced up to the second floor. I was young and happy as a lark. Ray received me at the door. We made ourselves comfortable for the interview.

And then, without warning, disaster struck. The Garrard spool recorder suddenly decided to act recalcitrant. I had put the plug in, switched on the recorder, then pressed the start and the record button. Nothing happened. The spool wouldn’t start.

I smiled at Ray. This was nothing, a minor glitch. In all probability there was a loose connection somewhere. So, I switched the current off, took the plug out and repeated the whole process from scratch. Still no reaction from the machine.

A little amused at my incompetence, Ray decided to come to my rescue.

“Come come … let me handle this,” he said in his impressive baritone.

He took the instrument from me and tried to start it. But that godforsaken recorder simply refused to budge. He frowned at the instrument for a moment, then shrugged.

“Are you sure it works at all?”

That hurt, the unkindest cut of all. Useless telling him I had tried it at home and it was working perfectly then.

“Ah well … let’s carry on without it, shall we?”

Suddenly, the palm of my hands felt clammy. The interview with Ray couldn’t have started on a worse note. Murphy’s Law, based on the theory that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, was working gloriously for me that morning. I wasn’t carrying any writing pad with me, nor any pen. And the recorder I was carrying with me had gone ‘kaput’. To make matters worse, my mind had gone totally blank. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember a single damned question.

How Barun Chanda Wooed Satyajit Ray Into Casting Him As The Hero Of Seemabaddha, Film Companion

I could feel that Ray was waiting patiently for me to start. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. I used to have a good photographic memory those days. So, I asked myself what was the first question that I had scribbled down on the A4 sheet? I tried to visually remember the page. Once I could see it, I felt better. I knew the rest of the questions would automatically come to me.

On the phone, Ray had warned me he would only give me half an hour for the interview. But, the interview carried on for close to an hour. Ray seemed to be pleased with the outcome. Nevertheless, he insisted I show him the text before it was sent for printing.

“Yes, sir.” I nodded and left.

He was right of course. Here was a cub writer, still wet behind the ears, one who could not be relied upon to operate a simple recorder even, how could Ray rely upon him to reproduce an hour-long interview without a flaw?

But, to come back to the tape recorder, on my way back home I had wanted to take it out on the object and smash it to smithereens on the road, or dump it into the nearest garbage yard, but for the fact that it belonged to someone else. After I had returned home, I looked idly at the recorder, still wondering why it had refused to function. Just for the heck of it, I unwound the wires and plugged it on. I switched on the recorder, then pressed the start button. And suddenly, it was running smoothly again. As if nothing had ever happened in between. I just couldn’t believe it! If there ever was an act of treachery on the part of a gadget perpetrated on a human being, this was it.

The first thing that I did after returning home was jot down the questions all over again. Once I had got that right, I sat down to try and remember what Ray had said in answer. JS being an English magazine, the interview was obviously conducted in English. I had noticed during the interview that Ray was in the habit of repeating certain words, such as ‘well’, ‘not really’ and ’exactly’ and unconsciously he was speaking with an English accent. Well, in a written article there was no way I could reproduce his style of speaking. But, certainly I could use his key words here and there and give the whole interview a personal flavour.

After my write-up was ready I sent it directly to JS for printing. My young pride prevented me from showing the draft to Mr Ray before printing. Two days before the magazine was due to hit the stands, I got a couple of advance copies and went to deliver one of them to Mr Ray. The great man was having dinner at that time. So, I left the copy with the servant of the house and departed.

I called him up after a few days and enquired if he had found time to read the interview. He said yes. As a matter of fact, he had found it remarkable that by and large everything he had said had been reproduced right, barring a statement on Simi Garewal. Using Ray’s key words in the interview had done the trick. Ray had got the impression (quite erroneously I think) that I remembered everything that he had said during the interview.

You know what happened as a result of that? I know I’m jumping the narrative. But, I feel it needs to be stated here.

As a result of this interview, Ray got the impression that I was endowed with a phenomenal memory which, believe me, I never had. And because of this, when I finally got selected for the role of Shyamalendu Chatterjee, the protagonist of Seemabaddha, I was never given a written script.

I repeat, I never had the script of Seemabaddha during the entire shooting of the film.

As a footnote to the story may I add that someone from the producer’s office kindly remembered to send me the script a full two months after the shooting was over. If that is not adding insult to injury I don’t know what is.

Luckily, my wife was able to unearth the JS article, from all the old stuff that lay scattered in the house and which I thought I had lost forever when changing over to our present home. I take the liberty of reproducing it here because I believe it was largely instrumental in my getting the role of Shyamalendu in Seemabaddha.

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