In August 26, 1955, Satyajit Ray made his directorial debut with Pather Panchali. It became the first film from independent India to get worldwide critical acclaim. Four years later, Sharmila Tagore made her acting debut with Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959), which was the third part in the maestro’s Apu Trilogy. Today, six decades later, in conversation with the Cinema Journal, the Ray protégée looks back at his cinematic world as well as her journey in the movies, and stresses the importance of commercial Hindi cinema. Excerpts:
You’ve spoken about how mainstream Hindi cinema has been getting short shrift for too long. How do you feel about this now?
You can’t underestimate the power of commercial cinema. It’s so easy to rubbish popular cinema. I’ve been a part of popular cinema and the other side, Satyajit Ray’s world. Of course, both can’t be compared. But they have made contributions in their own ways to Indian cinema.
Do you think cinema can shape people’s mindset?
I’m a part of two film industries: Bengali and Hindi. And they contribute so much to society. One can switch on to a commercial film any time to uplift one’s mood. One forgets the value of these cinematic entertainers. Of course, there are good films, bad films and indifferent films. But there’s so much diversity to choose from. Some may like Rajesh Khanna, while others may prefer Sanjeev Kumar. Someone else may be partial to Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan. There’s so much to choose from! We have Satyajit Ray in commercial Hindi cinema and the digital space as well even today. Recent example being the Ray anthology on an OTT platform.
But the anthology didn’t receive warm reception, with many saying it was a poor adaptation of Satyajit Ray’s stories. What are your thoughts on that?
It doesn’t matter. It was a tribute. There are so many ways to interpret Ray’s vision. A lot of people from the Hindi film industry didn’t appreciate Ray when he first started. There was that famous incident of Nargis Dutt criticising Ray in the Parliament for exporting Indian poverty to the West. But, in fact, he dignified poverty. Except for Pather Panchali, Apur Sansar and Aparajito, the Apu Trilogy, and Ashani Sanket none of his films were based in the milieu of poverty. Charulata and Jalsaghar were not poverty-based. His cinema is grounded in human values.
Your films Aradhana and Chupke Chupke cut across cultural and religious boundaries. Any anecdotes you would like to share about the movies?
I have seen Aradhana being appreciated with equal enthusiasm in Guwahati, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata… everywhere people react to the film’s emotions in the same way. I was in South Africa once. Over there they told me, ‘Your films were our only link to India in the 1960s. We used to dress up and go to the theatre every Sunday to watch your films.’ This way, I became a part of their lives. What a wonderful tribute to the power of commercial cinema. Dilip Kumar’s popularity cut across boundaries — he was popular in Tanzania, Bangladesh, West Indies. In fact, in Pakistan, they gave him their highest civilian honour.
Which among your performances do you rank as the best?
During the lockdown, I got a chance to watch all my films for the first time, and I mean ALL... Even the lesser known ones like Badnam Farishte and Shaandaar. I think my performance in Ray’s Devi still ranks as my best. It was all the great man's doing, of course. I knew nothing about acting back then.
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