In Belaseshe, you've paired up with Soumitra Chatterjee 30 years after Ghare Baire. Going back a little, how did the Ray film happen?
I am from Allahabad, where Ray's Charulata and Mahanagar would run every Sunday at a local theatre for a time. My friends and I were permanent fixtures at these shows. Just before my school final exams, I was so disillusioned with studies that I wrote a letter to Manikda (Satyajit Ray) asking for an opportunity to work with him. I don't know if the postal address was correct or if he ever received that letter. My results came out and to my surprise, they were rather good. I went on to do my graduation and Masters. I even joined a university as a lecturer and worked there for three months. After that I left everything and came to Kolkata. I was going through a rough patch in my personal life, but I don't want to talk about it now. In the city, I joined Nandikar and got busy with theatre. I had a small role in Shambhu Mitra's Galileo and Manikbabu came to watch one of the shows. After three months, a call came to Nandikar and I was told, `Manikda wants to meet you'. It didn't strike me who this Manikda was. I asked, `Who is this?' and the man on the other side of the receiver said, `Robi Ghosh'. I thought it was a hoax and didn't pay any heed. Then, another theatreperson called me to say the same thing. He got me the address. The day I went to meet Manikda, there was a complete traffic shutdown because of a meeting. I walked all the way from my house on Vivekananda Road (north Kolkata) to his Bishop Lefroy Road residence. It took me two-and-a-half hours. He had called me at 1.30 pm and I reached by 1 pm and kept waiting for 30 minutes. When I pressed the doorbell and he stepped out, his first reaction was: `How did you come?' I said, `You had called, so...' He told me, `So what? I'm not god that you will come on a day like this'.
I sat in his chamber and he started making a few sketches. He even gave me the script and asked, `Have you read the novel?' I said no and he insisted that I don't. So, I didn't need to feign intellectual superiority ... All he said was that I was there in his film. I remember I was staring at a harpsichord and he asked if I could play it. I said I play the piano and he asked me to try my hand at the one in his room. I played a Beethoven piece and he was mighty impressed.He took out a big fat book on Beethoven and whistled a few of his pieces, an impossible feat... In 1985, a review of The Home and the World (Ghare Baire) in a prestigious New York newspaper read: `The film is acted with immense grace by its three leading actors'. It also mentioned, `Swatilekha Chatterjee is the pretty, surprisingly willful Bimala'.
But back home, wasn't there a lot of criticism after Ghare Baire?
I don't remember everything, but it was a difficult phase. I had heard that some agitated women actors of the time wanted newspapers to carry critical pieces on me. I don't want to raise that issue, as it might create unpleasantness. One critic wrote a line, `She never lived nor looked the role'. It was filled with vendetta. He was the husband of an actress. I sunk into depression and wanted to take my life. I was almost on the brink and didn't want to live in this horrid world. Just then, Manikda started sending me a lot of reviews that had come out abroad. He said, `Don't read the local reviews, read these. You are not a political person, don't get involved in this'. Manikda guarded me all the time. See, I never expected Manikda to take me in his film or say, `For 25 years I have been waiting for someone like you'. No one could wax eloquent about my beauty, but Manikda would say instead, `She is my most intelligent actress'. That was my driving force.
In 1984, the film was competing for the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes. Ray was bedridden, but sent both Soumitra Chatterjee and you to the festival. Are there many memories?
Manikda was unwell and I didn't feel like attending the festival, as he had become a guardian to me. Lying on the hospital bed, he insisted that I go. He said, `Fill in for me.' The first time I saw myself in the film, I flipped. I was uneasy and didn't like myself at all. But those around, came and hugged me. Also, the French are less inhibited about hugs and kisses. After all that, I was relieved. On watching the film for the third time, I realized I wasn't that bad after all.
In some articles, Ray was even accused of substituting the lack of passion between Sandip (Soumitra) and Bimala (Swatilekha) with two kisses that apparently went on to shock the audiences abroad. Do you think the Indian janta wasn't fully prepared to witness a fullblown kiss back then?
Honestly speaking, I didn't think of all these things; it was pure work. My husband, Rudraprasad Sengupta, was extremely supportive of me. He said, `Manikda's film demanded it.' Back then, I was married for just a year. I was shooting for 45 days. Every night I would come home and see that Rudrababu had kept my dinner ready. He used to cook for me. What he said was kind of a verdict for me. I knew Manikda wasn't waiting for so long to film just a kissing scene. He wanted to show fulfilment in a relationship. He didn't even use the scene for posters or ads. So, it was definitely not for titillation.
For so many years, you stayed away from films. Did criticism get the better of you?
I got over the criticism; it didn't affect me so much. What bothered me were the roles that I was offered. One day, someone came to me with the offer to play goddess Lakshmi. But even Lakshmi had shades of Bimala. I didn't want to repeat myself. Also, I had a lot of pride in me. After Manikda, I didn't know who to work with. Already, I had got used to his royal treatment. Later, many, including Soumitrada, understood that I was not here to compete with anyone. Also, I didn't get great offers. Again, one has to say, `Dada, dada' to get a role and I — with my academic background and pride — couldn't bring myself to do it.
So, you finally worked with Onir in Chauranga and then with Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee in . What's your take on new-age directors?
I know nothing about them. Also, coming from Allahabad, I'm more clued into Hindi films than Bengali cinema. In , I did a bit role. I was only meant to read Ramcharitmanas, as I'm good in Hindi. I would leave at 4 am for Santiniketan and wait there all day with my makeup on. I did that for days on end. I've heard a lot about Onir, who was helming the production. But he himself was going through a troubled phase because of his run-in with the Federation. See, Manikda would always be ready with his storyboard. Everything was sketched from before, including how a scene would look, to how the costumes would be. I remember even a towel used in Ghare Baire had Bandemataram written on it. I had the impression that Shibu (Shiboprosad) would go haywire. My daughter Sohini (Sengupta) had warned me against losing my cool. But Shibu surprised me. He was thoroughly organized. Though he did not have the sketches ready, he had every thing chalked out in his head. Also, he would scold me lovingly and feign anger. He was my student in Nandikar at some point in time. In the beginning, I was scared. It was an intense role and I didn't know how to go about it. But once they said `Bah', I started ope ningup. Nandita, on the other hand, never left me on the sets. When Shibu and the rest would say, `Excellent shot', she would quietly whisper into my ears, `Try doing it this way'. I was dependent on her.