Veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee, who starred in 14 celluloid classics of Satyajit Ray, says working with the master filmmaker was an exciting learning process. And he continues to inspire, even 20 years after his death.
Saluting Ray's poetic, lyrical and artistic qualities, Chatterjee told IANS in an interview: "He is a special kind of poetic, lyrical, artistic visionary. If you see his films you can feel that such poetic, lyrical, artistry can belong to nobody else."
Chatterjee, this year's winner of Indian cinema's highest award, the Dadasaheb Phalke, shared a "comradeship" with Ray that was spread over three decades, and ended only with the film maestro's death on this day in 1992.
Making his movie debut in Ray's masterpiece Apur Sansar (the world of Apu) - the third part of the Apu Trilogy - in 1969 - Chatterjee became the famed director's favourite actor, playing lead roles in films like "Sonar Kella", "Jai Baba Felunath", "Charulata", "Ghare Baire", "Ashani Sanket", "Devi", "Abhijan", "Aranyer Din Ratri" and "Ganashatru".
The association has often been compared with the famous actor-director duos of the world such as Akira Kurosowa-Toshiro Mifune and Marcello Mastroianni-Federico Fellini.
"He had helped me enormously. He was my mentor in that way. I learnt many things from him, I learnt because I worked with him. From the very beginning we had developed a comradeship, a rapport, by knowing each other, understanding each other," Chatterjee said.
"I don't know what I would have done if he was not there. But I can say one thing for sure that many dreams would have remained unfulfilled. I couldn't have learnt so much. Even today he remains alive in me. Even today he is an inspiration for me," said Chatterjee.
Ray had first considered Chatterjee for the second part of the Apu trilogy "Aparajito", but decided against casting him as he was looking for a younger Apu.
"I had met him through a friend. But at that time I was a little too old for the role as he was looking for a younger Apu. So I was not selected. But when he decided to do 'Apur Sansar' he called me. Later on I came to know that he decided to make the third part after he saw me."
Going down memory lane, the 77-year-old actor - equally at ease in films and on stage - said during the shooting for "Apur Sansar" in Madhya Pradesh, Ray had instructed him to act in a scene in which he looked a trifle tired after trekking.
"So in order to master the scene I ran up and down the mountain repeatedly to appear tired. But at the end of the day, due to the running and cold weather, I fell sick, I had a real spasm."
"From that incident I learnt two lessons. Now I can fake tiredness while acting and I don't need to run up and down to become tired. At the same time my attraction for true acting helped me and it was necessary."
Chatterjee would not point out any particular role in Ray's films that gave him the most satisfaction.
"Working with him (through the years) is like working in one film. The journey is so exciting and fulfilling and a huge learning process too. I cannot differentiate between the roles I have done under him," he said.
Chatterjee said Ray did not follow any specific method in dealing with his actors. "He used to treat someone just like a doll, sometimes he used to guide someone. And for actors like me he used to give complete freedom. He had no fixed method. He used to employ that method which would bring the best out of the actor."
Asked whether he could have become the much-loved actor that he is today without Ray, Chatterjee paused for a moment. "Nobody can answer this question. Has there been no great actor outside Satyajit Ray? 'Apur Sansar' is also my Apu."