We used to stay at Gendaria in Dhaka back then. One day I got a letter by post which said that eminent Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray wants to cast me in an adaptation of a Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay novel. I almost rolled down on the floor with laughter, and thought the letter to be a prank mail from one of my fans. I kept it aside rather casually like many other fan mails.
A few days later, I got a call from a senior liaison officer from the Indian High Commission in Dhaka. He told me that I probably didn’t take the letter seriously. Ray wanted me as the lead opposite Soumitra Chatterjee in Ashani Sanket, and that I should meet him in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the officer added.
Nanda Bhattacharya was the producer of the film. One of my sisters told me, now that the High Commission had called, the letter can’t be a hoax. Let’s go to Calcutta, she said.
The two of us went to Calcutta and were received by Bhattacharya. He arranged for our stay at the Grand Hotel in the heart of the city and said that our appointment with Ray was fixed later in the day. I applied full makeup and went to visit Ray at his home. He opened the door himself but I couldn’t look straight at him.
‘Oh, so you are Bobita. Come in please,’ he said.
Once we were seated, he asked, ‘Why have you come with all that makeup? I didn’t want to see you like that.’
I was now more frightened and couldn’t reply. I sat fixed and looked the other way without saying a word. Ray asked my sister, ‘She seems to be an introvert. Will she be able to act?’
My sister insisted, ‘She has acted in a few films back home and is now fairly popular.’
‘That’s good,’ said Ray. ‘I will give you three scripts, each of a romantic, serious, and drama-type. Learn them by heart and come to the studio tomorrow morning.’
I came back to the hotel quietly and started learning the lines. I couldn’t sleep the entire night and went to the studio next day. Ray looked and me and said, ‘You look more beautiful without makeup.’ He then called his makeup artiste and said, ‘Give her a simple saree. Apply sindoor and a bindi. No makeup.’
I appeared for the look test. Once I faced the camera, I forgot all my fears, and said my lines. One look through the viewfinder and Ray knew that I was a perfect fit for Angana—Gangacharan’s wife—the role I was supposed to play in the film. He realised that I was photogenic and hardworking. I remember him saying, ‘Eureka, I have got my Angana.’
Shooting started a few days later after some formalities.
Ray had a unique style of working. Ashani Sanket was canned in Shantiniketan. Production designer Ashoke Bose had erected the set of a thatched hut which was Gangacharan’s home. It looked exactly like a typical village hut with pumpkins and other vegetables growing on the roof. There was even a parrot in a cage and a stray dog on that set. It never seemed that the hut was erected for the shooting. Rather, it seemed as if Gangacharan’s house was there for many years.
I accompanied Ray to the Berlin International Film Festival in 1973 where Ashani Sanket premiered. It won the Golden Bear for the best film. I was exposed to the best of world cinema at Berlin which was a huge learning experience for me. Many would ask him who was I. ‘She is Bobita and is from Bangladesh,’ Ray would introduce me.
Ashani Sanket later went on to win several awards in India.
As told to Prothom Alo