As most actors tend to be, Madhabi Mukherjee is conscious about being photographed without make-up. “Politicians don’t care about their appearance, but as actors, we have to be conscious about the way people see us. We have the responsibility to live up to their expectations,” says Mukherjee. She needn’t be, though, because Mukherjee manages to light up any frame in any role, whether it be Arati of Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963), who angrily confronts her boss when he fires her Anglo-Indian colleague Edith, or Sita of Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnarekha (1962), who kills herself when her brother walks into her chamber in a brothel, or Charulata in Ray’s Charulata (1964), in which she plays a lonely housewife seen holding an opera glass, an image that stayed with Indian cinema forever. As Charulata, widely considered to be Ray’s most accomplished work, celebrates its 50th year, Mukherjee tells us about being Ray’s ideal heroine.
How did Charulata happen?
I was working with Ray in Mahanagar when he told me that he wanted to adapt (Rabindranath) Tagore’s novella Nashtanir and was thinking of me as Charulata. Needless to say, I was very excited. For most Bengali actors, the opportunity of playing a Tagore heroine was considered a great honour. I knew that Ray would do something great with this film.
You are most remembered as Charulata, but it was Mahanagar, which many feel was Ray’s most feminist work. What are your views?
When I first read the script of Mahanagar, I was stunned by its boldness. Here was a filmmaker who talked about equality of sexes at a time when no one did. At the end of the film, when both the husband and wife lose their jobs, the husband consoles the wife, saying that at least one of us will find a job in this metropolis. That’s when they become equal citizens of the country.
Do you think the sensitivity with which he handled Charulata was a progression of that?
Ray was already initiated in that respect. Look at the way he treated Sarbajaya in the Apu trilogy. Even when she was being cruel to Indir Thakrun in Pather Panchali (1954), he was not judging her. Rather, he sympathised with her. Charulata was always meant to be about the lead character’s loneliness, her yearning for something more.
Did you have to prepare a lot for the role?
Ray had an amazing ability to foresee his characters even before he made a film. He chose actors to fit those moulds. I guess I was a good fit for Charulata, so that was half the battle won. I did have to learn a few things that were in keeping with those times, like learning how to embroider. Ray arranged for a teacher for that.
What about your look?
My look was very simple and traditional. I wore the sari in the traditional way. I guess it was the way Ray and Subrata Mitra (cinematographer) captured me. I remember how Mitra had me put this special pancake when I faced the camera. That’s the only make-up I did.
Did you ever have arguments with Ray regarding the way your character was realised? Did Ray give his actors creative freedom to interpret their characters, considering he is known to be unrelenting about his vision?
He was a creative genius. He knew how to draw out performances out of his actors. To me, he would give complete freedom. He would explain the scene and mood and then ask me to do my own thing. I guess he trusted me as an actor.
Tell us about the iconic opera glass sequence.
Bansi Chandragupta created a beautiful set for the sequence. Ray told me that the opera glass is a metaphor for the distance between Charulata and her husband. She uses the opera glass to bring things closer to her. While shooting the film, I didn’t fully realise that it will be an incredible tableau where the camera follows Charulata around the house on what seems to be a typical afternoon in her life. While executing the sequence, I just internalised that concept.
Did you travel with the film to different festivals?
I haven’t ever travelled anywhere with my films. I could have gone to Berlin for Charulata, but had I gone, my co-star Sailen Mukherjee wouldn’t have, so I backed out.
Charulata is widely considered to be Ray’s ideal heroine. She embodied his sensibility. Do you think that’s a burden?
I will always consider Charulata as my most accomplished work. I don’t know what it means to be an ideal Ray heroine. However, I remember once (filmmaker) Rituparno Ghosh told me that he went to a festival abroad and saw my picture as Charulata, amongst stills of iconic films of world cinema, and how he was overcome with pride. He said he felt a surge of warmth and comfort in that foreign land after seeing that picture — me holding the opera glass. That picture will always stay with me.