Kolkata: She held viewers captive with her stellar performances in mainstream Hindi cinema as epitomised by Raj Kapoor’s ‘Mera Naam Joker’ (1970) and also in so-called ‘art’ films such as Mrinal Sen’s 1973 movie ‘Padatik’ (The Guerrilla Fighter). However, according to Simi Garewal’s own admission, it is her role as Duli, the Santhal woman (the largest ethnic tribe in present-day Jharkhand state in India), in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Aranyer Din Ratri’ (1970) (Days and Nights in the Forest) that remains close to her heart like no other.
Years after she quit acting, Garewal made her way to living rooms across India with the prime time television talk show ‘Rendezvous with Simi Garewal’. On a quaint Sunday evening, even as the glitzy Mumbai studio floor was replaced with the Kalam lawns of the majestic Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, it was yesterday once more as Garewal held court for an hour of what can easily be tagged as ‘#Rendezvous Reloaded’.
The only big difference being that instead of Garewal quizzing her celebrity guest, this time, it was her turn to enlighten the audience with some lively banter on films, life, Ray, Sen and more … with Jayabrato Chatterjee playing moderator for the closing stages of the 10th Kolkata Literary Meet on March 27.
“When I came to know that Manik da [Manik being Ray’s nick name and ‘da’ as in elder brother] had cast me for ‘Aranyer Din Ratri’, I said ‘Wow! I’ll be working with the best director in the world!’”, said Garewal as she recounted the days when internet and WhatsApp didn’t exist even in one’s wildest dreams.
“In those days, we used to write a lot of letters and I still have all those letters and notes that Manik da had sent me, during and even years beyond our association for ‘Aranyer Din Ratri’,” said Garewal, who was introduced to Ray at Raj Kapoor’s birthday party in Mumbai. “Someone told me at the party that Ray had his eyes on me and I was like over the moon. This was the director whose films I had watched over and over again while I was in London and here I was, at a party in Mumbai, with the legendary director himself reportedly taking an interest in me!” Garewal said.
Recounting how much she and Ray, the director who won a Lifetime Achievement Oscar award, enjoyed playing word games, Garewal further said that during the shooting for ‘Aranayer Din Ratri’ and even years later, whenever Ray would come down to Mumbai, he used to tell Garewal that there was a new word game challenge for her.
“I have some extraordinary memories of shooting for ‘Aranyer Din Ratri’. We had travelled deep into Palamau [in Bihar] for our outdoor shoot. The place where we stayed had no electricity and the toilet had no flush! But it was such fun and it’s such a treasure-trove of memories of those days that I have. I remember, Soumitra da [Chatterjee], Samit Bhanja, Rabi da [Ghosh], Suvendu da [Chatterjee], Manik da and myself going out on those long walks post-dinner, deep inside the forest.
“And I was a bit anxious, initially, because Manik da had still not shot a single frame with me. He had only given me the dialogues to memorise. Then one night, post-dinner, Manik da took the entire cast to a place where the Santhal men and women would assemble for their nightly merrymaking. One Santal woman would suddenly plead for a drink, saying: ‘Babu, eh Babu, de na adha pauwa [‘Gentleman, o gentleman. Let me have half a drink’]. I shuddered, turned at Manik da and said: ‘My God, that’s my dialogue for tomorrow’s shoot!’ And Manik da smiled back, saying: ‘Now do you understand why I brought you here?’”
If Ray’s superiority as a master craftsman also manifest itself in making his cast and crew feel at ease, both on and off the set, then Mrinal Sen was the hard taskmaster who wouldn’t stop at anything to get the best out of an actor. Garewal reminisced her days with Sen during the filming of ‘Padatik’ — and particularly during the dubbing phase. Garewal recalled how a disgusted Sen one day walked out of the studios for a much-needed smoke break after Garewal, a non-Bengali, had failed for the 40th time to get that “Kyamon achhen” [How are you?] part of her dialogue right in the kind of Bengali accent that Sen wanted. Garewal had a hilarious tale to narrate.
“As Mrinal da walked out for a smoke break, I too thought I needed some fresh air and stepped out of the studio. And guess who I bumped on to? The legendary Dilip Kumar, or Yousuf saab, as we all used to call him. Yousuf saab was surprised to see me and said: ‘Hey Simi, what brings you here?’ I told him that I was dubbing for Mrinal da’s ‘Padatik’. Immediately, Yousuf saab expressed his desire to meet Mrinal da. As we turned around, we saw Mrinal da walking back to the studio. So I took Yousuf saab to Mrinal da and told him that Dilip Kumar had come to meet him. Yousuf saab, in all humility, walked up to Mrinal da, shook his hands and said: ‘O Mrinalda, ki mon achhen?’ And a flabbergasted Mrinal Sen thundered: ‘NO. It’s kyamon achhen!’”
The anecdotes continued, so did the walk down memory lane on the lawns of the venerable Victoria Memorial. The 10th edition of the Kolkata Literary Meet couldn’t probably have had a better parting shot, one thought.