Cinema - Jeetu Kamal as Ray
Making of a masterpiece: Jeetu Kamal playing the character of Satyajit Ray in upcoming Bengali release 'Aparajito,' a tribute on the director's birth centenary. Image Credit: Twitter

Kolkata: It’s not easy to be in the shoes of Jeetu Kamal, who till the other day, was another promising actor in regional TV serials in Bengali being churned out dime-a-dozen in Kolkata. Come Friday, he will be under the scanner like never before as he plays Satyajit Ray, the film maestro in Aparajito (The Unvanquished) - a feature film inspired by his journey of making the classic Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), will hit the theatres in the state.

The buzz around the City of Ray is palpable as the posters and hoardings with his cutouts plastered around the city underline the uncanny similarity between a Ray in his early days and the actor. The physical similarity may have landed him the part, but Kamal’s performance in such a demanding role and the nuanced nature of the film has increased the expectations after it was screened alongside a Ray retrospective at the National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai on Ray’s birthday on May 2.

Director Anik Dutta and Kamal were present at the screening which marked the inauguration of a Satyajit Ray Gallery in Mumbai, where veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal turned up to watch the film. Benegal, a doyen of the parallel cinema movement in the country in the ‘70s, was also the maker of the first and most definitive documentary on Ray - was awestruck by the similarity between Ray and the Kolkata-based actor.

Satyajit Ray, whose birth centenary was celebrated this year after the Covid restrictions were lifted, at work. Image Credit: GN Archive

Is he feeling the butterflies in the stomach on the eve of the film’s release? ‘‘Not really. It’s true that I am anxious about how the audience will accept me in the role of the Renaissance man of Bengal, but I see this from the point of view of challenges for an actor. I did not accept any other assignment for more than eight months and tried my best to get into the mindset and behaviour of such a towering personality. The job is now done, and it’s for the audience to decide how far I have been successful,’’ Kamal told Gulf News during an interview on Wednesday.

The film is not exactly a biopic of Ray, nor a remake or sequel of the second film of Apu Trilogy of the same name (Aparajito), but it relives the struggle through the character of a young filmmaker Aparajito Roy who wants to make a film called Pather Padaboli (read: Pather Panchali) with a idiom completely his own. The lines between fact and fiction blur somewhere down the line - and it's director Dutta's own way of paying tribute to the filmmaker on his 100th birth anniversary.

‘‘It is not a literal account of how Pather Panchali was made. In my film, a character called Aparajito Roy, aka Apu, is set to make Pather Padaboli. What I wish to say is if you have self belief in your ability to achieve your dreams, then one day you can see these dreams coming true,’’ Dutta said in a recent interview.

The build-up to Aparajito, which is anyway being billed as the first attempt at a biopic on Ray has been huge - so is the pressure of expectations on the lead actor. Asked if this could be a life-changing experience for him, actor Kamal gave a reality check: ‘‘See, I certainly see this film as a high point of my career but not exactly a life-changing one. I will then be doing injustice to the TV industry of which I have been a part of for last 10-12 years and they have shown so much faith in me.’’

Cinema - Jeetu Kamal & Saayoni Ghosh
Jeetu Kamal and Saayoni Ghosh, his co-actor who plays the role of Ray's wife, during one of the film's promotions. Image Credit: Twitter

Looking back in time, how did the director start conceiving Kamal - who looks much younger and slimmer without make-up in the role of Ray? ‘‘It seems Anik da had first seen me at a rally of actors and found some similarity in my body language and behaviour which possibly set him thinking. He had initially cast me to play the younger version of Ray but later, in somewhat fortuitious circumstances, I was selected for the entire role,’’ he said.

The first photoshoot, which Kamal did as part of a look test around last September, produced some stunning results. “It was quite a hectic day for me as I had gone there by taking a break from my shoot for TV serials. I was given clothes, a make-up artist did his bit and I was asked to pose following the reference pictures of Mr Ray that I was shown earlier. I came back home around 11 at night when Anik da texted me and asked to check some photographs but only on the big screen and not on phone.

“I checked my email and downloaded a series of black-and-white pictures. When I saw it, I was like, why Anik da is sending me these old pictures of Ray, I have already seen them. When I called him and said the same, he shot back: ‘You idiot! that’s you, looking like Mr Ray. You passed the look test!’ I still remember getting the goosebumps when I looked at those pictures closely again. It was like I was born to play Mr Ray on-screen!,” said Kamal.

The look may have sorted itself with a bit of prosthetics, but how did he prepare himself for the role? ‘‘See, I had given it my all. I shut myself in my room and started to dress the way Ray did at home (kurta-pyjama) and had videos of him giving interviews, public speeches, shooting etc playing all day long to help me follow his behaviour as best as I can,’’ he revealed.

It’s obvious that at the end of the creative process, Kamal is still carrying a piece of Ray inside him. ‘‘When I visited Mumbai for the screening of the film earlier this month, I preferred to dress in dhoti-kurta as he often did at film festivals. I also haven’t taken up any assignments for sometime as the promotions etc will need me to travel,’’ said Kamal, who had been a part of several long running TV soaps in his career.

The film Aparajito features Saayoni Ghosh in the role of Ray’s wife, Paran Bandopadhyay and Debojyoti Mishra has composed the music.