[The story on which Dibakar Banerjee’s track, ‘Star’ in ‘Bombay Talkies’ is based]
Patol-babu had barely slung the shopping bag over his shoulder when Nishikanta-babu called from the street, ‘Are you there, Patol?’
Nishikanta Ghosh lived three houses down from Patol-babu on Nepal Bhattacharjee lane. A most entertaining man.
Emerging with his shopping bag, Patol-babu said, ‘What is it? You’re up early.’
‘Look, when will you be back?’
‘In an hour or so. Why?’
‘You’re not going out again, are you? It’s Tagore’s birthday, after all. I met my wife’s younger brother at Netaji Pharmacy yesterday. He works for the films – supplies actors. He told me he needs someone for a scene in a film. The sort of person he wants, you know – about fifty, short, bald – I thought of you at once. So I told him about you. I’ve asked him to talk to you directly. He said he’d be here around ten. You don’t mind, do you? They HAVE said they’ll pay, according to their rates…’
Patol-babu had certainly not expected such a proposal early in the morning. It was difficult for an insignificant man like him to anticipate an offer to act in a film at fifty-two. It was actually unbelievable.
‘Well, out with it. Yes or no? Didn’t you act or something once upon a time?’
‘Yes, that is to say, why should I say “no”? Let him come, let him give me the details. What did you say your brother-in-law’s name is?’
‘Naresh. Naresh Dutta. About thirty, tall, well-built. He said he’d come between ten and ten-thirty.’
At the market Patol-babu confused his wife’s instructions and bought chillies instead of mustard. As for the rock salt, he forgot entirely. Not that he should have been so surprised. Patol-babu had once been keenly interested in acting. It wasn’t merely an interest, it was in fact a passion. He routinely acted at jatra performances, amateur theatre shows, festivals, and local club celebrations. Patol-babu’s name had appeared on handbills many times. On one occasion it actually appeared at the bottom, singled out and highlighted in large letters – Appearing as Parashar, Shri Sitalakanta Roy (Patol-babu). There had even been a time when tickets were sold on his reputation alone.
However, he used to live in Kanchrapara at that time, with a job at the railway factory there. In 1934, Patol-babu moved to Calcutta with his wife when he got a slightly better-paying job at Hudson & Kimberley and a house on Nepal Bhattacharjee Lane. The first few years here had passed happily. Patol-babu’s boss at the office was quite fond of him. But, in 1943, when Patol-babu was on the verge of setting up a neigbourhood dramatic club, his war-hit company began to retrench employees, and his safe job of nine years vanished into thin air.
Since then, Patol-babu had spent all his days looking for ways to earn a living. He set up a stationery shop, but it didn’t survive beyond five years. Then he took a job as a clerk at a Bengali company for some time, but resigned, unable to tolerate the arrogance and unprovoked aggression of the Bengali Englishman Mr Mitter. In the ten years since then, starting with selling insurance, there was nothing that Patol-babu had not tried his hand at. But he had remained as hard-up as ever, living from hand to mouth as always. Of late he had been frequenting a scrap iron shop; a cousin of his had promised him a job there.
And acting? It seemed to belong to a different lifetime. A dim memory, a sigh that sprang up unexpectedly – that was all. It was just that Patol-babu had a fine memory, which enabled him to remember snatches of stirring dialogue from his roles. ‘Hark! The divine bow doth spring to life repeatedly, the allies march to battle. As the myriad roaring wind, the mace doth thunder mountain-like!’ Oh! The very thought still gave him goosepimples.
Naresh Dutta arrived precisely at twelve-thirty. Patol-babu had almost given up hope and was preparing to take a bath when there was a knock on the door.
‘Please come in!’ Opening the door, Patol-babu practically dragged the stranger into the room, offering him the chair with the broken arms and saying, ‘Please take a seat.’
‘Oh no, no time. Nishikanta-babu must have told you about me…’
‘Yes, yes he did. I was very surprised, though. After all these years…’
‘You don’t have any objection, do you?’
Patol-babu lowered his eyes to the floor in embarrassment.
‘But … er… will I do?’
Looking Patol-babu up and down gravely, Naresh-babu responded, ‘You’ll do very well indeed. It’s tomorrow, mind you.’
‘Yes… not at a studio, though. I’ll tell you where it is. You know Faraday House at the crossing of Mission Row and Bentinck Street, don’t you? A seven-storied building. Get there by eight – eight-thirty, latest. That’s where we’re shooting. I’ll let you go by noon.’
Naresh-babu made to leave. An anxious Patol-babu said, ‘But you haven’t told me about the role.’
‘Your role… is of a pedestrian’s. A passer-by, you see. An absent-minded, bad-tempered pedestrian… by the way, do you have a coat that buttons up all the way to the neck?’
‘I think so.’
‘Wear it. It’s a dark colour, I hope.’
‘Brownish. Warm, though.’
‘That’s fine. Our scene’s set in winter, it will fit in well… eight-thirty tomorrow, Faraday House.’
Another crucial question popped into Patol-babu’s head.
‘The role has some dialogue, I hope. I’ll have to say something, won’t I?’
‘You bet! A speaking part!… You’ve acted earlier, haven’t you?’
‘Um… yes, a little…’
‘There you are then! Why should I come to you if I just needed someone to walk past the camera? I could have just picked someone from the pavement. Of course there is dialogue and it’ll be given to you as soon as you arrive tomorrow. All right then…’
When Naresh Dutta had left, Patol-babu went to his wife and told her everything.
‘As far as I can see, this isn’t a major role; there’s a payment involved, yes, but that’s not the main thing either. The fact is – you remember my first role on the stage, don’t you? A dead soldier. I had to lie there with my mouth open and eyes closed. And the rest, as they say, is history. You remember Mr Watts shaking my hand? And the medal from our municipality chairman Charu Biswas? Well? This is just the first rung of the ladder, don’t you think? Respect, fame, renown, reputation – If I live, o my wife, I shall win them all…’
The fifty-two-year-old Patol-babu suddenly sprang in the air. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ said his wife.
‘Don’t worry! You remember how Sisir Bhaduri used to leap about while playing Chanakya at seventy? I’ve regained my youth today.’
‘If wishes were horses! No wonder you’re such a zero!’
‘I’ll be a hero soon! That reminds me – I’m going to have a cup of tea this afternoon, all right? With a little ginger juice, otherwise my voice…’
It was seven minutes past eight on the clock on the Metropolitan Building when Patol-babu reached Esplanade the next morning. It took him another ten minutes to reach Faraday House at the junction of Bentinck Street and Mission Row.
Elaborate arrangements were underway in front of the office gate. Three or four cars, one of them quite large – almost the size of a bus – with equipment piled on the roof. A three-legged black machine stood on the kerb; several people were bustling about. At the entrance a steel rod had been lain diagonally on a three-legged stand, with something resembling a beehive dangling from it. About thirty people were scattered about, among whom Patol-babu even noticed a few non-Bengalis, but he couldn’t quite make out what they were doing there.
But where was Naresh-babu? No one else knew Patol-babu.
Patol-babu advanced towards the gate, his heart thumping.
It was the month of May; the khaki coat buttoned up to the neck felt quite heavy. Patol-babu sensed beads of perspiration on his neck.
‘Here, Atul-babu… this way.’
Atul-babu? Patol-babu turned around to find Naresh-babu calling out to him from his position next to a pillar in the portico of the office. He had confused his name. Not surprising. They had only met once. Greeting him, Patol-babu said, ‘You may not have noted my name properly. Sitalakanta Roy. Though everyone knows me as Patol-babu. That’s what they called me on stage too.’
‘I see. You’re quite punctual, I notice.’
‘Nine years sat Hudson-Kimberley – never been late a single day. Not one.’
‘Wonderful. I’ll tell you what – why don’t you wait there in the shade? We’ll get things going in the meantime.’
‘Naresh!’ someone next to the three-legged machine called out.
‘Is he one of our people?’
‘Yes sir. He’s the one… you know, the collision…’
‘I see. All right. Now clear the area, will you? We’re going for a shot.’
Patol-babu took up a position beneath the awning of a paan-shop next to the office. He had never watched a bioscope being shot. It was all new to him. There was no resemblance with the theatre. And how hard these people worked. A young man of twenty-one or twenty-two was carrying the heavy machine around from one spot to another. It must be at least twenty or twenty-five kilos.
But where was his dialogue? There wasn’t much time. Yet Patol-babu still didn’t know what he would have to say.
He suddenly felt a little nervous. Should he go up to them? There was Naresh-babu; shouldn’t he talk to him? Whether the role was minor or major, he would have to prepare if he wanted to play it well. What if he made a fool of himself in the presence of so many people by muffing his lines? He hadn’t acted in twenty years, after all.
About to move forward, Patol-babu stopped on hearing someone shout.
Then Naresh-babu was heard saying, ‘We’re taking a shot now. Please be quiet, everyone. Do not talk, do not move, do not approach the camera.’
Then the first voice was heard again, shouting, ‘Silence! Taking!’ Patol-babu could see him now. A plump man of average appearance standing next to the three-legged machine; something like a pair of binoculars hung from a chain around his neck. Was this the director? How odd, he hadn’t even found out the name of the director.
Patol-babu heard a few more cries in succession. ‘Start sound!’ ‘Running!’ ‘Action!’
As soon as the word ‘action’ was uttered, Patol-babu saw a car drive up and stop in front of the office, and a young man in a suit with pink-paint on his face practically tumbled out and strode up to the office gate before stopping. The next moment Patol-babu heard a cry, ‘Cut!’ and at once the silence was broken by a hubbub in the crowd.
‘Recognised the fellow?’ asked a man standing next to Patol-babu, leaning towards him.
‘I’m afraid not,’ said Patol-babu.
‘Chanchalkumar,’ replied his neighbour. ‘Rising star. Acting in four films at the same time.’
Patol-babu rarely went to the bioscope, but he thought he had heard of this Chanchalkumar a couple of times. It was this young man that Koti-babu had been praising the other day. His make-up was rather good. Replace that western suit with a dhoti and put him on a peacock – he’d make a perfect Kartik. Monotosh aka Chinu from Kanchrapara had similar looks; Chinu used to be terrific in female roles.
Leaning towards his neighbour again, Patol-babu asked in a whisper, ‘And what’s the director’s name?’
‘You don’t know?’ asked the man in surprise. ‘That’s Baren Mullick, of course – three hits in a row.’
Thank goodness. He had gathered all the necessary information. He would have been in trouble otherwise if his wife were to ask whom he had acted with and in whose film.
Naresh brought Patol-babu a cup of tea.
‘Here you are sir, this will clear your throat. We’ll call you any minute now.’
Patol-babu couldn’t help but come to the point.
‘If you could give me my dialogue now…’
‘Dialogue? Come with me.’
Naresh walked towards the three-legged machine, followed by Patol-babu.
A young man in half sleeves approached. Naresh told him, ‘This gentleman is asking for his dialogue. Write it out on a piece of paper, will you? That collision thing…’
Shashanka turned to Patol-babu.
‘Come with me, dadu… give me your pen for a minute, Jyoti. I have to write the dialogue for dadu.’
The young man named Jyoti handed the red pen in his pocket to Shashanka, who ripped a sheet out of the notebook in his hand, wrote something in it, and gave it to Patol-babu.’
Patol-babu discovered a single word written on it – ‘Aah!’
Patol-babu felt his head reel suddenly. He wished he could take his coat off. The heat was unbearable.
‘You seem disturbed, dadu,’ commented Shashanka. ‘Too difficult?’
Were they mocking him? Was the whole thing a massive joke? A farce enacted around a harmless, uncomplaining man on the busy streets of a busy city? Could people possibly be so cruel?
‘I don’t quite understand,’ said Patol-babu, his throat dry.
‘Just “aah”? No other lines?’
Raising his eyebrows, Shashanka said, ‘What are you saying, dadu? You think this is nothing? This is a regular speaking role. A speaking role in Baren Mullick’s film – are you serious? You’re a lucky man, I tell you. Do you know that at least a hundred and fifty people have acted in this film of ours without a speaking role? They merely walked past the camera. Some didn’t even walk, merely stood on the spot. Not everyone’s face was visible, for that matter. Even today – look at those people standing next to the lamp-post. They’re all in today’s scene, but none of them has any dialogue. Even our hero Chanchalkumar has no dialogue today. You’re the only one speaking.’
Now the young man named Jyoti came up to Patol-babu, putting a hand on his shoulder. ‘Listen to me dadu – let me explain. Chanchalkumar is a senior manager in this office. In this scene we show him rushing into the office after hearing of a theft. That’s when you come in his way – a pedestrian – all right? You collide with him – all right? After the collision you say “Aah!”, but Chanchal rushes in without paying any attention to you. Ignoring you brings out the state of his mind – all right? Do you see how important the whole thing is?’
Shashanka came up to him again. ‘Now you know. Can you wait over there now? Can’t have a crowd gathering here. There’s one more shot before we call you.’
Patol-babu drifted towards the paan-shop again. Stopping beneath the awning, he threw a sidelong glance at the piece of paper in his hand and then, checking to see whether anyone was watching, crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the drain.
He emitted a heartfelt sigh.
Just one word – not even a word, a sound – aah!
The heat was becoming unbearable. The coat felt like it weighed a tonne. He couldn’t remain standing anymore, his legs were like lead.
Patol-babu went up to the flight of steps on the other side of the paan-shop and sat on them. Nine-thirty. Karali-babu played devotional songs at home on Sunday mornings – Patol-babu went regularly. He enjoyed himself there. Should he go? What harm would it do? What use was it wasting Sunday morning in the company of these rotten, shallow people? He would have to bear the burden of the humiliation too if he stayed.
To hell with your silence. It’s all talk and very little work. The theater in comparison…
The theatre… the theatre…
A faint memory rose in Patol-babu’s mind from the past. Invaluable advice given to him in a deep, controlled and yet melodious voice: ‘Remember this, Patol. There is no humiliation in playing a minor role. Your achievement as an artist will be in extracting the last possible ounce of feeling from that insignificant role to make it a successful performance. The theatre is a group activity. The success of the play is built only on the success of each individual.’
It was Pakrashi-moshai who had given this advice to Patol-babu. Gagan Pakrashi. Patol-babu’s guru on the stage. An extraordinary actor, Gagan Pakrashi was not in the least bit arrogant. A saintly man, and the finest artiste among artistes.
There was one more thing that Pakrashi-moshai used to say. ‘Every line of dialogue in a play is a fruit hanging from a tree. It’s not within everyone’s reach. Even those who can pluck it may not know how to peel it. It’s your responsibility – the actor’s. You must know how to pluck the fruit, peel it, squeeze its juice out and serve it to people.
Recalling Gagan Pakrashi, Patol-babu instinctively bowed his head in respect.
Was his role today really meaningless? He would have to utter just the one word – aah. But could the dialogue be dismissed simply because it was just a single word?
Aah, aah, aah, aah – Patol-babu began to recite the word in different ways, with different intonations. As he did, he made a remarkable discovery. That one word, expressed in different ways, could bring out different states of mind. The way you said ‘aah!’ when pinched slyly was quite different from the way you said it after a cool drink on a hot day. And yet another kind of ‘aah’ emerged when tickled in the ear. There were many other aahs besides – sighing, contemptuous, or hurt; a quick ‘ah’ or a prolonged ‘aaaaaah’; loud or soft, pitched high or low – or even starting on a low pitch and rising to a high one. Incredible! Patol-babu felt he could write an entire dictionary of that one particular word.
Why had he felt so disheartened? This word was an absolute gold mine. A worthy actor could hit the jackpot with this single word.
The director emitted a roar again. Patol-babu discovered Jyoti pushing the crowds away near him. He had something to tell the fellow. Patol-babu strode up to him.
‘How much longer, my boy?’
‘Why so impatient, dadu? You can’t be in a hurry over these things. Wait another half an hour or so.’
‘Of course, of course. I’ll wait. I’ll be nearby.’
‘Don’t run away, ok?’
Without a sound, Patol-babu stole away into a quiet, secluded lane across the road. He was pleased to have some time before the shot. Since these people weren’t going to bother with a rehearsal or anything, he would practise his role on his own. The lane was deserted. This was a business area – which meant there weren’t too many residents. Moreover, it was Sunday. The handful of people who did live here had gone off to Faraday House to watch the shooting.
Clearing his throat, Patol-babu proceeded to gain mastery over the special ‘aah’ in this special scene of the day. Using his reflection in a glass window, he perfected various aspects of his performance – how much his face would be contorted after the collision, how far his arms would be knocked back and what angle they would assume, how widely the fingers would be splayed, and what the position of his feet would be.
Patol-babu was summoned exactly half an hour later; he was no longer dispirited. His anxiety had vanished too, leaving behind only a suppressed excitement and a thrill – the feeling that he used to have twenty-five years ago before appearing in an important scene on the stage.
Waving Patol-babu over, Baren Mullick the director said, ‘You’ve understood the scene, I hope.’
‘Very well. First I will say, “Start sound”. The sound recordist will respond with “Running”. The camera will start rolling at once. Then I will say, “Action!” You will immediately start walking from the pillar in this direction, while the hero gets out of the car and walks towards the office gate. You must ensure that the collision takes place at this spot on the pavement. Ignoring you, the hero will walk through the office gate, while you will say, “Aah!’ in annoyance and continue walking. All right?’
‘A rehearsal…’ proposed Patol-babu.
‘Oh no,’ interrupted Baren-babu. ‘It’s getting cloudy. There’s no time for a rehearsal. We must take the shot while the sun’s still out.’
‘It’s just that…’
Patol-babu had had an idea while rehearing in the lane. Mustering his courage, he spoke about it.
‘I was thinking… er… if I had a newspaper in my hand, and if I were to be reading it when we collide… you know, to bring out the sense of absent-mindedness…’
Before he could finish Baren Mullick said, ‘Excellent… you there, can you give your newspaper to this gentleman… yes. Now go take your position by the pillar over there. Ready, Chanchal?’
‘Yes sir,’ answered the star, standing by his car.
Baren Mullick raised his arm, and then lowered it the very next moment. ‘Just a minute. Keshto, give the gentleman a moustache, quickly. The character isn’t coming through.’
‘What kind, sir? Bushy, handlebar or butterfly? I have all kinds.’
‘Butterfly. Quick, don’t take too long.’
Approaching Patol-babu, a short, dark man with backbrushed hair took a small black false moustache out of a tin box and glued it beneath his nose.
‘The collision won’t make it come off, I hope,’ said Patol-babu.
‘Never mind a collision,’ smiled the young man, ‘you could wrestle with Dara Singh and it still won’t come off.’
He was holding a mirror. Patol-babu took a quite look at himself. Yes – it suited him very well indeed. He couldn’t help admiring the director’s eye.
A buzz had risen amidst onlookers at the sight of the moustache being put on. it died at Baren-babu’s roar.
Patol-babu noticed that most of the audience gathered at the spot were staring at him.
Patol-babu cleared his throat. One, two, three, four, five… Patol-babu would have to take approximately five steps to get to the spot earmarked for the collision. And Chanchalkumar would probably have to take four. So if they set off simultaneously, Patol-babu would have to walk a little faster, or else…
Patol-babu held his newspaper up in front of his face. If he could just mix sixty per cent annoyance with 40 per cent astonishment when saying ‘aah’…
Praise the lord!
Clomp clomp clomp clomp clomp…. bangggg! Patol-babu saw stars. His forehead had struck the hero’s practically head-on. A sharp pain almost made him unconscious for a moment.
But the very next moment he applied tremendous willpower to recover, and, uttering the word ‘Aah!’ with sixty per cent annoyance, twenty per cent astonishment and twenty per cent agony, he gathered his newspaper and continued on his way.
‘Was it all right?’ An anxious Patol-babu went up to Baren Mullick.
‘Fantastic! You’re a very good actor, you know… Suren, use the filter to find out if it’s going to get darker.’
‘No injuries, I hope, dadu?’ Shashanka came up and asked him.
Chanchalkumar walked up, rubbing his forehead. ;What timing! For a moment there I didn’t know whether I was alive or dead…’
Naresh pushed his way through the people gathered there. ‘Come into the shade here. One more shot and then I’ll clear your…’
Patol-babu made his way through the crowd, wiping his perspiration, and stopped once again in front of the paan shop. The clouds had covered the sun, and it was no longer as hot; but still Patol-babu took his coat off. Ah, how pleasant! A deep joy and self-satisfaction slowly suffused his mind and heart.
He had performed really well today. The years of disuse had not blunted his artistic sensibility. Gagan Pakrashi would have been genuinely pleased. But had these people understood? Had the director Baren Mullick understood? Would they value the enthusiasm and effort he had put into playing his role flawlessly? Did they have the capability for it? Their involvement probably ran as far as getting people to act and paying them. Payment! How much? Five, ten, fifteen? He did need money… but what was five rupees in comparison to his happiness today?
Naresh didn’t find Patol-babu when he went looking for him about ten minutes later. Had he left without his payment? How absent-minded!
‘The sun’s out,’ shouted Baren Mullick. ‘Silence! Silence!… Come here, Naresh, control the crowds!’