It’s been 67 years but for a Satyajit Ray loyalist, Subir Banerjee will never grow up. He will and always remain Apu, the protagonist of Ray’s iconic 1955 Bengali film Pather Panchali. As Banerjee reminisces about his ‘kakababu’ (as he fondly addressed Ray), it seems time has also frozen for this one-film-old actor, who leads a retired life in Kolkata now.
Often during the conversation at an event on Ray at 27th Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF), Banerjee pointed out the release date of Pather Panchali, August 26, 1955. “Bioscope korbe,” Ray had asked on his first meeting with Banerjee as a boy. The rest is history. Banerjee as Apu in Pather Panchali became the face of Indian Cinema.
Banerjee has never acted in any film post Pather Panchali, and many say he got lost in oblivion. He, however, still owes all his fame and name to his ‘kakababu’. “It started in 1955 and even in 2022, I get called to events as Apu. It’s all because of one man — ‘kakababu,” said Banerjee.
But Banerjee’s casting of Apu happened by chance. In fact, it was Bijoya, Ray’s wife, who spotted a boy (read Banerjee) playing near their Lake Avenue house in Kolkata. Ray was searching desperately for Apu since 1950, someone who would fit the description of eight-year-old Apu as mentioned in the novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay on which Pather Panchali was based. One afternoon, Bijoya saw Banerjee playing with his friends. “Kakababu used to stay near our Lake Avenue house. When I was called to their house, my mother asked my elder brother to accompany me. Kakababu saw me, and asked, “Bioscope korbe?” Without understanding, I just nodded. Maybe he was highly pleased with me. Kakababu took us to the roof and clicked a few photographs. It’s still with me. I was selected as Apu,” recalled Banerjee.
However, Banerjee’s mother was strictly against her son acting at that age. So much so, she went to her maternal house in Giridih with her son and even got his hair cut. But Ray had found his Apu after much scouting and he sent his trusted production manager Anil Choudhury to Giridih to get Banerjee. “The shooting of Pather Panchali started in 1952 and after three years of struggle with funds, ‘kakababu’ managed to complete the film,” he said.
But then, real trouble started for school-going Banerjee. “Pather Panchali won the Best Human Document award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956 and the media chased me. So, I used to hide under the bed,” said Banerjee. Sixty-seven years later, the story of a poor family in rural Bengal still engages the audience across the world. Still the innocence and curiosity of Apu evokes nostalgia and hope, and that is all because of one man — Satyajit Ray.