Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray’s biographer, described Abhijan as “proof of Ray’s capacity to communicate with a mass audience when he wants.” Released in 1962, Abhijan (The Expedition) was Ray’s biggest commercial success in his native Bengal. Set in a small town on the Bengal-Bihar border, the film revolves around a potpourri of characters, who ‘by their very nature act more than they talk’. (Ray in conversation with Robinson; Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Ray originally had no plans of directing Abhijan. A producer friend, Bijoy Chatterjee, who along with some other friends was planning to direct a film, had requested him to write the script for Abhijan, a novel by acclaimed Bengali writer Tarashankar Bandopadhyay (the author of Jalsaghar). After the completion of the script, Ray got busy with the writing and shooting of Kanchenjunga, his first color film, which also showcased his first original screenplay and full-length music composition. Following the release of Kanchenjunga in 1962, he was at a loose end, and was persuaded by his friends to help with the pre-production of Abhijan. Ray attended the first day’s shooting as a “friendly gesture” and soon found himself directing the first scene. By the end of the day, his friends had successfully managed to persuade him to take over the reins of direction. As Ray puts it, “They lost their nerve…It was a kind of distress call – SOS!” (Ray in Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)
Ray decided to cast his regular Soumitra Chatterjee as the film’s hero, Narsingh. Chatterjee’s penchant for different kinds of Bengali slang convinced the director he would be able to carry off the role of the hot headed and proud taxi driver, with a passion for his vehicle, a 1930 Chrysler. With his height and refined features, the actor seemed to embody the Rajput (a North Indian warrior caste) Narsingh perfectly. Rabi Ghosh, a Bengali stage actor who had acted only in one film prior to Abhijan, was cast as Rama, Narsingh’s sidekick and comic foil. The actor later became immortal as Bagha Byne of the musical duo of Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne musicals. Ghosh’s stellar performance in Abhijan played a significant role in the film’s success. In fact, his feelings for the car seem more genuine than even Narsingh’s. After days of careful observation of taxi-cleaners at a taxi stand near his Calcutta home, Ghosh could imitate not only their mannerisms and ways of talking (which often leave words indistinct) but also their distinctive wolf-whistling. His only worry was that the audience might not accept him when, at the end of the film, he turns serious and pleads with Narsingh not to sell the car. However, the transition seemed to have ‘worked very well’. As Ray recalls, ‘There was no titter from the audience; the hall was absolutely in the grip of the film at that point. Rabi was so happy; he said, “All right, I have passed the test.”’ (Ray in Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Charuprakash Ghosh (Nanda Babu of Aparajito), a non-professional actor, was also “superb in his mixing of the comic and the sinister” as Sukhanram, the Marwari merchant whose piety was equaled only by his unscrupulous business practices. (Marwaris are a mercantile caste from Marwar in the desert state of Rajasthan who now control most of the businesses in eastern India)
The two other pivotal characters in the film are female and make a strong dramatic contrast. Ruma Guha Thakurta plays Neeli, the Catholic schoolteacher who Narsingh falls in love with and who inspires him to reform his ways. In his shooting notebook Ray described Neeli as ‘a quiet reserved girl who has completely outgrown – through education and her own strength of will – the traces of her low-caste origin. She has pride, dignity and intelligence.’ In spite of his disinclination for casting relatives, Ray chose Guha Thakurta, his wife, Bijoya’s cousin, for the role of the quiet and reserved Neeli. Hindi film actress Waheeda Rehman makes her first (and only) appearance in a Bengali film as the warm and demonstrative prostitute, Gulabi, who is in love with Narsingh. Ray, who was initially hesitant about casting Rehman, later described her as “a rare talent…an extremely sensitive artist”. The actress who made her debut as a vamp in the Guru Dutt film noir classic C.I.D. (1956) was one of the rare Bombay film heroines who combined mass appeal with critical acclaim. Though her usual fee was more than the budget of any of Ray’s films, she agreed to do Abhijan for a nominal sum since she was so eager to work with him. Abhijan was the first Ray film with a mainstream Hindi film star – a feat he would repeat later with Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players, 1977) and Sadgati (Deliverance, 1981). Waheeda Rehman co-starred with Soumitra Chatterjee recently in Aparna Sen’s English film, 15 Park Avenue (2006) and also plays a pivotal role in the Oscar nominated Water (dir. Deepa Mehta, 2006).
Apart from its Bombay star, Abhijan also marks another first in a Ray film – a fight scene. But Ray was disappointed with the scene – ‘The fight in Abhijan wasn’t staged very well…We were shooting in the height of summer. The temperature was 114 degrees in the shade and it was supposed to be winter, so they were all wearing warm clothes. It was physically an excruciatingly difficult scene to shoot…I would have wanted more shots, more close-ups, more of the business of the fight…I’d have very much liked a John Ford-type rough-and-tumble.’ (Ray in conversation with Andrew Robinson; Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) This would also be the last time that a fight scene was staged in a Ray film, with the exception of some fisticuffs in Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970).