Why you should care
Because cinema stars like her exemplify and amplify human experience.
Do you know Sharmila Tagore, possibly the most beautiful actress in movie history? If you answer “No,” that means you don’t know the films of Satyajit Ray, the Indian director who featured Tagore in her most moving roles, starting with The Apu Trilogy (1958–1960), now remastered and reissued to astound the world again as it — and Tagore — first did more than 50 years ago.
Tagore appears in the trilogy’s concluding film as Aparna, the bride of Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee), the Bengali youth who moves from the country to the city and eventually to marriage and fatherhood. Tagore enters with breathtaking delicacy and enigmatic grace, but through Ray’s great artistry and sensitivity Tagore/Aparna’s mystery doesn’t last long. She becomes the embodiment of acceptance, compassion, loving-kindness and sacrifice — a female icon such as the cinema, an art form of icons, has rarely seen and never surpassed.
Preceding the social and philosophical revolution of the feminist movement, Ray’s trilogy depicted the place that men and women occupy in their own world history — and in metaphysical existence — using such spiritual detail and depth that his films transcend all isms except humanism. Despite the trilogy’s male protagonist, Ray’s depiction of Aparna expands our understanding of human experience — just as surely as Tagore transcends our trite, idolatrous notions of what is feminine and what is beautiful.
Most Western screen heroines have been white and constricted within the culture’s patriarchal notions of fascination and appeal — recently represented in the Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara catastrophe Hot Pursuit. Looking at Tagore as she quietly overpowers her educated husband’s expectations of the world re-educates us on what defines beauty.
Tagore’s youthful elegance may recall doelike Audrey Hepburn, but the darker cast of her skin, the almond outline of her eyes, full lips and, particularly, her contemplative calm have an undeniably Eastern aspect. But Ray directs the young actress (age 15 during the Apu Trilogy) to personify a kind of timelessness. Aparna’s brief characterization is no less memorable than Apu’s. Her innocence matches his but she also illustrates a sexual difference that, in their compatibility, makes them equal. Given the nature of Ray’s astonishing art and cinema technology, even the infinite seems fleeting.
Following The Apu Trilogy, Ray cast Tagore, granddaughter of the great Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, in his 1963 film Devi, the story of a girl driven mad when her elders mistake her for a goddess. So awareness of gender entrapment resolves in Ray and his actress’s mid-20th-century creative partnership. The subtlety of their characterizations combine intelligence, feeling and exquisite physical movement, as few female images have in the century or more of cinematic portraiture.
Take the close-up of Aparna’s eye, framed by a torn curtain, after she arrives at her new husband’s hovel. Her tearful disappointment animates the simple composition, making it lovely and complex. There is movement-of-mind in her eye plus a soulful transition as Aparna assesses her circumstance then herself. Her eye seems more honeyed than opaque; her evaluation and judgment show the emotional process of wisdom.
In a memorable exchange discussing poverty and affection with Apu, Aparna expresses a sly but profound companionship. This chaste instant — showing pure love — may be the most intimate portrait of a marriage ever put on the screen.
To finally know Sharmila Tagore’s image is to realize that movies can represent humanity magnificently. Attractive as she is, Tagore isn’t a sex symbol in the sense by which Hollywood perpetually limits our perspective and curbs our empathy. Better than that, she represents the most splendid, awe-inspiring potential in human relations and the possibility in life. She achieves the sublime.