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).
Though Abhijan was one of Ray’s most popular films, it failed to emulate the critical success of the Apu Trilogy, Jalsaghar (The Music Room), or Teen Kanya (Three Daughters). For noted film critic Chidananda Das Gupta, the film was symbolic of Ray’s “periodic urge to break out of the confines of what he is best reputed to do, and try his hand at something unfamiliar.” (Das Gupta, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray) Andrew Robinson regards Abhijan more as a “conscious response” to box-office failure that prompted him to make a film with “popular elements” without resorting to the excessive melodrama of commercial Bengali cinema. Abhijan is regarded as a departure from his usual style of filmmaking, and was also criticized for it’s ‘miscasting’ of the suave, urbane Soumitra Chatterjee as the semi-literate Rajput taxi driver. Though Marie Seton was impressed with Chatterjee’s transformation – “(with) a convincing beard and moustache…his sensitive personality (was) wholly submerged in the mature and roughened image of Narsingh” (Seton, Portrait of a Director) – she seems to be the sole voice of assent. For Das Gupta, “Chatterjee’s affinity to the urban literati is so marked that to make him put on a long beard, a permanently afflicted expression and false accent is one of the most uncharacteristic casting decisions Ray ever made. It simply does not ring true, ever.” (Das Gupta, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray) But as Robinson points out, maybe the weakness in Chatterjee’s performance was not simply a matter of miscasting, but more of “a subtle problem” – “The fact that Ray himself did not drive a car, meant that he was probably unable to enrich Narsingh’s love for his vehicle with telling details, as he successfully could do with the zamindar’s love of music in The Music Room (Jalsaghar). Somehow, Narsingh never convinces us that he is capable of tuning his own carburetor or adjusting his points, say; his love for the car seems always a bit artificial.” (Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) However, in spite of the critics’ verdict, Abhijan remains till date one of Ray’s most popular films in Bengal. Abhijan received the President’s Silver Medal from the Indian government (New Delhi, 1962).