A departure in autumn

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Soumitra Chatterjee, the quintessential ‘Bhadralok’ – a cultured gentleman –
actor from Bengal passed away last week. NT BUZZ pays tribute to the elegant thespian who had been a major performing force in the Bengali film industry as well as on the Bengali stage since the last
six decades

RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT BUZZ

Exactly eleven years ago to this month, the eminent Bengali actor, Soumitra Chatterjee was in Goa along with Sharmila Tagore at the International Film Festival of India, to commemorate the golden jubilee year of their debut film, ‘Apur Sansar’ (1959) directed by the iconic filmmaker, Satyajit Ray. At that time Chatterjee had said that there was no specific reason for his decision of not working in Hindi films. “I had to make a choice to go and settle in Mumbai, and then come back occasionally to Kolkota, or stay in Kolkota and work in Bengali films,” the actor had stated, pointing out that had he moved to Mumbai, he would have had to change his lifestyle and his involvement in Bengali stage and poetry that was so dear to him. “I was also very young and probably did not give importance to earning more money,” he had noted.

Chatterjee, the muse and to some extent the screen alter ego of Satyajit Ray, like his mentor – with whom he had 14 screen collaborations – felt comfortable working in Bengali films. That may be the reason why he never tried to move out from Bengal to Bollywood like his contemporary Uttam Kumar, the matinee idol of Bengali cinema. From ‘Apur Sansar’ to ‘Sraboner Dhara’ (2020), he stuck with Bengali films and rightly gathered significance of colossal proportions in his native land. 

Born in a middle class Bengali family in the then Calcutta, Chatterjee spent the first ten years of his early life in Krishnanagar, in West Bengal. He graduated with honours in Bengali literature, and did his post-graduation in Bengali from the University of Calcutta. He learned his acting skills under the noted actor-director of Bengali theatre, Ahindra Choudhury. Subsequently, he began working at All India Radio as an announcer, and at the same time started pursuing a career in films. Chatterjee came in touch with Ray during the casting for ‘Aparajito’ (1956), the second part of the Apu Trilogy. Ray was looking for an actor to play adolescent Apu and found the fresh-out-of-college 20-year-old lad too old for the role. Ray however remembered him and offered him the role of adult Apu two years later in the third part of the trilogy, ‘Apur Sansar’. Meanwhile, he was rejected in his screen test for a Bengali film, ‘Nilachale Mahaprabhu’ (1957) directed by Kartik Chattopadhyay.

Despite being selected by Ray, as a debutant actor Chatterjee was quite unsure about his career choice, especially his looks, He didn’t consider himself photogenic, however, on August 9, 1958, when the first shot of the film was accepted in a single take, he realised that he had found his vocation. Interestingly, Ray believed that the young actor with a beard looked like Rabindranath Tagore in his younger days.

After ‘Apur Sansar’, there was no looking back for the actor. He worked with Ray in his every alternate film, if not every film. This collaboration was akin to similar associations in the global cinema such as Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, Marcello Mastroianni and Federico Fellini, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, Max von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman, and Jerzy Stuhr and Krzysztof
Kieslowski.

After ‘Apur Sansar’, he also worked with Sharmila Tagore in a number of Ray films, apart from working with leading star actor of the period, Uttam Kumar, in eight films.

In his memoir published in 2015 and titled, ‘Manik dar Songe’ (The Master and I: Soumitra on Satyajit), Chatterjee had said that Ray was possessive about him in a different way, like a father is about his son. “Well, every time Manik da made a film, I would have been happy to do it, but that was not possible,” he had stated about working with Ray, further pointing out, “I was working in many films. He became my mentor. It is from him that I came to know more about films. I was a keen student of literature. That helped me to converse with him about various things. I used to borrow books, including those about cinema and acting, from him. It was a complex but enjoyable relationship.”

“Whenever I work in a film, I try to go deeper into the character. Manik da had already given me so many kinds of roles such as Amulya in ‘Samapti’ (‘Teen Kanya’, 1961), Narsingh in ‘Abhijaan’ (1962), Gangacharan in ‘Ashani Sanket’ (1973), which I could strongly relate to as I come from a small town (Krishnanagar in Nadia district) and had experienced the aftermath of the 1943 Bengal famine,” Soumitra had maintained, pointing out, “However, I was happy about one fact when I became Feluda. I was finally playing a character that my children would love.”

Feluda, the private investigator, who was as popular as his counterparts Sherlock Holmes and Byomkesh Bakshi, through the novels of Ray, was first brought on the screen by Ray himself in the 1974 film, ‘Sonar Kella’ and then in ‘Joi Baba Felunath’ (1979), with Chatterjee playing the adventurous sleuth and receiving overwhelming response from the audiences.

Chatterjee also acted in a number of films, which were not directed by Ray. He played an impostor in Mrinal Sen’s ‘Akash Kusum’ (1965), and the swashbuckling horse-riding villain in Tapan Sinha’s ‘Jhinder Bandi’ (1961), which was adapted from the novel, ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ by Anthony Hope. In 1969, the actor was seen with Tanuja in ‘Teen Bhubaner Pare’ (1969). During the 1980s and the 1990s, Chatterjee started working with contemporary directors such as Goutam Ghose, Aparna Sen, Anjan Das, Rituparno Ghosh and Sandip Ray, and even acted on television during the golden years of Doordarshan. In 1986, he played the role of a swimming coach in the film, ‘Kony’.

As the actor matured, he expanded the ambit of his roles, while new directors in Bengali films recognised the same and wrote roles keeping him in mind. ‘Shadows of Time’ (2004) a highly emotional Bengali-language German film, shot in Calcutta and directed by Academy Award-winning director, Florian Gallenberger saw him in a poignant role with actress, Sova Sen, the widow of actor, Utpal Dutt. ‘Paanch Adhyay’ (2012) directed by Pratim D Gupta, ‘Hemlock Society’ (2012) directed by Srijit Mukherji, ‘Rupkatha Noy’ (2013), directed by Atanu Ghosh, ‘Shunyo Awnko’ (2013) directed by Goutam Ghose, ‘Bela Seshe’ (2015) directed by Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee, ‘Posto’ (2017) directed by Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee, and ‘Mayurakshi’ (2017) directed by Atanu Ghosh were the new-age films in which he acted. ‘Mayurakshi’ had him playing an 84-year-old father gradually slipping into dementia, who is visited by his US-based son. He recently appeared in a spiritual sequel to ‘Bela Seshe’ called ‘Bela Shuru’ (2020), which is complete but got stuck due to the ongoing corona pandemic.

After a two-decade long busy career as a leading man of Bengali cinema, Chatterjee returned to theatre in 1978, with his production ‘Naam Jiban’, staged at Biswarupa Theatre in Kolkata. This led to other plays like ‘Rajkumar’ (1982), ‘Phera’ (1987), ‘Nilkantha’ (1988), ‘Ghatak Biday’ (1990) and ‘Nyaymurti’ (1996), beside notable plays such as ‘Tiktiki’ (1995), an adaptation of the Anthony Shaffer play, ‘Sleuth’ and ‘Homapakhi’ (2006). In addition, he wrote and directed several plays, translated a few and also branched out to poetry reading in recent decades. Since November 2010, the actor regularly performed the title role in the play, ‘Raja Lear’, a play based on ‘King Lear’ by William Shakespeare. He received widespread critical acclaim and popular accolades for his acting in this play.

Chatterjee received honours from varied quarters during his lifetime, ranging from Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1998) to Padma Bhushan (2004) to Dadasaheb Phalke Award (2011). He won the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Awards eight times in his career. On the international level, the French government conferred on him the Commandeur de l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1999 and Chevalier of Legion d’Honneur in 2017, as also he was the subject of a full-length documentary named ‘Gaach’ made by the French film director, Catherine
Berge. He was also presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Naples Film
Festival, Italy.

A highly intellectual personality, Chatterjee was elegance personified. He was also a well-read and well-informed person. According to actress Sharmila Tagore, who acted with him in many films, he was very different from his contemporaries. She recalled that during the shooting of the film, ‘Abar Aranye’ (2003) – featuring the characters from Satyajit Ray’s ‘Aranyer Din Ratri’ – in north Bengal, the crew would gather every evening and listen to Soumitra Chatterjee interacting with the Bengali actor, Subhendu Chatterjee as they discussed myriad topics. “It was such a joy to hear somebody so well-read and erudite; I wish I had recorded those conversations!” she noted.

Satyajit Ray’s son, Sandip mourning the death of the thespian has said, “It is extremely unfortunate that Soumitra babu is no more. Men like him are rare, today. Let’s say, they don’t make men like him anymore.” That encapsulates the life Soumitra Chatterjee lived and the work he did! He has now joined the league of other extraordinary Bengali personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Uday Shankar, Ravi  
Shankar, Hemant Kumar, Salil Chowdhury, Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen, and many others, who continue to exist in public memory long after their departure.