Soumitra Chatterjee acted in 14 films directed by Satyajit Ray which comprised many diverse layers of characterization, performance, style and presentation. Apur Sansar (1959) was very different from Abhijaan (1962). Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) presented a different Soumitra from the one we saw in Ganashatru (1990), Shakha Proshakha (1990) or in the Feluda series.
“Tapan Sinha held me by the hand and showed me the way. He is the best teacher I could ever have had,” said the actor who was vested with a very negative persona in Sinha’s period film Jhinder Bandi (1961) and who explored a romantic, surreal setting in Sinha’s Kshudita Pashan (1960), based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore.
Few today recall that Chatterjee was rejected for a role in Neelachaley Mahaprabhu (1957) after a screen test a few years before he was chosen to play Apu in Ray’s Apur Sansar.
About his work alongside Bengal’s most famous matinee idol Uttam Kumar, Chatterjee said, “Uttam Kumar gave me a tremendous sense of competition. I had to deal with it on my own terms, without imitating him or being influenced by him. We were more like the East Bengal and Mohun Bagan football teams. Calcutta would always be divided into two warring groups when it came to choosing between us. We acted together in quite a few films. I did have my box-office potential as hero. I would not have lasted this long if it hadn’t been so.”
Having made his film debut as Apu in Ray’s Apur Sansar, Soumitra Chatterjee went on to act in more than 350 films. Yet, he was always known as an actor than as a star. In Podokhhep (2006), a film that fetched him a National award, he played Shashanka Palit, a lonely old man who lives with his unmarried daughter and has a constant clash of values with her. “The film opens with a shocking symbol of death,” the actor recalled. “The strap-hanging Palit inside a moving metro looks out in fear at himself waiting on the platform, having failed to catch the train. The Palit inside the moving train is perhaps moving away from life. The Palit on the platform encapsulates the memories and experiences of his life. This scene is repeated when Palit really looks outside the metro train and is shocked to discover a frightened and confused Trisha standing on the platform.”
For 62 years, all major directors in Bengal, from Satyajit Ray to Tapan Sinha to Mrinal Sen to Goutam Ghose and Aparna Sen, used Soumitra Chatterjee’s enormous talent. He also worked with the current generation of filmmakers like Atanu Ghosh, who drew the best out of him in Mayurakshi (2017), in which he played an old man suffering from dementia. The thespian’s talent also enriched television.
Among the honours bestowed upon him over the years were the Padma Bhushan and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for his contribution to theatre. He authored more than 10 books of poetry, beginning with Jalapropater Dharey Dandabo Bole (To Stand by the Waterfall) in 1975. Droshta, an abstract translation of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, was published in 1995. By the time the Dadasaheb Phalke award came his way in 2012, it had ceased to matter to him.
Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee presented France’s highest civilian award
Ordinarily, an award honours the person it is conferred upon. The awardee’s status rises with the honour. But when the person is someone like Soumitra Chatterjee, an icon of the culture-scape of Bengal, an award honours itself by choosing to honour him.
French director Catherine Berge made a full-length documentary on Soumitra Chatterjee’s life and works called Gaach, meaning tree. The Films Division made another documentary titled Soumitra Revisited. Some years ago, Krantik Prakashan and Seagull Foundation for the Arts released a Bengali book by Anasuya Roy Chowdhury called Aaj Kaal Porshur Prantey: An Interview with Soumitra Chatterjee. It is one long interview that spans his evolution from his childhood in Krishnanagar to his arrival in Calcutta, his deep involvement in theatre, and stepping into films through Apur Sansar.
Contrary to common belief, Chatterjee’s name was associated with a plethora of mainstream films. The list is long — Saat Pake Bandha (1963), Manihar (1966), Tin Bhuboner Pare (1969), Pratham Kadam Phool (1970), Basanta Bilap (1973), Sansar Simantey (1975), Kony (1984), Wheel Chair (1984), Atanka (1986), Kaal Ratri (1997)… it goes on.
The romanticism expressed through Chatterjee’s persona was different from that profiled in the screen presence of Pramathesh Barua or Uttam Kumar. The three were different manifestations of the Bengali bhadralok (gentry) reflecting different phases of time placed against Bengal’s changing socio-political history.
Soumitra Chatterjee’s romantic hero sometimes played truant with the bhadralok image in films such as Tin Bhuboner Pare in which he grows from a local, semi-educated, unemployed ruffian to an educated, dignified professor. In Tarun Majumdar’s Sansar Simantey, he played a pimp to Sandhya Roy’s prostitute. Ray’s Abhijan is excluded here as it was not a mainstream film.
The difference in the masculinity of Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee comes across in three films in which they were cast together — Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi, a historical fantasy distanced from the bhadralok, Salil Dutta’s Aparichita (1969), based on a Samaresh Basu novel, and Dilip Roy’s Devdas (1979). Chatterjee’s swashbuckling, handsome villain Mayurbahon in Jhinder Bondi, riding on horseback and flashing a sword, expressed a Soumitra at his macho best, cast against the grain. Uttam Kumar’s twin roles juxtaposed against Mayurbahon appear comparatively weaker, perhaps by design, though as the real king, it was Uttam Kumar who reigned.
Chatterjee directed and acted in more than a dozen plays and, according to noted theatre director-actor Meghnad Bhattacharya, “he is the only public theatre director whose innovative planning for stage productions and thought-provoking style of presenting different sequences on stage has hardly any difference with the group theatre director’s mode of working. He has given public theatre a completely different look from many standpoints. His plays focus on contemporary life mixed with crisis and confrontation.”
Chatterjee’s first play was Mukhosh, a Bengali adaptation of WW Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, which he directed while studying for his master’s degree at Calcutta university. The play won first prize in the inter-university drama contest in Delhi in 1956. He met Ahindra Choudhury, a great name on the Bengali stage, who was invited to polish the work of the student actors. Chatterjee requested the great lighting master, the late Tapas Sen, to create and orchestrate the lighting for the play.
Chatterjee always insisted that he did not believe in penning an autobiography. Therefore, Amitava Nag’s book Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee, published by HarperCollins India, is like a ray of light within the dark cavern of information on this multi-talented personality, at least in English.
Amitava Nag is a passionate lover of films, a film scholar, and edits a serious online journal on cinema titled Silhouette, published under the auspices of LearningandCreativity.com. His book reveals how much he has soaked in the cinema of Soumitra Chatterjee by pushing the borders of his then around 55 years as an actor to explore his films that reach beyond Ray.
In the introduction, Nag writes: The popular view is that Soumitra excelled mostly in films of Ray where the general standard of acting is anyway high. The range of roles selected here will dispel the misconception and show how Soumitra excelled over the decades, with several directors and in different profiles. Even while playing the romantic lead, he is more like a character than a typical star. (pp xvi)
Agradani (1983) was based on one of the 10 most brilliant short stories in Bengali, according to Chatterjee himself. The story was authored by Jnanpith award-winner Tarashankar Banerjee and the film was produced by a member of the author’s family many years later. Nag brackets it within Chatterjee’s two ‘subaltern’ depictions.
Agradani is the tragic story of a low sub-caste among Brahmins, whose members were appointed only to savour the pinda offered to a departed soul. It was a very informative film which did good business in the villages but was hardly watched in the cities because Soumitra wore very dark make-up and was made to look like a village bumpkin who loved to eat and lead an aimless life, which did not jell with the audience’s image of the actor. “I would have been happier if there were more films like Agradani where I could reach out to more people,” the actor later said. (pp 162)
Chatterjee confessed that he began with a very snobbish, derogatory attitude towards Bengali cinema because he had been exposed to the best in international cinema. “But Pather Panchali (1955) changed all that,” he recalled. “When I saw the film, I had no clue that I would be part of Satyajit Ray’s films as an actor, which would shape my future course in life. It was an amazing exposure of the point of view of a director as he presented one of the best-known literary classics of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhay. I did not identify this aesthetic and cinematic excellence with the work of any Indian director before this film. Looking back, it changed the course of my life.”
He counted Tapan Sinha’s Wheel Chair as one of the most challenging roles of his career. “I practised moving about in a wheelchair for almost a year because the physical details of how a man does minor things while seated in a wheelchair were important,” he said. “But the shooting got delayed and when it finally went on the floor, I could not practise all over again.
“I love the challenge of learning something new for a role. For Tapan Sinha’s Kshudita Pashan, I had to learn horse-riding. I discovered that the very activity of riding a horse or moving about in a wheelchair helps to an extent to form an insight into the character. A man’s world view changes when he is on horseback. The same happens when he is in a wheelchair. This differs from the world view of a person who moves normally at ground level. The change in world view changes his behaviour, his vision, his philosophy. These are reflected in his character. For me, the physical approach to the delineation of a character is very important. Once this is achieved, a trip to the mental world of the character becomes smooth and seamless.”
Chatterjee authored about a dozen books of poetry. There would have been more if he had been a little more interested. He was also a gifted elocutionist and recitation artiste who could recite poets from Rabindranath Tagore through Jibanananda Das from memory. He was also a playwright, a translator of plays from other languages, a theatre director and actor. He worked for radio, television and also did a stint with the Jatra, Bengal’s travelling theatre.
In 2008, Soumitra Chatterjee directed and acted in Atmakatha. The play, produced jointly by Mukhomukhi and Nibha Arts, ran to a packed Tapan theatre in South Kolkata from 24 August for several weeks.
Atmakatha is the Bengali translation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s original Marathi play. It takes time to get sucked into the memories of an old man, Subhankar, a famous writer, as Pragya, a much younger woman, draws out from him truths he is afraid to own up to. Once you are sucked in, however, you are mesmerized as you watch Pragya, researching Subhankar’s life, peeling off the layers of untruths the man lives within. It is as if she holds a mirror to him to point out the gaps between the autobiography he is writing and the truths he is scared to pen down. The cracks in his Gandhian armour, his betrayal of the two closest women in his life, his wife Uttara and her younger sister Basanti, begin to show up.
A sudden telephone call from his estranged wife Uttara becomes a turning point. Pragya points out that his betrayal of the faith they had placed in him was not just personal but also political because he ‘used’ them manipulatively as ‘characters’ in his literary works, violating the trust human relationships are based on.
After he came back from a battle with prostate cancer in 2011, Chatterjee wrote, directed and acted in Prachya’s Tritiyo Onko Otoeb (The Third Act, Therefore), an autobiographical production. The play mapped the personal, social, political and historical journey of his life. Chatterjee, having fought off cancer, presented his autobiography as a live stage performance. The events that shaped him as an actor were mapped too — the arrival of soldiers of Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj at Barasat packed like animals in a train, the Bengal famine, the Great Calcutta Killing and, finally, his encounter with Natasamrat Sisir Kumar Bhaduri.
His professional life was marginalized to the man who smoked 20 cigarettes a day for 50 years till his body painfully reminded him that he had stretched the borders of well-being too far. It was staged at the Academy of Fine Arts on 20 January to coincide with the thespian’s 77th birthday. The proscenium lends itself to an autobiographical presentation in a way that the written word cannot.
One rare insight in Nag’s book is when the actor recalls that he was informed of his mother’s death (aged 97) while he was on stage performing his autobiographical play. “I was told during the break,” he said. “She was quite critical for a few days before that. The first act after the break is when I recollect my childhood and how my mother used to control us. So it could have been very emotional. I had to make sure I didn’t let my emotions get the better of me. After all, I am a professional actor.” (pp 147–148)
At another point, Chatterjee said: “The letter he [Satyajit Ray] gave to Cine Central (a film society in Kolkata) when they held a retrospective, Teen Doshoker Soumitra (Three Decades of Soumitra), in 1990 is the ultimate tribute that I can expect: ‘I will have faith in Soumitra till the last day of my creative life.’ I cannot expect anything higher than this in my life.” (pp 157)
Soumitra Chatterjee, who sometimes included the audience in his interaction, occupied centre-stage. Turning the revolving chair into a wheelchair, he rolled down the stage in the latter half with an imaginary ‘I’ seated on it. This part dealt with the illnesses he had slipped into in September 2007. His swift emotional vacillations indicated the evolution of the subject from childhood to adolescence through youth to adulthood mapping the personal, social, political and historical journeys his life took, placing him in perspective.
As director, Chatterjee explored through Tritiyo Anka Otoeb the live performance environment where performer and audience are both present and share the same time and space, creating an ideal location for the autobiographical medium through theatrical performance. As an actor, he shared his character with two other actors who were on stage at the same time.
The subject of the autobiographical production gained from instant feedback, with references to Beethoven as an inspiration to go on living, to Jibanananda Das, whose poetry inspired the title, and closing with Chatterjee reciting Tagore’s ‘Prothom Diner Surjo’ on the banks of the River Roopnarayan. To end with that beautiful song of endless hope that urges the traveller walking through the night not to stop made for a touching ending to a beautiful play.
Tritiyo Anka Otoeb was a staged autobiography used as joys and sorrows shared with the audience. It was not a self-centred, manipulated monologue directed at the gathered spectators. It was the “I” in the world and not “I” in its own world.
“A serious interest in cinema started with the first film festival held in Calcutta after my parents shifted to Calcutta from Howrah,” the actor recalled. “For the first time, I watched Bicycle Thieves, Miracle In Milan, Fall Of Berlin, with friends equally interested in cinema. These films changed my thinking about cinema. We saw Renoir’s River, shot in India. Then came Pather Panchali. Ray made four films before he did Apur Sansar. I now feel those films were sort of a preparation for what was to come — my first film Apur Sansar.”
Described by critic Pauline Kael as Satyajit Ray’s “one-stock company”, Soumitra Chatterjee, like his mentor, was a pillar of creativity in Bengali cinema. He never made a distinction between art and commercial films. Just as one watches him emote a scene in Rituparno Ghosh’s Asukh (1998), one can be privy to Soumitra Chatterjee in a crassly commercial film like Swapan Saha’s Baba Keno Chakar (1998). He also acted under the direction of very young directors like Atanu Ghosh and Suman Ghosh. He did not let ego come in the way of an important role in Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ek Din (2000). His play Neelkantha, written and directed by him with himself in the title role, first staged in 1988, was later revived on the Calcutta stage, drawing a full house every time. Ekshan, one of the best literary magazines in Bengali, was jointly edited by Chatterjee along with close friend Nirmalya Acharya. It ceased publication after Acharya died a few years ago.