Book Review: "Soumitra Chatterjee: A Life in Cinema, Theatre, Poetry & Painting" by Arjun Sengupta and Partha Mukherjee

Print edition : April 09, 2021

A still from Apur Sansar, the third film in Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

At Soumitra Chatterjee’s first ever painting exhibition, called ‘Forms Within’, in Kolkata on September 12, 2013. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

With Satyajit Ray on the sets of Ghaire Baire (1984). Photo: Nemai Ghosh

The book offers fascinating insights into Soumitra Chatterjee’s craft and persona, along with exploring the historical and sociocultural backdrop in which his great art was born and nurtured.

IT is not easy to write the biography of someone like Soumitra Chatterjee, who was not just one of the greatest icons of Indian cinema but also a towering cultural figure who, in many ways, defined his age and times with his genius and intellect. There is no dearth of written material on the man whose name is inextricably linked with the works of Satyajit Ray, and who dominated the Bengali screen and stage for more than six decades. So, a book on him is a very ambitious and bold project to undertake, unless there is something new to offer on the great man and his craft. And that is precisely what Soumitra Chatterjee: A Life in Cinema, Theatre, Poetry & Painting by Arjun Sengupta and Partha Mukherjee does.

Published soon after the thespian’s death from COVID-19 on November 15, 2020, the book not only gives a fascinating insight into Soumitra’s life and genius, it explores the historical and sociocultural backdrop in which his great art was born and nurtured.

Art and persona

Soumitra was no path-breaker or pioneer. He was the product of a period of historic changes in art and cinema, who, by sheer dint of merit, and his long artistic association with two giants of Bengali cinema, namely Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha, became one of the foremost representatives of that new age. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it lucidly brings to light the art and persona of Soumitra Chatterjee, not just in the context of his own time but also in relation to the evolution of cinematic art and thought.

The writers point out that Soumitra began his acting career “at a time of significant changes in the Bengali film industry and in world cinema in general”. It was also a time of great social and economic upheaval both in India and the world. While the first decade after Independence was spent in the arduous task of nation building in India, the Western world too was picking itself up piece by piece after the Second World War. A shift in sensibilities was being witnessed in the world of cinema as well. It was a time when neorealism in cinema, exemplified by Vittoria de Sica’s masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948) and screen writer Cesare Zavattini’s theoretical works, was taking cinema in a new direction. Marlon Brando, fresh out of Stella Adler’s Studio of Acting, was redefining acting, and, in the words of Jack Nicholson, “giving actors their freedom” with his ‘Method’ technique.

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It was a time when Indian cinema was breaking out of a pattern of producing films with Leftist themes such as K.A. Abbas’ Dharti Ke Lal (1946) and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1956)—a pattern set under the influence of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). The writers correctly state: “The revolution that Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee brought about in Bengali cinema can barely be understood without placing it in the right context.”

Soumitra, under the guidance of Satyajit Ray, absorbed these new ideas like a sponge. The authors, with the elegance of a novelist and the penetrating eye of a researcher, also provide a concise yet deep sociocultural history of Bengal and Indian cinema. The sociological aspect of Indian cinema and stage is so effortlessly weaved into the narrative on the life of Soumitra and his films that the book will appeal not just to his fans but also to those interested in knowing more about Bengali society and culture.

The book provides a pithy yet deep analysis of Soumitra’s acting in some of his greatest films and his craft and commitment to art—something he deliberately chose over lapsing into the more comfortable rut of superstardom (which he could not avoid, despite his best efforts).

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The authors write: “Since he was intent on giving each character the individuality it deserved, he consciously avoided developing mannerisms or gestures that would repeat themselves no matter who is playing. He developed the art of self-effacement, moulding himself into the character until the audience would be tricked into thinking that they were watching the character and not Soumitra, the actor.”

Star or artiste?

Soumitra was well-acquainted with Konstantin Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares, the bible of the tradition of ‘Method’ acting, when Satyajit Ray took him to see Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend at the famed Basusree cinema hall in Kolkata. Satyajit Ray wanted him to closely observe the acting of Ray Milland as Don Birnam, the hopeless alcoholic writer, to understand the “dedication required to build an effective performance”. Although Milland did not belong to the then new ‘Method’ school, it was nevertheless a learning experience for the young Soumitra.

Soumitra never really followed the ‘Method’ tradition in his craft, but his research and preparation for a role “allowed him to inhabit the skin of the character in a way rarely replicated in Indian cinema”. Under Satyajit Ray’s watchful guidance, Soumitra quickly learnt to separate the star from the artiste.

Analysing his performance and presentation of the character of Gangacharan in Ray’s Ashani Sanket (1973), the authors say: “His slightly smug complacency, his fondness for the small indulgences of life, and his confident, starchy appearance (complete with a prim little moustache) at the beginning of the film quickly establishes Gangacharan as an extremely believable character.” Interestingly, the authors point out, Soumitra did not want the moustache as he believed that Brahmins of the period in question did not wear one, but it remained at Satyajit Ray’s insistence as it “changed his face enough to differentiate him from how he looked in commercial cinema”.

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While Soumitra worked hard and worked constantly at his craft, analysing his role, understanding the history of the character and putting it in the perspective of the character’s reality, he was also a highly intuitive and instinctive actor. The book recounts his first day of shooting Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar on August 9, 1958. Apu, desperately in need of a job, goes to a labelling plant in Kolkata’s Beliaghata neighbourhood. “Soumitra, umbrella in hand, walks through a narrow dimly lit passage into an equally dark, claustrophobic room where several people are putting labels on bottles.” The workers are like automatons and the sight horrifies the young, romantic Apu, who cannot bear the thought of turning into one of them. One of the workers suddenly looks up at him, at which point Soumitra steps back and gulps in fear. The gulp was not something that Ray had instructed him to do but something the young Soumitra extemporised at the last moment. The master was delighted with this improvisation. “Excellent!” he cried out from behind the camera.

Some 15 years later, it was a different kind of ‘gulp’ that subtly transformed a great scene to an immortal one when he was filming Ashani Sanket. Soumitra’s character Gangacharan, living in the midst of a famine, has to go to someone’s house asking for a bit of rice. Hungry and parched with thirst, there is a desperation in Gangacharan’s body language. Soumitra chose to “accentuate this nervous despair with a slight gulp”. Once again, the master exclaimed: “Excellent.” The book provides numerous such instances of Soumitra’s craft, which often went unnoticed by the average moviegoers.

Stage career

The book also follows Soumitra’s career on stage in great detail. It manages to capture the great actor’s undying love affair with theatre, from the time he first saw the legendary Sisir Kumar Bhaduri on stage in Kshirode Prasad Vidyavinode’s Alamgir—an experience that changed his life—to his own widely acclaimed productions and performances.

The authors point out that Soumitra’s natural inclination towards ‘realism’ on screen also dictated his approach to acting on stage. Here too, the writers provide tremendous insight into the great actor’s methods on stage. They write: “He was far more intent on finding a middle ground that would allow him to seamlessly incorporate cinematic methods into existing theatrical traditions…. Soumitra tried to tone down his performances on stage so that it can be realistic as the circumstances would allow. He has written about the importance of being alive on stage. It had to do with maintaining a consistent simulacrum of a real person.”

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The stage was also another way for the celluloid superstar to retain his contact with the masses through live performances. It was also his refuge in later life, when, with the decline of the Bengali film industry, Soumitra found it increasingly difficult to come by roles that would challenge him artistically.

Rivalry with Uttam Kumar

The book also explores Soumitra’s famous rivalry with the undisputed king of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar, from a sociocultural perspective, rather than from the popular, gossipy angle.

It is well known that when Soumitra burst onto the scene, Uttam Kumar was reigning supreme in Bengali cinema. Soumitra was the only one who became a contender for the throne, although he himself always acknowledged that Uttam Kumar was the bigger star. “I came close, but he was ahead,” Soumitra once said.

In real life, the two were close friends who had a lot of respect for each other’s talent and works. The authors state that Soumitra never really tried to directly compete with Uttam Kumar.

Also read: Exploring Apu's world

They make a very interesting point about the essential difference between Uttam Kumar’s stardom and that of Soumitra’s: “His (Soumitra’s) usual trajectory which led from critically acclaimed roles to stardom instead of the other way around was also responsible for determining the kind of star he would be….he never wanted his stardom to come between him and potentially good roles. This meant a deliberate refusal to cultivate a well-liked persona carefully built and maintained to appeal to the widest cross-section of the audience….He was, without belabouring the point too much, a star because he was a very good actor. This is rare enough to never have been replicated again in Bengali cinema.”

Soumitra Chatterjee was also one of those multi-faceted artistes who forever sought to express himself through various forms of art. Apart from being one of the greatest actors, he was a widely acclaimed dramatist, poet, writer, painter and editor of a little magazine.

The book does justice to all these aspects of his genius; but more than anything else, it tells little stories within the larger narrative which makes for fascinating reading—little nuggets of information such as Soumitra learning that he had secured the role of Apu while being introduced to the great Chhabi Biswas by Satyajit Ray or small anecdotes like introducing himself to Sunil Gavaskar at an airport, only to be cut short with a smile by the great cricketer who said he knew who Soumitra Chatterjee was.