Soumitra Chatterjee, people’s superstar and cultural icon of West Bengal, passes away

Published : November 15, 2020 13:51 IST

Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020). Photo: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

As Apu in "Apur Sansar" (1959). Photo: The Hindu Archives

In "Charulata" (1964). Photo: The Hindu Archives

With Sharmila Tagore in "Aranyer Din Ratri" (1970). Photo: The Hindu Archives

As the iconic detective Feluda in "Baba Felunath" (1979). Photo: The Hindu Archives

In "Ganashatru" (1989).

Satyajit Ray (third from left) introducing the cast of his film “Ganashatru” before the film’s screening at IFFI 1990 in Calcutta on January 21, 1990: (from left) Dipankar Dey, Soumitra Chatterjee, Ruma Guha Thakurtha and Subhendu Chatterjee. Photo: The Hindu Archives

With the passing of Soumitra Chatterjee, West Bengal lost not just one of its greatest film and theatre legends, but also a cultural icon who for more than half a century defined Bengali culture, tradition and art. The iconic actor, whose name is inextricably linked with the films of Satyajit Ray, passed away on November 15 from neurological complications after contracting COVID-19. He was admitted to a private nursing home in Kolkata on October 6 and for 40 days he battled death, keeping alive the hope of recovery among millions of fans across the country. He was 85 and is survived by his wife, Dipa Chatterjee, daughter Poulami Bose and son Sougata Chatterjee.

Considered one of the greatest actors of all time, Soumitra burst onto the silver screen in 1959 as the beautiful, romantic Apu in Ray’s Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)—the third part of the maestro’s Apu Trilogy. It was the beginning of a collaboration that would storm world cinema and keep audiences across the globe enthralled for four decades. Between 1959 and 1990, Soumitra starred in 14 of Ray’s films, including such classics as Devi (1960), Teen Kanya (1961), Abhijan (1962), Charulata (1964), Kapurush Mahapurush (1965), Aranyer Din Ratri (1970), Ashani Sanket (1973), Sonar Kella (1974), Joy Baba Felunath (1979), Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980) and Ganashatru (1989). It was a partnership as iconic in world cinema as those between Ingmar Bergman and Max Von Sydow, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski and Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Leaud.

Although internationally Soumitra was most famous for his collaborations with Ray, his work with other great Bengali directors such as Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Asit Sen and Ajoy Kar was no less significant. Soumitra himself once told Frontline that along with Ray, Tapan Sinha played a huge role in his development as an artiste. “In my first film with him [Khudito Pashan, 1960] he almost taught me how to walk in front of a camera.” said Soumitra.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, he acted in over 300 films and along with his great friend and rival, the great Uttam Kumar, was considered the greatest star ever to grace the Bengali screen. The sheer variety of roles he played was staggering. From romantic comedies to social dramas; crime thrillers to political films; period pieces to contemporary themes, Soumitra had done them all; and in every character that he portrayed, he put his stamp indelibly, making it impossible for others to reprise or redefine the role later. There have been others who played Ray’s iconic detective Feluda, most notably Sabyasachi Chakraborty, but when one thinks of the evergreen Bengali sleuth, it is still the image of Soumitra that comes to mind, even though he had played the role of Prodosh (Felu) Mitra only twice (Sonar Kella, 1974, and Joy Baba Felunath, – 1979).

After watching Soumitra play a part, however small the role may be, it felt as though the character was created with him in mind,be it the roadside Romeo turning over a new leaf under the influence of his ladylove in Teen Bhubaner Paarey (1969); or the proud, complex

intellectual in a claustrophobic marriage in the social drama Saat Paake Badha (1963); or the village priest-cum-school teacher Gangacharan watching his world disintegrate in the face of the great famine in Ray’s Ashani Sanket (1973).

The sheer range of characters immortalised by him is perhaps unprecedented in the history of Indian cinema. Soumitra’s body of work was astounding, from the tough, rustic Punjabi driver with a heart of gold in Ray’s Abhijaan (1962) to the sophisticated, and slightly cocky city slicker on holiday in Aranyer Din Ratri; from the passionate swimming coach exhorting his protégé to “fight” (Kony, 1984) to the mild-mannered scientist who would not submit to public pressure and surrender to superstition (Ganashatru, 1989); from the hapless school teacher terrorised by political goons (Atanka, 1986) to the crippled doctor helping a rape victim get her life back (Wheel chair, 1994). Like the great Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, Soumitra was as magnificent in commercial films as he was in parallel cinema.

Neither his appeal nor his stardom waned with advancing age. He remained one of the most sought-after actors in the industry and continued to deliver seminal performances in masterpieces like Ray’s Ganashatru and the last film they made together,Shakha Proshakha (1990), Tapan Sinha’s Wheel Chair and Atanka, Goutam Ghose’s Dekha (2001) and Raja Mitra’s Ekti Jiban (1990), in which Soumitra begins by playing a man in his forties and ends with portraying him as a dying octogenarian. Through his roles, Soumitra kept reinventing himself and his indispensability in keeping alive an ailing film industry became even more pronounced in his later years. It would not be an overstatement to say that even at the age of 85, Soumitra Chatterjee was the biggest draw in the industry.

According to the internationally acclaimed film-maker Buddhadeb Dasgputa, he was the “greatest actor” of his time in India. “It is a matter of deep personal sorrow for me that I never got the scope to work with him. He was such a magnificent artiste, with such incredible understanding of the roles he played,” Buddhadeb told Frontline. It could also be argued that Soumitra, because of his collaborations with directors such as Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, stalwarts of world cinema, was India’s biggest international star.

In 2012 he was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest award in the field of cinema and in 2017, the prestigious Officier de la Legion d’Honneur (Officer of the Legion of Honour). In 2018, he became the first Indian actor to be conferred the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest award for artists. A baffling fact in the history of Indian cinema is that Soumitra Chatterjee never won a National Award for Best Actor until 2006 (for his role in Padakhep). He never received a National Award for his works with Ray, Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha.

Early life and theatre

Born in Kolkata on January 19, 1935, Soumitra spent his early childhood in Krishnanagar. Acting was something he was interested in from an early age and he had made up his mind to be an actor while still in college. After graduation, he came under the influence of the

legendary theatre director and thespian Sisir Bhaduri, from whom he learnt much of his stagecraft. Even after attaining movie superstardom, theatre continued to be a great love of his life. In 1978, Soumitra returned to the stage after a long gap with his own production “Namjiban”, which Utpal Dutt described as a play that “makes the audience face the harsh reality, and it questions the comfort zone of the petty bourgeoisie”. He maintained a parallel career on stage, which was as critically acclaimed and almost as popular as his cinema career. Some of his most famous performances include “Rajkumar”, “Nilkantha”, “Ghatak Biday”, the ever-popular “Tiktiki”,his adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth”, ‘Homapakhi’ and the long-running “Raja Lear”, an adaptation of King Lear.

Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee

When Soumitra came into the Bengali film industry, Uttam Kumar reigned supreme and in splendid isolation. In that scenario, for Soumitra to not just establish himself as a new star but also quickly rise to become Uttam Kumar’s main rival was no mean feat. West Bengal society was divided over allegiance to the two superstars, much like the fans of the two great football clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, or the debate as to who was greater, Satyajit Ray or Rittwick Ghatak. In real life, the two were close friends and would not only inspire each other to greater heights of artistic excellence but also rejoice in each other’s accomplishments. “We had a good understanding between us. Uttam Kumar was also very encouraging. If he liked a film of mine, he would invariably call me up and tell me so. I would do the same,” Soumitra told Frontline on one occassion.

Just two years after his debut as Apu, he was pitted against Uttam Kumar in Tapan Sinha’s swashbuckling Jhinder Bondi, an adaptation of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Although Uttam was the main hero of the film and had a double role, it was Soumitra as the villainous and charismatic Mayurbahan who stole the show. His lean, swaggering gait, wolfish grin, dangerous manipulative eyes could not be more different from the lovely man-child Apu going through the cruel vicissitudes of life without ever losing his wide-eyed wonder at the beauty of the world.

What captured the imagination of the cinema-goers of Bengal was the novel image of the hero that this tall, handsome young star introduced to Bengali cinema. He brought a new kind of authenticity and vulnerability to the screen and, by his choice of roles, was a representative of his age and times. His appeal was unique in that it not only attracted the mainstream audience, but also called out to the intellect. It was his constant search to find the genuine humanity within a character he was playing that defined his great art throughout his life. “To understand human life as such, the process of living in a country like ours, to understand the situations and the circumstances in which a human being survives or struggles or becomes successful or unsuccessful. I try to understand the man in all of these situations,” he said. Even at the height of his stardom, Soumitra remained indifferent to the siren call of the Bombay film industry and its lure of money. “…being young I was also foolish, I did not realise the importance of money that Hindi films could bring. I was not interested in that,” he once said jokingly.

People’s superstar

Just as his screen image did not always conform to the stereotypical hero, in real life too, Soumitra was not the quintessential matinee idol Uttam Kumar was. In many ways, he rejected his own stardom with his refusal to compromise with his political beliefs and ideology. He took part in protest rallies and processions and always made himself accessible to the common people. He was perhaps the first “People’s Movie Star” of India. In June this year, he was among the 500 prominent citizens who signed an open letter demanding the immediate release of activists like Varavara Rao and Safoora Zargar at a time when “a pandemic is raging across the country”. Even at the height of his stardom, he would be seen hanging out with old friends and freely moving around in markets and shopping complexes.

His versatility was not confined to the screen alone. He was a poet, a playwright, a painter, and, also for a while, the editor of a literary magazine Ekshan. In each of these disciplines, he achieved a level of excellence that was hailed by critics. He remained prolific right until the end. In 2019, he had 15 releases and in 2020, he had 12 films either released or in the process of being released. The years had neither been able to take away his creative gifts nor his commitment to his profession. The film-maker and academician Madhuja Mukherjee remembers working with Soumitra in her film Deep Six (currently in post-production stage) and being struck by his complete lack of ego when it came to his work and his dedication to understanding his role, however small it may be.“What I found amazing was the nuance that he brought to even a small role. It was not just in the dialogue; it was in gestures, facial expressions and movements,” she said. Soumitra was not really the last of his kind; he was the only one of his kind. There never was another artiste like Soumitra Chatterjee on the silver screen before, nor will there ever be anyone to take his place.