An actor, not a star

Print edition : May 04, 2012

The last scene in Soumitra Chatterjee's debut film "Apur Sansar".-

Soumitra Chattopadhyay's artistic mission has been shot through with the felt need to be in step with the people.

SOUMITRA CHATTOPADHYAY (Chatterjee is an anglicised contraction) is arguably the greatest Bengali film actor of his generation. He is well into the sixth decade of his career, and he is still busy, always in demand, always adored by his viewers, always giving his professional best to the project in hand, good, bad or ugly. The Dada Saheb Phalke Award for contribution to Indian Cinema will please his friends and admirers, and Soumitra has accepted the recognition with his usual grace, but this new feather in his cap adds very little to his stature. At the moment, award or no award, he is the tallest presence in Bangla cinema. Most of his contemporaries tall or short are now gone, some of them missed very much by Soumitra himself, and one cannot say that any of the fresh lot comes up anywhere near his level of performance and his impeccable professional ethic. But I want to avoid the cliche lone splendour because it would detract from his social grace and his commitment to the Bangla-speaking people, and seriously distort the artistic mission of his life.

For Soumitra is engaged in more than film-acting. He is a leading dramatist and theatre-director and theatre-actor, and has taken up project after project on that terrain. He is a practising poet; his readings are legendary; he has edited a leading Bangla quarterly for decades. He has been active and vocal on public issues whenever there was a call, and has helped out organisations that needed his presence and his intervention in a good cause. This is very much in line with his personal ethic. Many grateful people recall his help, unobtrusively rendered. A loyal friend of many, he still finds time for a good adda with old cronies and professional colleagues. He remains a quintessential middle-class educated Bengali, successful in his chosen field, mindful of the admiration he is held in, but refusing to be spoilt by success, never cocooning himself in pompous isolation, never putting on airs like the common or garden variety of celebrity. An unassuming, easy-going, sociable man, he moves seamlessly from the personal to the professional, from private to public. A man of the Left, but above party politics, he has worked selflessly side by side with ordinary people, taken part in rallies, joined working groups, helped out the people's government. In a sense, his artistic mission has been shot through with the felt need to be in step with the people. No, this man would not be a star, not really.

The Satyajit-Soumitra bond

It is not that opportunities were lacking. He joined Satyajit Ray's team for Apur Sansar (1959), playing the eponymous hero in the final part of the Apu trilogy. He was earlier assessed for Aparajito (1956) by Ray but was found unsuitably grown-up, and I have heard from Ray himself that the presence of Soumitra was part of the reason why he went on to make the third part, after Parash Pathar (1957) and Jalsaghar (1958). This started the longest and most fruitful director-actor combine in Bangla cinema. Many people have found similarities with the Kurosawa-Mifune or Fellini-Mastroianni relationship as well as other famous film duos, but the Satyajit-Soumitra bond goes beyond the comforts of professional compatibility. The common cultural tasks they worked on, the values they shared, the milieu that sustained their talents meant so much to both that the relationship transcended film-making and in turn enriched its creativity.

In Aranyer Din Ratri.-

Soumitra became a household name in Bangla cinema and something of a highbrow poster boy after Devi (1960), Samapti in Teen Kanya (1961), Abhijan (1962) and Charulata (1964). In between acting in Satyajit Ray films, Soumitra had, by the mid-1960s, starred in Khudhito Pashan (The Hungry Stones, 1960) and Jhinder Bandi (The Prisoner of Jhind, 1961, with Uttam Kumar the matinee idol) by Tapan Sinha; in Punashcha (The Postscript, 1961), Pratinidhi (The Representative, 1964) and Akash Kusum (The Pie in the Sky, 1965) by Mrinal Sen; in three films by Asit Sen, four by Ajay Kar (one of which was Saat Paake Bandha, 1963, with Suchitra Sen, the heart-throb of millions), one each by Arup Guha Thakurta, O.C. Ganguly, Harisadhan Dasgupta, Nityananda Datta and Tarun Majumdar.

It was clear that in half a dozen years or so, this tall, handsome, cool-voiced young man had made himself an indispensable presence in high and middle cinema from this neck of the woods. It was a meteoric rise by the standards of the industry, in which an initial hard grind usually precedes success. Soumitra was lucky, yes, but he earned his luck. He also made it clear that he would avoid the social quarantine of conventional stardom. A star is made by commercial operations outside filmic work proper, aided and abetted by textual devices which paper over social contradictions. This was not his cup of tea.

One week for a scene

If you work with a great director, you are not only part of a team, but also just one factor in a complex web of many different elements, and you have to work to a plan set by the master. Your originality and talents as an actor would flourish only when you internalise the needs of the shooting script and deliver what the director prescribes. Soumitra learned the craft of film-acting from the greatest modern master of Indian cinema at the height of his creativity. The impact of this inspired training has lasted a lifetime. I will cite one instance from Soumitra's debut film, Apur Sansar. There is a rather complex sequence of Apu and his friend returning home in the evening across the suburban railway lines. There are long takes in the gloaming, the deep focus catching the highlights of the tracks and the magical nightly transformation of the dingy surroundings. Apu explains the writerly mission of his life in youthfully resonant accents, turning to his friend from time to time to transform what is an internal monologue to something like a manifesto addressed to the world. Ray, as the super-narrator, the authorial gazer on represented events, sympathises with the youthful vision of Apu but maintains an affectionate distance from the expressive excesses. This is done by using camera angles and camera movements and some inspired cutting.

As Feluda in Jai Baba Felunath.-

The dialogue is superb, nothing stands out and nothing escapes the carefully nuanced verisimilitude. Soumitra the actor had not only to deliver the lines in the right intonation and to the right timing, but move his body to the right rhythm and turn his face at the right moment to catch the carefully set lighting. He comes out with flying colours, but precisely because he moulded his body and voice and movement to the demands of the camera. He reminisced in 1966 that this scene was rehearsed on the studio floor twenty to twenty-five times, before it was rehearsed again on location. This scene took a week or so ( Montage, No. 5-6, July, 1966).

In Samapti, with Aparna Sen.-

The director's actor places her body and face and voice and her talents at the disposal of the director, but that is only half the story. Compliance of a high order to the demands of a complex job would often need talent and intelligence of a high order. There is a common belief in cinematic circles that the big director needs actors just in the manner he needs sets and lighting and camera on the one hand and editing and music and special effects on the other. Actors are cattle, Hitchcock is reputed to have said. This view gains strength from the ability of some directors to work with raw talent and with non-professionals. Satyajit Ray had done it himself, so had Mizoguchi and Bunuel and De Sica and Ritwik Ghatak and Pasolini.

One could say that film, being a reproduced work of art an ensemble of second-order operations on dead matter rather than a live performance, is in a peculiarly privileged position to destroy the mystique of auratic presence, as Walter Benjamin pointed out many years back. Avant-garde film-making has sometimes followed the Brechtian prescription to distance acting from verisimilitude and empathy. One problem with this theoretical vision is that it ascribes to the text what is at bottom a choice for the viewer. Film-making in general has continued to respect the viewer's desire to see lifelike characters and events, second-order or reproduced or electronically assembled. The actor has continued to be a major vehicle of verisimilar visuality. The point, however, is the uses to which the various elements offered by the actor are put by the director and to what purpose. Sharmila Tagore in Devi (1960) was all eyes, her small child-bride body moving in slow rhythm to the dictates of familial patriarchy, whereas Soumitra had to play the role of a modernising young man standing up to inherited bigotry, and therefore a certain expressivity of body and voice was necessary. It was not enough to follow the chalked line on the floor and look up at the point where the lighting was right and the camera focus was sharp. The director decides when the actor's own imaginaries can be trusted to have a free run and to what extent. Soumitra convinced his early directors that he could be safely left with the task of interpreting a character to the satisfaction of the viewer. His rapport with Ray was a rare and precious thing, but the quality of his work was such that all the other directors would want him for certain kinds of jobs.

In Ganashatru, based on Ibsen's play.-

Charulata (1964) illustrates the chemistry which bonds the work of the director with that of the actor. Soumitra plays Amal, a young enlightened budding intellectual of late nineteenth century Kolkata, against Madhabi Mukhopadhyay's Charulata, the lonely wife of his elder cousin, Bhupati, fond of his wife but distanced by his obsession with the political journal he owns and edits. Soumitra had to play out the internal drama of a kind of Bildungsroman, in which he comes of age through a harrowing emotional tangle which leaves all the three parties bruised. Soumitra plays Amal's boisterous, rather spoilt but good-natured, early phase with aplomb, helped by Madhabi's luminous presence. The real test comes when Ray gets him to act out Amal's puzzled and disturbed discovery of Charu's hidden depths, first as an author and then as a woman in love. There is a simply stunning moment when Amal reads Charu's composition in a literary journal and faces her with a simple awed exclamation. Because the director is Satyajit Ray and he had prepared you with glimpses of the lonely but talented woman imprisoned in a marriage, Soumitra's brief close-up manages to convey the dawning of a realisation of the limits of patriarchal hegemony. This has been Soumitra's hallmark as an actor. The moment finds the man.

Variety and versatility

He is at ease in the everyday tenor of ordinary lives as well as in the tense drama of emotional tangles. Soumitra is not quite into Method Acting, which is based on a kind of impersonation, though he observes his surroundings with care and picks out crucial elements from actual models for the authenticity of his portrayals. The gruff taciturnity of the taxi-driver in Abhijan (1962), the witty straight-face in Baksho Badal (1965), the loping stride of the rural priest in Ashani Sanket (1973), the genial sharpness of the private detective in Sonar Kella (1974) and Jai Baba Felunath (1978), the ferocity of the marginalised in Sansar Simante (1975), the impatient rigour of the swimming coach in Koni (1986), the slow absent-mindedness of the lone lexicographer in Ekti Jiban (1987), the paranoia of a schizophrenic in Shakha Prashakha (1990) the list can be expanded to show up the sheer variety and versatility of this legendary actor's performances. Method Acting is transformative in a systematic thoroughgoing fashion, a submergence of the actor's persona in an assumed one, whereas Soumitra follows the other option of indicative acting, bringing in a few important traits to build up a generic portrait, approximating to ideal types rather than actually existing entities. The results speak for themselves. Soumitra Chattopadhyay didn't take a running jump into film-acting. One part of his preparation was cultural and political, which was shared by some of his directors.

With Waheeda Rahman in Abhijan.-

The other part, more technical, was provided by a kind of apprenticeship with Sisir Bhaduri, the towering presence in Bangla theatre from the 1920s to the 1950s. This is as it should be. The history of cinema is studded with easy entrances and exits of theatre people and a continuing history of intertextuality. Soumitra's transfer of technology was particularly easy, a talented prentice moving from one master of a particular craft to another of a similar pursuit. His magnum opus of recent years, playing King Lear on stage, shows what can be expected from this doyen of actors.

This part is easy to explain. What is not so easy is the other part of his training, his participation in the continuing enlightenment of the Bengali intelligentsia, a radical version of which was current during his formative years. The Indian People's Theatre Association had left a permanent mark on the Bengali culture of the day. Radical thought and realist texts were more relevant than escapist entertainment.

In "Devi", with Sharmila Tagore.-

People were living in very difficult times in the partitioned Bengal of the 1950s. Poverty, joblessness, scarcity, disease, hunger, injustice and oppression stalked this part of the country in particular. It was at this juncture that Satyajit Ray intervened with Pather Panchali (1955). He had not intended to mirror the contemporary in the evocation of the not-so-lost historical past. But he sensed the turmoil of the times in the story of a small family in a small village around the turn of the century. He placed the ordinary man and woman at the centre of his narrative, and naturally transformed the available modes of film-acting. The contemporary audience had a great deal to find in his films and in those of others who followed.

Soumitra made and remade himself as an actor and as a cultural activist in these turbulent times and fashioned an acting style which would fit in with the demands of the new texts, though he regretted in his Ritwik Ghatak Memorial Lecture, 1984, that one seldom had the opportunity to step outside one's class and portray characters from among the labouring people. He has continued to hold fast to these radical values even in the era of a globalised cultural regime, which is an accessory to ruthless exploitation and the crushing of people's liberties.

His professional work and his expressed views are a living refutation of the neoliberal cheapening of culture. That is why he is above the sphere of twopenny-halfpenny stardoms of the day.

Professor Mihir Bhattacharya taught English Literature and Film Studies at Jadavpur University.

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