Soumitra Chatterjee

Soumitra Chatterjee, a cultural tour de force

Print edition : December 18, 2020

Soumitra Chatterjee, a file photo. Photo: NAGARA GOPAL

Soumitra Chatterjee with Satyajit Ray at the screening of “Ganashatru” at the International Film Festival of India in Kolkata on January 21, 1990. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A still from Apur Sansar (1959). Photo: By Special Arrangement

With Madhabi Mukherjee in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Charulata’ (1964). Photo: By Special Arrangement

From the shooting of ‘Deep Six’ directed by Madhuja Mukherjee (in red). This picture, taken just before the lockdown, is one of Soumitra Chatterjee’s last working stills. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020), who captivated and enthralled lovers of serious cinema for over 60 years, was not just an iconic movie star but an inseparable part of the Bengali cultural psyche.

The year was 1961. Uttam Kumar, the superstar of Bengali cinema, was at the height of his powers. To stand up to him on screen, let alone upstage him, was inconceivable to cinemagoers of the time. So when all eyes on the screen suddenly turned away from Uttam Kumar to a tall, handsome young man with a roguish spark in his eyes, it signalled the arrival of a new era in Bengali cinema. The film was Jhinder Bandhi, Tapan Sinha’s adaptation of Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s novel of the same name based on Anthony Hope’s novel The Prisoner of Zenda. Although Uttam Kumar was the hero and had a double role, it was young Soumitra Chatterjee as the charismatic villain, Mayurbahan, who stole the show—unthinkable in an Uttam Kumar-starrer.

This new sensation in Bengali cinema had announced himself two years earlier in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959, the final segment of the maestro’s Apu trilogy). No character could be more different from the swaggering, deadly Mayurbahan than the beautiful, romantic man-child Apu who looked at the world with wide-eyed wonder in spite of life’s vicissitudes. For more than 60 years, the genius and incredible versatility of Soumitra Chatterjee captivated and enthralled lovers of serious cinema. With his death on November 15 from neurological complications after contracting COVID-19, India has lost one of its greatest screen and theatre artistes. Soumitra Chatterjee was 85 and is survived by his wife Deepa, daughter Poulomi Bose, a well-known theatre actress, and son Sougata.

With Soumitra gone, Bengali cinema, too, seems to have lost its sheen. For as long as he was there, it could still dazzle in his reflected glory and the rich heritage he represented, harking back to the “golden age” of Bengali cinema.

But Soumitra was more than just another legend to grace the Bengali silver screen and stage. He was a cultural phenomenon who, in many ways, defined all that was beautiful and enduring in Bengali society, culture and tradition.
Also read: The rich tradition of Bengali cinema

Even in his 80s, he could single-handedly carry a movie by his own charisma, just as he single-handedly carried an entire film industry on his shoulders since 1980 when his great rival and friend Uttam Kumar suddenly passed away at the age of 54. Even when he was well past 80, the audience would watch a film simply because it had Soumitra Chatterjee in it. He could redeem a mediocre film by his presence.

In world cinema, Soumitra Chatterjee’s legend is inextricably linked with that of Satyajit Ray’s. After making his historic debut as Apu in Apur Sansar (1959), he went on to act in such Ray 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), Ganashatru (1989), Shakha Proshakha (1990) and others. It was a collaboration that captured world cinema by storm right from the start, and kept audiences across the globe enthralled for four decades.

The Ray connection

Between 1959 and 1990, Soumitra starred in 14 of Ray’s films, making their partnership as iconic as those between Ingmar Bergman and Max von Sydow, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, and Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski in world cinema. But there was still one film by the master he wished he had been in: Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1975). He once told Frontline: “That bitter role of a pimp. I would have really liked to do that. I cannot say how differently I would have played it, but I would certainly have invested some amount of social awareness in the role.”

Even though for most international audiences, Soumitra’s fame rests on his collaborations with Ray, his work with other eminent Bengali directors such as Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Asit Sen, Ajoy Kar and Goutam Ghose was no less significant. Soumitra himself acknowledged, time and again, the immense contribution Tapan Sinha had on his career. If Satyajit Ray shaped his attitude towards art, cinema and life itself, Tapan Sinha played a major role in honing his craft. Soumitra said: “In my first film with him (Khudito Pashan, 1960), he almost taught me how to walk in front of a camera.” Soumitra’s portrayal of a man haunted by the ghost of his beloved from a previous birth was one his most iconic early roles. He said: “Even in my later films with Tapan Sinha, after I had become an established actor, he would very subtly open my eyes to certain things.” While he always acknowledged the influence Ray had on his life and career, he was also very aware of his own contribution to Ray’s films and legacy. He once said: “…how Satyajit Ray would have been able to make some of his films without me is also a matter of conjecture.” He was one of the few actors to whom Ray gave a lot of freedom to interpret a role.

In a career spanning over 60 years, Soumitra acted in over 300 films. The sheer variety of roles he played is staggering. Romantic comedies, social dramas, crime thrillers, political films, biopics, period pieces—Soumitra did them all. Almost every character that he played, he made his own, making it practically impossible for anybody else to reprise or redefine the role. There have been others who played Ray’s iconic detective Feluda, most notably Sabyasachi Chakraborty, but when one thinks of the Bengali sleuth it is the image of Soumitra that comes to mind, even though he played the part only twice, in Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath.

Similarly, one cannot think of anyone other than Soumitra in the role of the loveable roadside Romeo turning over a new leaf under the influence of the girl he loves in the superhit Teen Bhubaner Paare (1969); nor the sensitive intellectual Amal in Ray’s Charulata; nor the revolutionary village school teacher in Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe. It seemed as though each of these roles was tailormade for Soumitra, and there was no part that he could not handle—be it a glamorous heartthrob, a ragged villager, a decrepit old man, a helpless victim of circumstance, a schizophrenic, or a sinister villain.

Range of characters

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

Neither his appeal nor his stardom waned with advancing age. He continued to remain the most sought-after actor in the Bengali film industry, and delivered seminal performances in Ray’s Ganashatru and Shakha Proshakha, Tapan Sinha’s Atanka and Wheel Chair, Goutam Ghose’s Dekha (2001), and Raja Mitra’s Ekti Jiban (1990). But Soumitra did not bank on his genius alone. Right until the end he brought to the film sets the same passion, discipline and commitment that he had been known for as a young artiste. He revelled in competition; playing opposite formidable actors inevitably brought out the best in him. Once, speaking of his co-star, the legendary Sabitri Chatterjee, he said: “Whenever there was any scene with Sabi, I would rehearse multiple times for it, because she was a scene-stealer.” Sabitri was the actress he admired the most. He had once said: “There are great actresses, but all have some limitations. Sabitri doesn’t have any. She can do anything.”

The admiration was mutual. Sabitri Chatterjee told Frontline: “As a man and as an artiste he was of a different level. Whatever be the size of the role offered to me, if Soumitrada was in the film, I would accept it. The sheer variety of the roles he played and the authenticity he brought to the screen was something unique. Very few people can do serio-comic roles like he could…. If only he were alive, his words would be enough to inspire people.” She said Apur Sansar was the only film she had ever watched twice in succession: “I saw the afternoon show and then the evening show. I have never ever done that with any other film.”
Also read: Interview with Soumitra Chatterjee

Through his roles, Soumitra kept re-inventing himself over the years. Even as a young actor, he had never allowed himself to be typecast; as he grew older, his scope and canvas widened further. 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 Dasgupta, he was “the greatest actor of his time in India.” Speaking to Frontline, Buddhadeb said, “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.”

It could also be argued that Soumitra, because of his collaborations with stalwarts of world cinema such as Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, was India’s biggest international star. In 2012 he was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest award in Indian cinema; in 2017, the prestigious Officier de la Legion d’Honneur (Officer of the Legion of Honour); and 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 Padakhep). He never received any National Award for his roles in the films of Ray, Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha.

Uttam versus Soumitra

When Soumitra entered the Bengali film world, it was practically a one-man industry, with Uttam Kumar reigning supreme and in splendid isolation. In that scenario, for Soumitra to not just establish himself as a new star but also quickly become Uttam Kumar’s main rival was no mean feat. The Bengali cultural society itself was divided over allegiance to the two superstars, much like the fans of the two legendary football clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, or the debate as to who is greater, Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak.

But for all the differences between their respective fans, the two superstars were, in real life, very close friends. According to Soumitra, Uttam Kumar, who was eight years older than him, looked upon him as a younger brother, and the rivalry between them was one of healthy competition. Soumitra once told Frontline: “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.” But Soumitra himself always acknowledged that Uttam was a bigger star than he was. “In terms of popularity, no one can surpass Uttam Kumar. I may have come close, but he was ahead,” he said, although there are many who would dispute with him on the matter.

What allowed Soumitra to stand up to Uttam’s blinding stardom was that he brought to the screen something new that touched a chord in the hearts of the viewers. He introduced a new kind of authenticity and vulnerability in his performances that the audience could at once identify with and look up to. By his choice of roles and his interpretation of characters, he also became a representative of his age and times.

It was his constant search to find the genuine humanity within a character he was playing that defined his art throughout his life. He said: “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.”

The fact that he was completely indifferent to the lure of Bollywood even at the height of his stardom signalled not only an idealistic side to his personality but also perhaps a deep understanding of his craft and a commitment to its principles. He said: “I always believed that an actor excels in most cases in his mother tongue. Unless he is speaking in his mother tongue, he cannot manipulate the language to the best of his abilities, cannot go deep into the nuances. In fact, if I look back, I think my strength as an actor depends on my mastery over Bengali.” Sometimes he would light-heartedly say that it was also because he was “young and naive and did not appreciate the value of money”.

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 like Uttam Kumar. In many ways he rejected his own stardom with his refusal to compromise with his political beliefs and ideology. He was involved with the Left movement from his college days, and never made a secret of his political leanings. 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.

Ever the opponent of right-wing forces, he had no hesitation in signing a protest petition against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act. 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”. While Uttam remained the unapproachable distant lone star with magical glamour, Soumitra never lost his touch with the masses. He admitted: “I would often move around like a common man, take part in processions… [and do] so many things that Uttam Kumar would never do.” No superstar had ever displayed such casual indifference to his own stardom and yet remained such a huge matinee idol as Soumitra.

Born in Kolkata on January 19, 1935, Soumitra spent his early childhood in Krishnanagar. His father, a lawyer by profession, was an enthusiastic amateur actor and introduced Soumitra to the stage while he was still a child. After graduation, he came under the influence of the legendary theatre director and thespian Sisir Bhaduri, from whom he learnt much of his stagecraft.

Theatre continued to be a great passion in Soumitra’s life. In 1978 he 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”. Right until the end of his life, Soumitra maintained a parallel career on stage, which was as critically acclaimed and popular as his film career. Some of his most famous plays 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 Shakespeare’s King Lear. In fact, the stage was like a second home to him, and those who saw him on it could never forget the experience.

It would be wrong to bracket Soumitra as just an actor. Like any great artiste he sought to express himself in various ways. He was a playwright, a poet, a painter and an essayist. He was an intellectual and a dreamer, and even the editor of a magazine. He could sing like an angel and breathe life into words with his voice. He was a man always trying to push his creative boundaries by accepting new challenges and overcoming hurdles life put in his way.
Also read: Contemplating a 'cinematic' century

Even in his most trying times, he was the embodiment of dignity and grace. Until the very end, he continued to work and was prolific in his output. In 2019, he had 15 film releases, and in 2020, he had 12 films either released or in the process of being released. The film-maker and academic Madhuja Mukherjee, who worked with Soumitra in her film Deep Six (currently in post-production stage) was struck by his complete lack of ego when it came to his job and his dedication to understanding his role. “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 much more than a beloved matinee idol. He was an inseparable part of the Bengali cultural psyche. He was not just a household name but a family member in the hearts of millions of Bengalis. His death brings about the end of an age in the history of Bengali culture. There was never another phenomenon like Soumitra Chatterjee, nor will there ever be anyone to take his place.

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