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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Ray was possessive of me, like a father is of his son: Soumitra Chatterjee

Soumitra Chatterjee, 85, has worked with Satyajit Ray in 14 feature films and two shorts. This is considered to be one of the most enduring artistic collaborations in the history of contemporary cinema. In his six decade long career, Chatterjee has worked with several other renowned directors including Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen. However, it's Ray who has played an important part in shaping the legendary actor's sense and sensibilities.

Written by Alaka Sahani | New Delhi |
Updated: May 26, 2020 9:23:20 pm
Soumitra Chatterjee, Soumitra Chatterjee interview, Soumitra Chatterjee Indian Express, Soumitra Chatterjee on Satyajit Ray, Eye 2020, Sunday Eye, Indian Express, Indian Express news Soumitra Chatterjee in Kolkata (Express Photo by Partha Paul)

How did you become an actor? Did Satyajit Ray consider you for any film other than Apur Sansar (1959)?

I was interested in acting from an early age when I was a student in Howrah Zilla School, and, later, in college (City College, Kolkata).
I was in college when Pather Panchali (1955) was released. When Manikda (as Ray is fondly called) was looking for someone to play the lead in Aparajito (1956), a friend of mine, who was assisting him, introduced me to him. He found me to be too grown up and tall for that role. Aparajito travelled to Venice Film Festival and got the best film award (the Golden Lion). At a press conference there, Manikda declared that he was going to make the third part of the trilogy. After he returned to Kolkata, he mentioned that he had someone in mind for the role of the adult Apu. I had no inkling that he was considering me. Some years after the making of Apur Sansar, I was told it’s after meeting me that he made up his mind about making the third film of the trilogy.

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Apur Sansar was your debut film. How did it change your life?

The movie launched my career and gave me the opportunity to be a professional actor. Till then, I had only played small parts on stage. With Apu, I finally found what I was looking for.

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You have spoken about Ray not interfering when you faced the camera. Was that the case from the start?

It was like that from the beginning. Before the shoot of Apur Sansar began, he groomed me to a great extent. He gave me the film’s synopsis and shared his idea of the character. Those days, theatres used to screen good Hollywood movies on Sunday mornings. I accompanied him to cinema halls. Occasionally, he would point out certain aspects of the performance. The greatest inspiration for me, however, was Pather Panchali. While watching this movie, it struck me that this was how our performance should be.

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You have worked with many top directors, including Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen.

I was a sought-after actor from the beginning. After Apur Sansar, I acted in Tapan Sinha’s Kshudhita Pashan (1960), and then with Asit Sen (Swayambara, 1961) and Mrinal Sen (Punascha, 1961). Apart from Manikda, Sinha is the other director from whom I have learnt the tricks of the trade.

Soumitra Chatterjee, Soumitra Chatterjee interview, Soumitra Chatterjee Indian Express, Soumitra Chatterjee on Satyajit Ray, Eye 2020, Sunday Eye, Indian Express, Indian Express news Soumitra Chatterjee in a still from Sonar Kella. (Source: Express Archives)

In your book, The Master and I (2015), you have mentioned how Ray grew possessive about you later on.

When Sinha offered me the movie, I asked Manikda if I should accept it. Manikda told me that I must do it and never miss such opportunities. He was possessive in a different way, like a father is about his son.

How did you react to Ray casting other male leads in his movies?

Well, every time Manikda made a film, I would have been happy to do it. But that was not possible. I was working in many films. He became my mentor. It is from him that I came to know more about films. I was a keen student of literature. That helped me to converse with him about various things. I used to borrow books, including those about cinema and acting, from him. It was a complex but enjoyable relationship.

From being Apu to Feluda, you played a wide range of characters in his movies. Since Feluda was such a popular literary figure, did you feel a sense of responsibility?

Not really. Whenever I work in a film, I try to go deeper into the character. Manikda had already given me so many kinds of role such as Amulya in Samapti (Teen Kanya, 1961), Narsingh in Abhijaan (1962), Gangacharan in Ashani Sanket (1973), which I could strongly relate to as I come from a small town (Krishnanagar in Nadia district) and had experienced the aftermath of the 1943 Bengal famine. However, I was happy about one fact when I became Feluda: I was finally playing a character that my children would love. But when Feluda became a cult figure, I used to wonder why should people, particularly the young ones, know me only for playing Feluda? Later on, I realised I was mistaken. Even if one young child remembers me as Feluda that makes me happy as an actor.

Soumitra Chatterjee, Soumitra Chatterjee interview, Soumitra Chatterjee Indian Express, Soumitra Chatterjee on Satyajit Ray, Eye 2020, Sunday Eye, Indian Express, Indian Express news Director Satyajit Ray with cameraman Soumendu Ray and actor Soumitra Chatterjee (extreme left). (Source: Express Archives)

Can you pick your favourite characters from Ray’s movies?

That’s very very tough. I have worked with 14 of his feature films and two short films. I acted even in the very last film Uttoran (1994) that he wrote. We were to start shooting for it in February 1992 but he was hospitalised a month earlier. After he passed away (on April 23, 1992), his son Sandip completed it. After working with Manikda in so many films spanning so many years, it seems to me as if all this were one big film.

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Any regrets?

All those Ray movies that I could not be part of bothers me. For instance, I asked Manikda to cast me as Goopy in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). He told me that I did not fit the image that he had for the character. When I watched the film, I was completely bowled over by the magnificent performance of Goopy by Tapen Chatterjee. It was almost decided that I would play the role of Ashoke in Kanchenjungha (1962). My dates didn’t match with its schedule. Eventually, Arun Mukherjee played it and he has done such a good job.

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