Cinema, theatre, television – in his entire life, Soumitra Chatterjee must have worked with thousands of directors. I am just one of them. But much before that, I am an eternally captivated fan, one among lakhs of his fans but still a little different, he would smile every time I told him that. While growing up, however, I was equally a diehard fan of Mahanayak (Uttam Kumar), and knew by heart the films featuring the two. Soumitra Kaku was one of the two legends I lived close to, the other was renowned filmmaker Mrinal Sen. Seeing them from up close would feel like having conquered the world. I must have been in Class VII or VIII, when I saw him for the first time. I had gone to buy medicines for my grandfather in my maternal uncle’s neighbourhood, right next to Priya Cinema hall. When I entered the store, he was there right in front of me buying medicines. I saw people gawk at him, but he remained nonchalant. Pocketing his purchase, he left in his Ambassador car. Absurd, but in that moment, I’d wished he’d look at me once. Many moons later, when I came to know him well, I recounted this incident. He replied, “Do you remember what medicine I bought that day? Must have been for headache. That is often required in this field.”
Ever since I was bitten by the filmmaking bug, I had just one dream – once, just once, I wanted to work with Soumitra Chatterjee. When god wills, he showers in abundance. Life would had been worthwhile with just one film, but over time, we ended up doing six – four feature films and two telefilms. In the initial days, my hands would tremble when I handed over the Bengali screenplays to someone as scholarly as him. My Bengali was rusty, I told him, my roots were in Allahabad more than in Kolkata. Careful not to embarrass me, he had a special way — whatever he didn’t want to hear, he would feign that he hadn’t heard it. No wonder he kept saying that the entire film industry knew that he was hard of hearing!
My tryst with him started in 2005, with the telefilm Asamapto. The shooting location was a stone’s throw away from his Golf Green residence in south Kolkata. On the first day after lunch break, the camera stopped working. Immensely anxious, I was wondering how long it would take for the replacement camera to arrive and when next will I get Soumitra Kaku, actors Kaushik Sen and Indrani Haldar’s dates together when the power went off, adding to my woes. Right then, he called for me. When I went to him, on the third floor, I saw that the scene had changed. The unit had moved into the balcony and were seated around him as he was regaling them with anecdotes, drenched in sweat in that hot summer afternoon. I was standing at a distance and watching the scene, marvelling at his zest for life, when he beckoned me and said, “Listen, such hindrances are natural while shooting. If the director gets worked up, it affects his craft. Instead, listen to a PJ of mine, it will ease your nerves. PJ maane jaane toh (you know what a PJ is)? A poor joke!” His humour was impeccable. Once during a load-shedding at his exhibition, he remarked, “the ambience couldn’t have been any better to showcase an amateur’s paintings.”
I had worked with him before, but somehow, during Mayurakshi (2017), I rediscovered him. Four days before I was scheduled to narrate the script to him, his grandson met with a terrible accident. I was hesitant, but he insisted on hearing the script on schedule. He had a peculiar habit during script-reading sessions — he’d sketch along, translating his visceral perception of the story on to paper. To my great surprise, that sketch would reflect the theme of the film. On being egged on, he would say, “this is a special medium to establish a deep relationship with the character.” During both Angshumaner Chhobi (2009) and Rupkatha Noy (2013), he made two such lovely pencil sketches. But during Mayurakshi, he couldn’t draw. He listened with rapt attention and later told me, “This is your and your father’s story. One day, tell me about your father in great detail.” He took the time to hear about my scientist father and his insatiable curiosity for things. I was astounded by the length an actor goes to to bring to life his character. Perhaps, this is true only for an actor of his calibre.
During the making of Mayurakshi, music director Debojyoti Mishra and I wanted him to sing the song Babachheler gaan instead of settling for a playback. He refused point blank. At his age, he has no song left in him, he said, that he goes off-key and out of breath, and the film would suffer because of his attempt. I urged Debuda to sing the track for the moment while I tried convincing him again afterwards. Debuda was hesitant — given the intricacy of the composition (the ascent and descent), shooting it in someone else’s voice and then having Soumitra Kaku sing over it would make it even more difficult for him, he said. But we had no choice. Soumitra Kaku was happy to hear the playback, “how well Debu has sung,” he said, and was especially delighted that he would get to do a song sequence after years. I saw my chance and told him I’d retain the song – a crucial sequence – only if he sang it, “Your voice is very familiar, it has its own importance,” I said. He sank deep in thoughts and remained silent. After a few days, he rang me up to enquire whether I had changed my mind. I had not and he agreed eventually. It was a day of celebration for us. Uncannily, his recording was a perfect fit for the shoot. It still surprises me how quickly and effortlessly he accomplished the difficult task. The world knew how deft he was at dubbing, but that he could create magic with music as well, we hadn’t a clue.
Of late, age, illness and anxiety would leave him somewhat tired and sullen at times. But when he was in the mood, he was the King of Kings, ready to meet everyone’s demand, share endless stock of anecdotes, laughter and childlike exuberance. Great artistes tie us in invisible bonds of affection, salve our wounds and hope that we give equal regard to their limitations and pain as we do to their talent and intellect.
Wherever Mayurakshi has travelled, audiences haven’t been able to distinguish between the real-life Soumitra and his onscreen characterisation of Sushobhon. His character’s incomparable credibility has left many crying profusely at screenings. He had once told me, “Film acting is successful only when it creates maximum effect using minimum strokes.” This unique ability to establish a spiritual relationship with one’s character with a tiny stroke of a brush will remain unforgettable forever. In these dark times, devoid of ideal and inspiration, he was the beacon of light to us. The light of knowledge, of feeling, of creativity. The amalgamation of so many different qualities in a human being is so rare.
No longer will any story draft written with him in mind would come out of the drawer, but my search for him will continue. In a scene from Mayurakshi, he draws a window in the clouds with his hands and says to his onscreen son (Prosenjit Chatterjee), “If you feel distressed, do come and sit here. You can see me.” That window is mine. All my life I will look up at the sky, at that window, to find him there.
Atanu Ghosh is a National Award-winning filmmaker
(Translated from Bengali by Tanushree Ghosh)
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