A Day and Night Star

Soumitra Chatterjee is that rare beast: he has the ability to be part of a crowd,and yet stand out.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published: March 24, 2012 3:48:20 am

If,like me,you are always looking for an excuse to re-visit old favourites,the announcement of an award is usually a good opportunity. Soumitra Chatterjee may have received the intimation of the richly-deserved Dada Saheb Phalke award only this week,but he’s been rewarded all his working life. By audiences who never deserted him,and directors who sought him out repeatedly.

Soumitra Chatterjee is that rare beast: he has the ability to be part of a crowd,and yet stand out. In Satyajit Ray’s classic Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights In The Forest),his character is one of four young men who set out from Kolkata for a journey into the aranya. The foursome arrives at a forest guest house and bullies its way in: the poor chowkidar is as cowed by the wallet-flourishing gang as is the second-in-command. And by the time the Big Babu forest ranger shows up,they’ve co-opted a family in a near-by house. An old gentleman,two lovely ladies,and a small child comprise this group. They spend time playing memory games with the citified ladies,and more physical ones with the tribal women who come to the drinking-house with the same aim: to get plastered and to forget. The film is an allegory that works best in its unstated portions,and Chatterjee,like the other characters,goes back,having both lost and gained.

In Apur Sansar,Chatterjee is the lord and master to his child bride,played by a very young Sharmila Tagore; in Aranyer Din Ratri,Ray pairs him again with Tagore,and you see how he is different,in turn making the much less-versatile Tagore different too. But one of my most enjoyable Chatterjee outings is probably yours too. In Joi Baba Felunath,he plays a smart sleuth who cracks the mystery of a disappearing golden Ganesha. The setting is Varanasi,and the film teems with wonderful characters — a bodybuilder who takes a child-like pride in counting all the muscles in his body,a sinister dhoti-clad Marwari businessman who declares his interest in the idol very early on (one of Utpal Dutta’s nicest parts),a little boy who helps solve the mystery (another of Ray’s winning child actors),and of course,Soumitra Chatterji,who unfussily and unshowily shows us who is the real star of the film. The one and only Feluda.

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