Throughout Soumitra Chatterjee’s life, he was never a “star” in the conventional sense. He was always very informal, accessible and easy to talk to. I was still in college when he had become a well-known actor after his debut in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959), followed by working with other famous Bengali directors of that time. He used to hang out at the famous Coffee House on Kolkata’s College Street, where poets, actors and other cultural figures got together. I would look at him in admiration from a distance.
As an actor, he was hugely versatile. Though he is widely known for his performances in Ray’s films, he acted in a number of so-called mainstream films and appeared as a romantic hero. I absolutely loved him in those roles in several movies, including Swaralipi (1961). Completely opposite to that was his performance as a swashbuckling villain in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi (1961), which was based on The Prisoner of Zenda. He was terrific in this period film. He essayed a variety of interesting roles as he worked with directors like Asit Sen, Ajay Kar and Tarun Majumdar, among others.
Later, when one got to know him, it was evident that he was much more than a fine actor. Like his mentor Ray, Soumitra-da was a renaissance man. He was well-read, he used to edit a literary magazine called Ekshan and he has several volumes of poetry published. He was very active in theatre — as an actor and playwright. Needless to say, he was very hard-working and prolific. In spite of the crisis in his personal life and health problems, he did not stop working. He kept writing and acting till the very end.
He was politically conscious and never hesitated to express his political views and take a stand on contemporary issues. In the film industry, people don’t wish to get drawn into political matters. Soumitra-da wasn’t like that. Whenever there was a need to make a statement regarding a political matter, he would be the first one to do so. He joined the protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and the National Register of Citizens. One of the first statements that I signed on this issue was written by him.
Soumitra-da’s interests and accomplishments were wide-ranging. During the shoots, there would be long breaks and we would end up discussing literature, current affairs, and many other things. We acted in a few movies together including Ray’s Ganashatru (1990) and Saibal Mitra’s Dronacharya (2007). We also did a number of poetry readings and literary shows together. He was quite sought-after for poetry readings and to anchor literary shows. I remember one such show at my alma mater, St Xavier’s College, Kolkata. There, I read from Rabindranath Tagore’s memoir in which the Nobel laureate recalls studying at St Xavier’s School for a brief period. At that event, to my utter surprise, Soumitra-da recited a long poem titled Tota Kahini — which is a political satire by Rabindranath Tagore — entirely from his memory. He was a popular figure for such recitations. He had a youthful and expressive voice even when he was in his late 70s. Poetry and recitation came naturally to him. I think it also had to do with the fact that Soumitra-da, who had a master’s degree in Bengali literature, was deeply versed in all aspects of it.
A lot of things have been said about Soumitra-da. I will always remember him for his complete lack of false modesty. Whenever we were together after finishing a shot, he would quietly ask: “Kire, theek hoye chhilo toh? (Do you think it was alright)?” He was a simple person at heart with a deep interest in art, respect for the views of other people. He had no airs. Once there was a mix-up about transport after a show that we did together in the mid-1990s. That day, my wife was accompanying me. Soumitra-da and I lived in different parts of the town. He asked me to take the only available car and offered to hail a regular taxi for himself.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 17, 2020 under the title ‘A renaissance man’. The writer is a veteran actor. As told to Alaka Sahani.
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