Updated: November 16, 2020 8:45:24 am
What can one write about Soumitra Chatterjee? Saying that he was unconventional would be a cliché. He was Satyajit Ray’s favourite actor. His onscreen debut, Apur Sansar (1959), is a landmark in Indian cinema. This information is available at a click.
The Soumitra Chatterjee I remember extends beyond Ray’s films and his screen acting, even if there is no disregarding the fact that Ray’s films played an instrumental part in bringing the actor both national and international acclaim. Alongside Ray, he worked with a range of filmmakers such as Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Ajoy Kar and Dinen Gupta. These are important films not just in his oeuvre but in the history of popular as well as arthouse Bengali cinema. This helped Chatterjee to straddle both worlds and find success in both the streams. Chatterjee himself never favoured these distinctions, as his filmography reveals. His conviction is best reflected in the characters that he memorialised on screen while charting a different path from his contemporaries, especially the superstar of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar. In an interview, Chatterjee also mentions that he constantly thought about his onscreen portrayals, often wondering about the job of the actor and worrying about some of his portrayals, which were contrary to his personal beliefs and ideology.
READ | Being Soumitra Chatterjee
While Uttam Kumar was the matinee idol of Bengali cinema, Chatterjee remained the bhadralok actor whose interests ranged beyond acting such as writing, theatre, music and painting. Chatterjee epitomises an erudite actor — perhaps, a Balraj Sahni would come close to his literary and scholastic achievements. Chatterjee wrote around a dozen volumes of poetry, several prose collections, plays and translations. In the introduction to his collected plays, Chatterjee confessed that life without theatre was unimaginable. He was involved with every aspect of stage theatre. Bengali theatre legend Sisir Kumar Bhaduri was a major influence.
He continued writing, directing and acting in plays even at the peak of his film career. He was unhappy with the state of contemporary Bengali theatre in 1950s and ’60s, which made him explore playwrights from far and wide. These resulted in several landmark productions such as Rajkumar (1982), inspired by the writings of several French and German playwrights, amongst others. The plays he wrote and directed reflected contemporary social concerns. This also went in tandem with his belief in left-wing politics.
A voracious reader, Chatterjee read Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Romain Rolland, Joseph Conrad amongst several others with equal interest. Upon the insistence of legendary Bengali poet and close friend, Shakti Chattopadhyay, he agreed to publish his first book of poems. While preparing to play Apu, he even wrote a fictional biography of the character. For Charulata (1964), he learnt a special calligraphic handwriting. Chatterjee also founded and co-edited Ekshan, a pioneering journal of culture that published Satyajit Ray’s screenplays for the first time. Few Indian actors can rival such a literary graph.
Chatterjee ejected the aura of the star. He would regularly receive phone calls at his residence, greet visitors, step out to receive his mail and accept guests dressed in a lungi. Beyond the acting floor, he lived a regular life.
His acting life is rather interesting for multiple reasons. He played a negative role in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bondi (1961), right after Apur Sansar, Devi, Khudito Pashan and Teen Kanya. This was a risky decision for a young actor. His depiction of a much troubled father worried for the safety of his daughter in Sinha’s Atonko (1984) is unforgettable. He played Debu Pandit in Tarun Majumdar’s screen adaptation of Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay’s Ganadevata (1978), where his character fights for social justice. In Koni (1984), he plays a swimming coach to a poor girl from the slums of Kolkata.
Chatterjee’s acting career is characterised by a diversity of roles that very few of his contemporaries could demonstrate. This diversity was the handiwork of several filmmakers alongside Ray. Ray’s films are, however, more well-known owing to his stature in Indian film history discourse and worldwide. Chatterjee’s work further extends to films made by Aparna Sen, Goutam Ghose, Rituparno Ghosh, amongst others. He continued to work with the younger lot of filmmakers in Bengal today. One of the biggest hits in contemporary Bengali cinema, Belasheshe (2015), featured Chatterjee in a leading role.
In 2013, an exhibition of his doodles, sketches and watercolours revealed another side to his creativity. In the second half of his career, he also emerged as a popular elocutionist. While acting claimed a lion’s share of his time, his engagement with other arts demonstrated the same commitment. In the demise of Chatterjee, we have lost a great thespian, but he should also be remembered as an actor who chose to live a full life beyond the screen.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 16, 2020 under the title ‘A man of many parts’. The writer teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune
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