With the passing of Soumitra Chatterjee, the world is a lesser place. At 85, Chatterjee had spent practically his entire adult life being other people, on screen and stage. But behind all those roles, the essential Soumitra remained the same — grounded, well-read and well-spoken, a man equally comfortable at home and in the world. He was, in fact, a true renaissance man, an upstanding representative of the Bengali bhadralok that once made Calcutta the epicentre of the arts. He may have been best known for his long collaboration with Satyajit Ray, who famously gave him a break in the movies with Apur Sansar, the third film of the Apu trilogy. But he never abandoned his first love, the theatre, and remained, till the end, a man of many parts: A fine poet and playwright, long-time editor of a magazine, and, most importantly, an aware citizen.
Globally, there have been several notable partnerships between director and actor, each bringing their A-game to their films. Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro made nine films. You can see the two stretching to accommodate the other, right from their first feature together, Mean Streets, to their last outing, The Irishman. The same bunch of actors pop up in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen — Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon. Closer home, Rajat Kapoor’s movies almost always feature Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey. And, in the last few years, Hansal Mehta and Rajkummar Rao have become a near two-man repertory.
Ray and Chatterjee worked well together, each growing along with the other. After Apur Sansar came Charulata, Aranyer Din Ratri, Ashani Sanket, the two wildly popular Feluda adventures, Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath, Ghare Baire and Ganashatru. Each film was different, each part distinctive, but you can see both the director and the actor merge their handwriting, to create the necessary outcome. Their partnership was rich and abiding, giving us timeless films. Much of the pleasure of watching Chatterjee at work was that he didn’t make it seem like work. It flowed, like life itself.
Forty Years Ago: November 17, 1980