Between the iconic and the precarious: Notes on Soumitra Chatterjee's six-decade-long filmography

Paromita Patranobish
·10-min read

Arguably one of the most iconic moments in Bengali cinema remains the black and white still of a young Soumitra Chatterjee as Apurba Kumar Roy balancing his infant son on his shoulders, his eyes sparkling with anticipation, a smile reflecting his renewed, matured confidence. The camera tracking the duo's movement alongside panoramic shots of an idyllic river dotted with sailboats opens the narrative into the non-diegetic space of an open-ended future beyond the ending. This moment, along with the rest of the final scene of Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), has percolated into the collective unconscious of Bengali cinema viewership, the appeal of the scene's layered and restrained visual language cohering in Soumitra Chatterjee's masterful use of voice and facial expression to convey the scene's muted intensity.

Chatterjee's Apu in this scene is an estranged father on the verge of realising his blossoming paternal love. His identity still concealed, as he appeals to the little Kajal to join him on his travels, Soumitra is able to bring to this charged encounter at the cusp of a tragic past and the promise of an altered future, a sensitively nuanced interpretation that effectively fuses an almost uncontainable affection with a tender restraint, one that is conscious of the fragility of the moment. To his son's question "who are you?" Apu, after a tentative pause, chooses the word "bandhu" (friend). His briefly hesitating, searching but sincere enunciation of this simple word coupled with a tremulous breaking of the voice suggesting both effusive emotion and a self-consciousness born of deep pain, disillusionment, and uncertainty, is Soumitra at his expressive finest, using face, voice, and gesture to tap into the minutiae of human affect and vulnerability.

How Satyajit Ray prepared Soumitra Chatterjee for his debut in Apur Sansar: Read an excerpt from 'The Master and I'

Apu says "friend" but the utterance not only bears the burden of his journey through the tribulations of adulthood, it becomes a condensed cipher for his diffident yet willing embrace of the new role of fatherhood. In his "bandhu" we hear "father" because the warmth in his gaze and the emotion choking his speech encompass the subtext of a parent's love. The scene's iconicity has another source. In addition to publicity and circulation practices that have often chosen this frame as an emblem for the final part of the Apu trilogy, the tableau of Apu carrying Kajal on his shoulders as they leave the bitterness of the past behind and set out to explore new horizons, also serves as an apt metaphor in the context of the early '60s for the fledgling post-independence nation itself, emerging from the shadows of a colonial past into the brave new world of postcolonial, neoliberal modernity, a culmination thus, in terms of Satyajit Ray's cinematic grammar for the trilogy, of the train that cuts through Nischindipur in Pather Panchali (Song of The Little Road).

Norman Holland in an insightful analysis of the Apu trilogy describes Apur Sansar as a film about the twin themes of progress and connectedness, Soumitra Chatterjee's "subtle expressiveness" as capturing in the amplitude of its versatility, the contentious relationship between the strongly individualistic demands of the liberal bourgeois definitions of progress, and the constraints of the complex kinship and affective ties binding and delimiting the subject within familial, societal, and political rubrics. In his debut feature, Chatterjee delivers the crux of this tension with aplomb. He takes the raw material of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's narrative of a young man's fraught coming of age during the turn of the 20th century as he negotiates the rifts between tradition and modernity, idyllic countryside and rapidly urbanising Calcutta, inherited poverty and oppressive social expectations on the one hand, and liberal education and radical professional aspirations on the other, and contemporanises Bibhutibhushan's modernist literary topos to reflect the challenges and possibilities framing the film's own context. In the process Chatterjee's Apu synthesises the historically anchored particular with the widely universal, the contextually grounded contours of everyday life with abstract and archetypal configurations of freedom, desire, melancholy, compassion, death, and renewal.

Chatterjee's stylised and studied yet fluid acting provides a sharply delineated, closely attentive rendering of the arc of his character's development from wide-eyed village boy through a young man grappling with creative ambitions to his erotic awakening, tempestuous struggles with loss, failure, and disappointments and finally a stoic acceptance of the uneven texture of reality, an acceptance that facilitates an eventual return to and reconciliation with the precarious, compromised innocence of his childhood through a literal and metaphoric recognition of his own child. A remarkable example of this syncretic ability is a scene in Apur Sansar in which Apu engages in a friendly debate with his best friend Pulu about the merits of eschewing the conventional middle class life for the life of an artist. Interspersing his declamatory citations from various poets and his construction of a highly romanticised image of the writer gleaned from readings of Dostoevsky and Lawrence, with a self-deprecating self-reflexivity that offers to his visionary escapades its own structuring inner critic, Apu demonstrates early in the film a fundamental tenor of his character that can harbour devastating poverty to support an ideal yet also give it all up to become an exile without identity, working in utter abjection in the literal pits of the earth in a quarry.

In Soumitra, Satyajit Ray seems to have found a competent actor to give a credible expression to his critical directorial take on the dangers, subterranean violence, and acts of erasure implicit in the utopian, developmentalist orientation of Nehruvian postcolonial modernity. Likewise Soumitra's ability to infuse the archetypal with the historically specific, his ability to work simultaneously in the dual registers of the individual consciousness as it is shaped by particular historical forces, and of a psychic unconscious as a reservoir of accumulated cultural tropes and mythologies, provided an appropriate canvas for Ray's indigenisation of Neorealism with elements from the Indian epic, literary, and iconographic traditions.

On Firstpost: Beyond a screen legend, Soumitra Chatterjee was a habit of the Bengali life, and the vacuum is too much to bear

Be it Prodosh Mitter aka Feluda, the intrepid detective with a staunch social conscience; Asim, the conceited self-proclaimed leader of a group of four friends whose pride undergoes a powerful trial and transformation; Gangadhar Chattopadhyay aka Pandit Moshai, the privileged, somewhat smug village Brahmin who is forced to bear witness to the cataclysm of the Bengal famine; Narsingh, the brash and hot-tempered Rajput taxi driver torn between pride in his lineage and the desire to uphold inherited values that appear to have become obsolete in a world marked by calculating materialism and deception; or more recently, Aryanil, the retired professor of history ironically suffering from dementia's disfigurations of memory; and Chana Da, the solitary octogenarian battling loneliness and abandonment by his children €" in his filmography extending to more than 60 roles, Chatterjee brought to bear upon each performance the cadence of his versatility, a capacity for accessing a range of psychological states and affective registers through a nuanced, considered, and elegant use of the full expressive potentialities of the body, an inflection of script and dialogue, and a mining of the narrative material to score out the subtler shades and complexities underlying larger social dramas. His was a plastic histrionics, a style of acting marked by flexibility and suppleness, while retaining an armature of deliberative, poised and thoughtful delivery, a carry-over from his apprenticeship in the proscenium theatre.

Whether it is Chiranjib, the Robin Hood like underground helper of the poor in Baghini (The Tigress) straddling with deep but at times helpless introspection the defiant but ethically dubious line between an attempt to create avenues of economic self-sufficiency for the poor and unconsciously turning them into passive instruments of his own rebellion against societal standards, Udayan, the revolutionary village schoolmaster in Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds) who as a foil to his royal counterparts engineering a more spectacular coup-de-grace, finds radicalism in the grass-roots politics of universal and equitable education, or the humble, self-effacing yet gritty swimming instructor who chooses a life of anonymous dedication to the search for and persevering creation of a champion swimmer from out of rural children otherwise consigned to a life of illiteracy and hard labour, Soumitra's delineation of the figure of the hero gave it a shade of the everyday, creating in turn a paradigm of the heroic Everyman whose iconicity and claim to exemplarity do not originate from a nameless destiny, the structures of dynastic, caste, class or hetero-patriarchal privilege, but is rather laboriously wrought like in Apur Sansar out of an emotional and ethical core of struggle, maturation, conflict, and transformation.

His is not the performance of heroism as an innate ontological essence or a sociological given but the performative realisation and the manifest becoming-heroic of an ordinary subject trough moral probity, civic participation, and the exercise of compassion. This psychologisation and democratisation of the heroic prototype is a recurrent feature of post-independence popular cinema, a reflection in the sphere of culture of the development of a strong constituency of educated urban and semi urban professional middle class cinema goers. The everyday hero becomes a potent emblem of a rising bourgeois public sphere and emergent ideologies of the new postcolonial national subject in Indian cinema of the '50s and '60s. However, Chatterjee in his multiple interpretations of this heroic motif elaborated it further by highlighting the internal contradictions, psychological struggles, and moral dilemmas that accompany the narrative of individual exemplarity. For each of Chatterjee's protagonists, governing codes of idealism, rebellion against oppressive structures, anarchic protest, uncompromised adherence to moral obligations, forms of charity and generosity, and the quest for social and political justice through which these characters shape themselves, are juxtaposed with the tragic tendency to err, the possibility of hesitation, doubt and failure, the propensity for hubris and self-righteousness, that remain at hand as both the human cost and messy underside of the rhetoric of individual exemplarity.

In Chatterjee's delivery of such roles as Dr Ashoke Gupta in Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People), Sandip in Ghare Baire (The Home and The World), and memorably of Prashanta in Shakha Prashakha (Branches of The Tree), self-recrimination and exhaustion, megalomania and narcissism, and ultimately withdrawal, profound vulnerability, and exile are brought out with flawless conviction as the travails that accompany the individual's quest for personal or moral exemplarity. As a star rendering these deeply human trajectories of tension between subjective independence and ideological frameworks, including the framing of subjectivity itself as a product of a specific sociocultural milieu, inflected by ossified middle class mores, Chatterjee's screen presence in these films becomes an indexical sign of a self-reflexive inquiry into the actor's own relationship with the social space, into the relationship in effect between his cultural iconicity and the field of cultural production sustained by the same fraught bourgeois ideologies that his characters are both determined by and simultaneously contest, often at the expense of risking social and psychological precarity. It is a question I think Chatterjee never stopped asking, whether it was through his early Marxist commitments, his contribution to progressive literature and independent and alternative publishing, or through the power and latitude he brought to his cinematic performances.

Also See: How Satyajit Ray prepared Soumitra Chatterjee for his debut in Apur Sansar: Read an excerpt from 'The Master and I'

Beyond a screen legend, Soumitra Chatterjee was a habit of the Bengali life, and the vacuum is too much to bear

As Feluda COVID-19 test rolls out, few tributes could be as apt for Soumitra Chatterjee and iconic character he portrayed

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