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

Amitava Nag
·6-min read

15 November 2020. A date I will remember forever. We, mere mortals, remember people more with dates than with deeds. In our art to forget, dates are small data to remember. Easy and convenient. The legacy of a phenomenon is a vast knowledge to fathom and imbibe. Along with birthdays, anniversaries and deaths I will, henceforth, add another date to my mental repertoire, a diary of remembrances and of forgetting. As the loss settles the dust in me, I try to gather my thoughts to talk about the man whom I admired both as a person and also as one of India's finest actors of all times.

What sets Soumitra apart? I asked this question so many times before €" under my breath and also in my writings. Probably, his personality, humility and the unvanquished renaissance of wonder. From Rabindranath Tagore to Soumitra via Satyajit Ray, Bengal had a cultural legacy that is deeply rooted to Bengaliness €" an universality of mind liberating the parochial short-sighted vision of lesser mortals. In Bengal we have other actors who were similarly gifted, stars equal to his charisma or even more in Uttam Kumar, but none could over-encompass the Bengali psyche the way Soumitra Chatterjee could achieve with his finesse. He was a poet, an elocutionist, a theatre writer and director, a painter, an editor of one of the finest little magazines of a time. And, he also acted in theatre and cinema!

Acting for Soumitra started off under the tutelage of the legendary thespian of Bengali commercial theatre, Sisir Kumar Bhaduri. It was a brief encounter and their unequal friendship kindled a flame in Soumitra €" to read different types of books, to keep the mind open. Bhaduri once told him to dissect a novel or a script like a detective. To read between the lines, to decipher the hidden facets of the narrative as well as the finer shades of a character. Soumitra put this advice to practice in his cinematic career, creating subtexts or by maintaining a diary.

The other great learning came a few years after from Satyajit Ray about maintaining the professional decorum that the job expects. To be a professional actor, one needs to compromise a bit of his aesthetic sensibility in order to fit a commercial role better. For, he has to believe in the reality the script demands at that moment of acting even though it may seem roundly absurd otherwise.

Soumitra Chatterjee first stood in front of the camera on 9 August 1958 as the grown up Apu in Satyajit Ray's masterpiece Apur Sansar. With Ray, Soumitra had a rare partnership that lasted three decades and 14 films. From the youth to the middle-aged, Soumitra played all ages with equal expertise and reassurance. So much so that on the occasion of a retrospective of Soumitra's films, Ray mentioned, "I do know that to the last day of my artist's life, my dependence on him will remain intact."

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

In her seminal book on Satyajit Ray, Portrait of a Director, Marie Seton comments, "In portraying Apu, Soumitra Chatterjee felt Apu to be the image of the contemporary Indian man in the process of becoming modern€¦ He found half of himself in Apu." Soumitra excelled as the romantic Apu, a child-man who is an extension of nature.

The decade of the '50s was crucial for Bengali cinema. It was that form of entertainment that could balm a fractured collective psyche broken to pieces by the partition of Bengal, better known as the independence of India. A host of directors and artists including Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Salil Chowdhury left their shores to settle in Bombay. The '50s saw the emergence of the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen duo, Bengali cinema's biggest on-screen couple till date. It also saw the advent of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and others. Along with Tarun Majumdar, Asit Sen, Ajoy Kar and a flock of magnificent others, '60s was the golden decade of filmmaking in Bengal, a decade of reconciliation of the earlier times and for extending the creative pursuits further. Soumitra Chatterjee benefitted the most in this milieu as he acted in six Ray films, two Tapan Sinha films, three Mrinal Sen films, three Asit Sen films and four films of Ajoy Kar during this period.

Yet, the magnificence of Soumitra's cinematic legacy lays in the fact that among Indian actors he aged the most gracefully. In every decade that he acted there will be several films worth mentioning, deserved to be preserved and discussed and worthy of accolades in the form of awards. He could play the youth in Apu and Amal (Charulata) with aplomb. And then be the commercial hero dancing with Tanuja in Teen Bhubaner Paare and be the biggest on-screen Bengali sleuth chasing a Bengali dream in Rajasthan for Sonar Kella. In his prime, it was only he who could risk being a villain pitted against Uttam Kumar in a double role, and yet come up trumps with a scintillating exposition of smart acting. And yet, he has to be the recourse for Atanu Ghosh for Mayurakshi as late as in 2017 or of Suman Ghosh for Podokkhep in 2006, which fetched him a National award.

In each of these six decades, Soumitra Chatterjee could sustain himself to be every film director's go-to man when it came to complex roles with pathos that needed a deep sensitive portrayal. There is no mistaking that this had not happened by chance. Soumitra prepared himself through the ages, engaged in extracurricular streams of survival, kept his mind fresh and faculties sprightly.

One such is his first love, theatre. Since the late '70s he moved heavily into theatre, where he would adapt foreign plays, direct them and act. He was among the handful who could bridge the economic pursuits of the commercial stage with the aesthetics of group theatre. Those who watched him in Neelkantha, Tiktiki or Raja Lear had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Soumitra Chatterjee passes away: Redoutable thespian's stage career underscored why he was true renaissance man

He is the only actor in India and probably just among a handful in the world, if at all, who wrote more than 30 plays collected in three volumes, more than 20 collections of poetry anthologies, a painter with exhibitions in several parts of the country, and a non-fiction writer of serious prose. On 15 November, most Bengalis around the world felt an insurmountable sense of loss that is beyond mere grief for a popular actor alone. He became a habit of the Bengali life, and suddenly the vacuum becomes too much to bear.

In his illustrious career, Soumitra received all the awards that an actor can dream of including the highest honours in acting in India and the highest civilian Legion of Honour in France. But accolades never bothered him much. He nourished an amount of self-doubt throughout his creative extravagance. That self-doubt kept him grounded and saved him from behaving in a god-like manner.

In being humble, Soumitra represented the educated, middle-class for a few generations. As long as the spirit of man will remain unconquered, Soumitra Chatterjee will continue to represent us €" the insignificant warriors who all walk through the mist and rise with the sunset.

Amitava Nag is an independent film critic residing in Kolkata. He is one of the founder-members of the film magazine Silhouette and is its current editor.

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

Soumitra Chatterjee passes away: Redoutable thespian's stage career underscored why he was true renaissance man

Soumitra Chatterjee passes away: Narendra Modi, Mamta Banerjee, Swastika Mukherjee mourn the loss of veteran actor

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