Almost six decades ago, in the summer of 1962, Soumitra Chatterjee was shooting for Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan (‘The Expedition’) in the scorching 45-degree-celsius heat of Birbhum in West Bengal. That day, the young actor was visibly struggling with exhaustion, fatigue, and the heavy makeup that he had to wear to play Narsingh, the lead. The production manager Anil Chowdhury noticed this and told the director, “Soumitra is struggling, can we pack up?” Soumitra recalled in his 1993 memoir Manikdar Sange (‘Manik Da and I’) that Ray responded to this with a softly voiced, “Well, you cannot become a good actor without struggle”. Soumitra wrote that he was a little hurt with this comment coming from his beloved mentor, but did not say anything. A few days after returning to Calcutta and during the shooting of a crucial indoor scene, the exhaustion finally got the better of Soumitra. A sudden dizziness made him fumble, and he avoided falling by holding on to a rod as support. Ray noticed this, came towards him, and asked him with a straight face, “What happened, are you feeling unwell?” Out of pride, Soumitra replied with a curt “No”. After staring at him for a few seconds, Ray said, “Pack up”.
To say today that Soumitra Chatterjee has earned the distinction of being a ‘good actor’ would probably be the understatement of the century. Even the term ‘great actor’ does not suffice. Soumitra is a cultural icon, a national treasure, and among the trailblazers of Indian art cinema. However, in the prolific media coverage that the actor has received in his astonishingly long career, he is still occasionally provincialised as a ‘Bengali’ actor — even though he is arguably the greatest living acting legend in India after Dilip Kumar. While Chatterjee has had no dearth of international recognition in his six-decade-long career (including being awarded the Legion d’Honneur and Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the government of France) his position in the national cinematic imagination is a little more skewed.
After refusing the Padma Shri several times, he received Padma Bhushan in 2004 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award eight years later. He received his first National Award for Best Actor only in 2006, for Suman Ghosh’s Podokkhep (‘Footstep’), after a few Special Jury Awards. Perhaps one of the reasons behind this is Soumitra’s non-presence in Hindi films despite an incredibly prolific career in Bengali commercial cinema. While he never publicly expressed any prejudice against Bollywood, his conscious decision to focus on Bengali cinema may have stemmed from a combination of professional pragmatism (remember Uttam Kumar’s tumultuous Bollywood phase? Very few do outside Bengal, proving the point) and a sense of firm intellectual rootedness.
The second reason could be the inevitable typecasting of Soumitra as ‘Satyajit Ray’s protagonist’, glossing over the diversity of his oeuvre. While Soumitra’s close personal and professional association with Ray is definitely comparable to the Akira Kurosawa-Toshiro Mifune and Ingmar Bergman-Max Von Sydow partnerships, we conveniently forget that his career continued to flourish even after Ray’s death in 1992. He has remained a powerful presence in group theatre (including unforgettable performances in many productions of a King Lear adaptation on the Kolkata stage since November 2010), popular and art cinema, television, spoken word poetry, and even in digital shorts (you can watch the Sujoy Ghosh-directed Ahalya here).
Before that, even during Ray’s lifetime, Soumitra never confined himself to acting. Instead, he defined himself as an indefatigable cultural worker. He is a poet, playwright, theatre director, and spoken word artist, achieving considerable stature in each of these fields. Two volumes of his collected plays (some translated from plays in other languages into Bengali) have been published, as has a big fat collection of his poems. For some time, Soumitra co-edited a brilliant Bengali cultural magazine called Ekkhon.
Most recently, Soumitra has been in the news due to his harrowing battle with Covid-19. As we continue to hope for his full recovery, this personally curated list below is an attempt to remind readers that Soumitra is not just ‘Satyajit’s actor’ or a ‘Bengali icon’, but an institution in himself. The 20 performances listed below are intended as a starting point to explore the astonishing depth and range of his cinematic achievement.
1. Apur Sansar (‘The World of Apu’; 1959)
An immortal classic of world cinema, the third and final instalment of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy also marked Soumitra’s screen debut. In the previous two films of the trilogy three different actors portrayed the role of Apu. Soumitra, who came to Calcutta after spending his early childhood in the culturally vibrant town of Krishnanagar, offered himself for the role of Apu in Aparajito (1956) when he was still in university. But Ray thought that he was too tall to play an adolescent Apu. However, within two years, when Soumitra was working at All India Radio, he was called back for the lead in Apur Sansar. While Ray was shooting for Jalsaghar (‘The Music Room’; 1958) with Bengali screen legend Chhabi Biswas he introduced young Soumitra as the actor “who is playing Apu in my next film Apur Sansar”. A remarkable cinematic relationship of both collaboration and mentoring was thus born. In addition to Ray’s genius, watch the film for Soumitra’s incredibly cerebral screen presence and meticulous delivery, starting a new era for Bengali acting (quite distinct from the legacy set by another of Soumitra’s early mentors: theatre legend Sisir Kumar Bhaduri). Plus, who can forget the smouldering chemistry between Soumitra and young Sharmila Tagore as his wife?
2. Jhinder Bandi (‘The Prisoner of Jhind’; 1961)
Director Tapan Sinha, whose name should absolutely be taken in the same breath as the trinity of Ray-Sen-Ghatak, first worked with Soumitra in his Tagore adaptation Kshudhita Pashan (‘Hungry Stones’; 1960), but it was in Jhinder Bandi that we see the first proper exploration of Soumitra’s acting range. He played the antagonist Mayurbahan, standing tall against Uttam Kumar’s conventional hero. The film was based on a novel by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, which in turn was significantly inspired by Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. A friendly but sustained rivalry between two schools of stardom so began. Watch it for the scenes featuring the two titans, and also for Ali Akbar Khan’s compositions.
3. Abhijan ( ‘The Expedition’; 1962)
Soumitra was a fascinating casting choice for the cynical and hot-headed taxi driver Narsingh, struggling to balance pride, guilt, and passion. The actor responded to the challenge, brilliantly highlighting the complexity and ambiguity in his character. Also, watch for his chemistry with Waheeda Rehman as Gulabi and with the always underrated Ruma Guha Thakurta as Narsingh’s first love Neeli. Before his proper breakthrough later in the decade, Rabi Ghosh shines here as well in a small role as Narsingh’s industrious assistant.
4. Saat Pake Bandha (‘Marriage Vows’; 1963)
This is not a list of Soumitra’s best performances. If it were, I doubt if Ajoy Kar’s Saat Pake Bandha would have found a place. Soumitra, as the gentle yet insecure academic Sukhendu, played second fiddle to Suchitra Sen, whose stunning performance as Archana earned her global accolades. The film was an out and out vehicle for Suchitra’s superstar appeal and charisma, and Soumitra supported her with aplomb. I also included it to highlight the under-appreciated partnership between Soumitra and Ajoy Kar, an important figure in the history of popular Bengali cinema. They have worked together in six films, and the actor always held Kar in high regard.
5. Charulata ( ‘The Lonely Wife’; 1964)
Perhaps the pinnacle of Satyajit Ray’s cinematic achievement and his most mature film, Charulata was also a milestone in Soumitra’s career for his ability to portray with acute sensitivity the naiveté, fragility, and energy of artistic aspiration. Make sure to notice Soumitra’s attention to detail in this film. Because the film was set in the late 1870s and featured many shots of his handwriting, Soumitra studied old manuscripts and documents so he could reproduce the patterns of Bengali handwriting in the Pre-Tagorean age.
6. Akash Kusum (‘Up In The Clouds’; 1965)
Although Soumitra had worked with Mrinal Sen before in Punascha (‘Over Again’; 1961) and Pratinidhi (‘The Representative’; 1964), this saga of aspiration and deception is perhaps their most fruitful collaboration. Soumitra considered Akash Kusum a truly modern film. Later, he wrote in an essay titled ‘Priyo Choritro’ (Favourite Character) about his role of the middle-class executive Ajay Sarkar: “The conflict between dream and reality as envisioned in the tension between extroverted and introverted self in the character really attracted me to the role. I am always drawn by an opposition between stark reality and colourful romanticism, and I found that in the role in abundance.”
7. Baghini (‘Tigress’, 1968)
An under-appreciated gem as far as Soumitra’s performance is concerned, Bijoy Bose’s Baghini features him as Chiranjib, a protagonist with a political past, opposite Sandhya Ray. The movie released in a highly charged political climate where Bengali youth were experiencing an overwhelming sense of disillusionment, and Soumitra’s somewhat Robin Hood-like traits in the role connected well with the audience.
8. Aparichito (‘Stranger’; 1969)
Salil Dutta is another relatively unacknowledged Soumitra collaborator, and they have done several films together. This movie was based on a novel by Samaresh Basu, and the plot seemed to have significant influences from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Idiot. In this film, featuring the Uttam-Soumitra duo (they did nine films together), the mental health challenges of naïve and immature Sujit were evocatively portrayed by Soumitra.
9. Teen Bhubaner Pare (‘On The Shores Of The Worlds’; 1969)
One of Soumitra’s most enduringly popular films, Teen Bhubaner Pare was also a turning point in his career. The film, directed by Ashutosh Bandyopadhyay, was a huge hit, due in part to the compositions of Sudhin Dasgupta (voiced beautifully by Manna Dey), but perhaps an equally significant factor was Soumitra’s performance as the working-class hero Subir trying to juggle the energetic spirit of youth with societal expectations. Soumitra, of course, had already established his range in his diversity of film roles. But when the middle-class Bengali audience, which did not limit itself to viewing just ‘serious’ or ‘parallel’ cinema, saw Soumitra’s delightfully carefree dance to the tune of ‘Jibone Ki Pabo Na Bhulechi Shey Bhabona (I enjoy life without bothering about what I don’t have)’ (watch it here), a new kind of urban hero was born — one whose appeal was distinct from Uttam Kumar’s charm of fading youth. This marked a period of immensely popular appeal, which has endured for the subsequent five decades.
10. Baksa Badal (‘The Luggage Switch’; 1970)
Soumitra has written that he has a special weakness for comical characters, but to include Baksa Badal (based on a short story by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay) over the far more popular Basanta Bilap (1973) as a celebration of Soumitra’s comedic strength might raise a few eyebrows. I will stick to my decision simply because I find Baksa Badal to be more cerebral with strong overtones of the kind of Hollywood screwball comedies that Ray admired so much. I also think it has aged better. Baksa Badal, incidentally, was practically a Ray unit film. It was directed by Ray’s assistant director Nityananda Datta, and Ray himself wrote the screenplay and composed the music. Although commercially released later, the shooting of the film was done in 1964.
11. Ashani Sanket (‘Distant Thunder’; 1973)
Set against the backdrop of the devastating Bengal famine of 1943, Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket holds a special significance in this wretched plague year. The travails of the idealist doctor Gangacharan, played by Soumitra, echoed the greater realities of the individual and collective struggles of rural India in the face of poverty and starvation. According to Soumitra himself, Gangacharan became a symbol of the resistance of the peasant class during the famine. Soumitra wrote in Manikdar Sange of how he strove to pick up the Nadia dialect used in the film by accompanying the director for location scouting and noting not just how the rural populace spoke, but also their mannerisms and gestures. The skill of the actor is also noticeable in the ways he conveyed the indignities of starvation in his facial expressions during the close-up shots: be it in a desperate gulp or stone-faced indifference during the brutalities of purely transactional encounters, such as providing medical help to an ailing neighbour for some food.
12. Sonar Kella (‘The Golden Fortress’; 1974)
When Soumitra played Feluda, one of the most famous fictional youth icons of Bengal, he was already 38 years old. During Ray’s second and final Feluda venture Joi Baba Felunath (‘The Elephant God’; 1978) he was in his mid forties. Yet, so strong was Soumitra’s influence in visually establishing the sleuth in the Bengali cultural psyche that even Satyajit Ray’s later illustrations and sketches of the character in books had a ‘Soumitra look’. Arguably, Sonar Kella paved the path for Soumitra becoming a cultural icon for Bengalis of all ages. While Feluda, the character which Ray created in the mid 1960s for popular Bengali periodicals, did have an appeal beyond the intended audience of children and young adults, Soumitra’s cinematic portrayal established him as a reliable role model in many households, and a popular fictional character was transformed into an iconic cultural treasure. Soumitra and Feluda became almost interchangeable from then on.
13. Sansar Simante (‘On The Edge Of The World’; 1975)
Soumitra has a lot of respect for the sensitive and elegant style of filmmaking of Tarun Majumdar, one of the stalwarts of Bengali popular cinema. Aghor is a memorable role for Soumitra, and he has written about his fond memories of shooting for the film. The screenplay was based on a story by Premendra Mitra, a literary genius. Soumitra and Majumdar’s successful collaboration continued in Ganadevata (‘The People’; 1978) where Soumitra’s role of Debu Pandit remains equally unforgettable. Sansar Simante, however, is a more structurally sound piece of work.
14. Koni (1984) Directed by Saroj Dey
Saroj Dey’s Koni, a tale of triumph over adversity, was based on the Bengali novel of the same name by the sports journalist and novelist Moti Nandi. The National Award-winning film tells the story of Koni (played by the accomplished swimmer Sriparna Banerjee) who is brought up in poverty but competes nationally as a swimmer with the guidance of her coach Khitish Sinha, fondly known as Khit Da (played by Soumitra). The film’s rallying catch phrase —“Fight Koni Fight!” — continues to inspire, and the performance arguably ranks among Soumitra’s finest.
15. Atanka (‘Terror’; 1986)
Tapan Sinha’s mid- to late-career works show his skill at marrying technical solidity with empathy. His three films featuring Soumitra in the span of eight years — Atanka (1986), Antardhan (‘Disappearance’; 1992), and Wheel Chair (1994) — were all significantly successful. In essence, all three are tales of moral courage, struggle, and resilience. In Atanka, Soumitra plays an elderly school teacher who witnesses a gruesome murder committed by some of his ex students. A memorable line from the film was, “Mastermoshai… apni kichhui dekhen ni (Dear Sir, you have not seen anything)”. It resonated sharply with the contemporary Bengali society grappling with a decline in collective moral courage. This was also reflected beautifully in Antardhan, where Soumitra played a retired college professor determined to rescue his daughter (played by Shatabdi Roy) from sex traffickers. Antardhan earned Soumitra his first Special Jury Award in the National Film Awards.
16. Asukh (‘Illness’; 1999)
This was Soumitra’s first venture with Rituparno Ghosh, who directed some of his best works in the early to late 1990s. Asukh was a National Film Award winner, but remains a rather unacknowledged classic for its masterful portrayal of the dynamics of a father-daughter relationship. Both Soumitra and Debashree rose to the occasion in conveying the helplessness, despair, and distrust that can emerge during a crisis in the family.
17. Paromitar Ekdin (‘House of Memories’; 2000)
In this feminist classic directed by Aparna Sen, Soumitra played a rather small role as Monimoy or Moni Da, the estranged lover of Sanaka (played by Sen herself). In his youth, Monimoy could not gather the courage to defy their families and elope with Sanaka, and their love for each other remained unrequited. Sanaka, trapped in a deeply unfulfilling marriage, regained contact with Moni later, even monetarily supporting him regularly. The resigned dilemma of Moni — shuffling between desperation, regret, and guilt — is poignantly expressed by Soumitra, magically transcending the narrative potential of the character. Particularly compelling are the scenes in which Sanaka’s raw frustration supplement Moni’sense of ignominy.
18. Dekha (‘Sight’; 2001)
Soumitra’s performance as a bitter and ageing poet facing near blindness in Gautam Ghose’s adaptation of a short story by Sunil Gangopadhyay earned him his second Special Jury Award. However, Soumitra flatly refused to accept what he termed a “consolation prize”, citing the credibility deficit of the controversy-ridden National Film Awards. In solidarity, director Gautam Ghose too declined to accept the National Award for Best Bengali Film.
19. Podokkhep (‘Footsteps’; 2006)
In economist-turned-filmmaker Suman Ghosh’ debut feature film, Soumitra plays a retired banker and widower called Shashanka. The narrative revolves around Shashanka’s dynamics with his daughter (played by Nandita Das), and even more importantly, with his neighbours’ little girl who gives him a new lease of life. His impeccable execution of the boredom and insecurities of old age finally won him his first Best Actor prize at the National Film Awards. This time, Soumitra decided to accept, telling the Hindustan Times in 2008 (when the awards were announced) that he might have refused it a few years earlier but now that he was “older” he viewed things from a “different perspective”. He also said that he accepted the award as a nod to his fans: “They would be hurt and offended if I turned it down. How can I disappoint those who have been watching my films for the last 50 years and have given me so much love?”
20. Mayurakshi (2017)
I consider filmmaker Atanu Ghosh to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Bengali cinema. The acutely sensitive portrayal of the intimacies of a father-son relationship amid the ravages of old age and dementia makes Mayurakshi one the best Bengali films of the last few years. Soumitra plays an 84-year-old former history professor whose son (played with subtlety and restraint by Prasenjit Chatterjee) visits from Chicago while fighting his own personal battles. The beautifully shot scenes of emotional bonding between these fine actors can easily bring a tear to the eye, and also prove that for Soumitra’s age is no obstacle in reaching new heights of excellence.
Now, I can already hear the faint war cry of purist Soumitra fans, so let me clarify: this is a very personal and subjective list. It was hard to leave out acclaimed films such as the 1983 release Agradani (which I found a tad too melodramatic), Kshudhita Pashan (‘Hungry Stones’; 1960) or even Wheel Chair. So, let me just leave them there as ‘honourable mentions’, while also setting the record straight that pretty much every work of Soumitra with Ray is a safe bet to watch. Wait! Not every work. Maybe leave out Ganashatru (‘Enemy Of The People’; 1990). Why? Well… that’s a subject for another article.
Somak Mukherjee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, University of California-Santa Barbara
This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.