“Nishchinto ar thaka gyalo na re Topshe” (There’s no room for complacency anymore, Topshe).
That’s how Pradosh C. Mitter aka Feluda, the inimitable hero of Satyajit Ray’s detective fiction-turned cult movie Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1974), warned his teenage nephew-cum-sidekick Tapesh of the upcoming dangers the duo was about to face in its quest to rescue a six-year old child from the clutches of 'duddharsh dushman' (dangerous dacoits, not of the Aravalli hills but of Kolkata). The dialogue, of course, was mouthed by Ray’s most popular collaborator Soumitra Chatterjee who went on to act in 14 of Ray’s 30 feature films and two shorts over a period of 31 years beginning 1959.
It’s perhaps the same sinking feeling of Feluda’s unsettled perspicacity that permeated the hearts and minds of every Soumitra Chatterjee fan across the globe when news broke on 6 October this year that the 85-year old cultural icon was infected with Covid-19 and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of a private hospital in Kolkata.
Knowledge about his underlying co-morbidities and the fact that he had recovered from pneumonia barely a year ago only worsened that uncanny feeling.
Chatterjee fought valiantly for 40 days in the hospital with Covid-induced Encephalopathy which downed his sensorium, compromised his lungs and weakened his kidneys before giving up the battle which was one-sided from the start. Yet that’s not what I want to talk about here. Chatterjee has provided us with more than enough material to celebrate his life and there are too many takeaways to ignore. An attempt to scratch the surface or take a sneak peek into the highlights of his versatile career is a simultaneously daunting and rewarding experience which his absence from the mortal world today only reinforces.
The Ray-Chatterjee Partnership:
“Acting in Ray’s films gave me an opportunity to get glimpses of the answers to my own problems in life,” Chatterjee had reminisced in his memories of Satyajit Ray before Belgian musician Bo Van Der Werf in 1999 for his documentary Satyajit Ray Negatives. “I tried to find my answers through these characters I played, beginning with Apu. Not in the context of what happened to him, but the way he looked and life and explained its realities,” Chatterjee recounted.
In his memoirs of Ray, The Master and I, Chatterjee described Ray’s “possessiveness” about him as “like a father is of his son” while narrating the “complex but enjoyable relationship” the duo shared.
Opinions on the best outputs of the Ray-Chatterjee partnership, which most definitely went beyond the professional space of collaboration into the more intimate realm of the former mentoring the latter, are likely to be subjective, personal and ferociously owned by movie buffs. But if I were to stick my neck out and choose five Ray movies where Chatterjee dazzled, these would be my picks and in no particular order: Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969); Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973) and Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984).
In 2018, at an emotional function at a hotel in Kolkata, Chatterjee, immaculately dressed as a quintessential Bengali in an embroidered Kurta, dhoti and shawl, was conferred with the highest civilian award of the French Government, Legion d’Honneur: Commandeur de l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, some three decades after his mentor Satyajit Ray was honoured with an identical distinction on the steps of the city’s National Library by then French President Francois Mitterrand. Many, including Satyajit’s son and director Sandip Ray, understandably felt that Chatterjee’s moment of glory made his journey through cinema turn a full circle.
Chatterjee Beyond Ray:
Chatterjee’s collaborations with Ray notwithstanding, his almost unnoticeable passage from a popular Bengali film hero to the hallowed domain of legends of Indian cinema was perhaps because of his ability to go beyond Ray and leave his mark in every aspect of creativity he touched upon.
With possibly the sole exception of Ritwick Ghatak, Chatterjee worked with almost all stalwart directors of yesteryears in Bengal. Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Asit Sen, Ajoy Kar, Tarun Majumder and Dinen Gupta had repeatedly collaborated with Chatterjee and delivered unforgettable narratives forming the crux of film repository belonging not just to Chatterjee but also filled up the cultural space of all those who grew up in Bengal in the latter half of the 20th Century. To their unwavering delight.
Tapan Sinha’s Kshudita Pashan (Hungry Stones, 1960), Jhinder Bandi (The Prisoner of Jhind, 1961) and Atanka (Terror, 1986), Ajoy Kar’s Saat Paake Bandha (Marriage Vows, 1963), Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum (Up In The Clouds, 1965), Tarun Majumder’s Sansar Simante (On the Edge of the World, 1975) and Ganadevata (The People, 1978) and Dinen Gupta’s Basanta Bilap (1973) are only cases in point to a much longer list.
And then consider the so-called “one-offs” with Chatterjee’s relatively unacknowledged director-collaborators, films which are firmly placed in the realm of classics: Bijoy Bose’s Baghini (Tigress, 1968), Salil Dutta’s Aparichito (Stranger, 1969), Asutosh Bandyopadhyay’s Teen Bhubaner Pare (On the Shores of the World, 1969), Nityananda Dutta’s Baksha Badal (The Luggage Switch, 1970), Saroj Dey’s Koni (1984) and Prabhat Roy’s Lathi (The Stick, 1996) to name a few. Chatterjee’s performances in each of them stay as mesmerizingly popular as some of his best-known works with Satyajit Ray.
Chatterjee and Contemporary Filmmakers:
In keeping with his mastery over the medium, Chatterjee went on to become amongst the most sought-after actors with contemporary filmmakers. While Sandip Ray went ahead with his father’s choice in directing Chatterjee in at least two of his movies, one of which was a Feluda story, Chatterjee worked with Rituparno Ghosh’s National Award winning Asukh (Illness, 1999). Aparna Sen – who Chatterjee romanced in many a movie in the black and white celluloid age and, indeed, made her career debut opposite Chatterjee in Ray’s Teen Kanya (Samapti) back in 1961 – was director and co-actor to Chatterjee in Paromitar Ekdin (House of Memories, 2000). The film went on to win three National Awards including best feature film in Bangla that year.
In 2001, Goutam Ghosh’s Dekha (Sight) where Chatterjee played the character of a bitter and ageing poet facing blindness won the actor a special jury award in the National Awards list that year which the actor declined on grounds of questionable “bias” of the awards panel after filmmaker Ghosh had also turned down the award for the Best Bengali Film.
Chatterjee’s roles in Srijit Mukherjee’s Hemlock Society (2012), Nandita Roy/Shiboprosad Mukherjee’s Bela Seshe (2015) and Sujoy Ghosh’s short film Ahalya (2015) remain etched in public memory for their diverse and challenging character portrayals. Special mention should also be made for his stellar performance in Atanu Ghosh’s Mayurakshi (2017) that delved deep into a complex and emotional father-son bonding with co-actor Prosenjit Chatterjee even as both went on to win Filmfare recognition for their roles.
But it was Chatterjee’s stint with economist-turned-filmmaker Suman Ghosh, whose debut venture Podokkhep (Footsteps, 2006) finally gave the actor his first and only National Film Award for Best Actor. He accepted the award with a stinker of a rider: “After decades of acting, I do not attach too much value to it.” The film also went on to win the National Award for Best Bengali Feature Film that year. Ghosh went on to collaborate with Chatterjee in three of his films in the decade that followed.
Indeed, Soumitra Chatterjee’s long and active film career made him perhaps uniquely disposed to act as the only living bridge between the era of black and white classics to the rigorously nuanced modern-day film making. It is that aspect which gave him an edge over his peer and Bengal film industry’s biggest star Uttam Kumar and with whom Chatterjee has so often been compared with. Leaving that cliched comparison aside, the fact that Uttam Kumar passed away in 1980 when he was only 53 left Bengal film aficionados with only Chatterjee to carry that torch through the late 20th Century and into 21st Century filmmaking… a job that Chatterjee performed with remarkable adaptability, consistency and elan.
That is why Soumitra Chatterjee’s profound presence in the world of film appreciation continued to dominate actively over the awe and fondness over Uttam Kumar who is rather looked upon as a romantic hero, a doyen from the past and remains, at best, in the realm of nostalgia.
That is why Soumitra Chatterjee is a crucial part of the living and vibrant cultural life of at least three generations of Bengalis who passed through the previous century into the current millennium. That is why he is so inextricably linked to our coming of age and growing up.
When in 2012 the Dadasaheb Phalke award finally came his way Chatterjee, flanked by then Vice President Hamid Ansari, said in his characteristic manner, “I have always been in doubt with my work,” before going on to thank his admirers for supplying him “with energy and dedication of what I think is good art.”
But Chatterjee wasn’t all about films, has never been. His diverse contribution in performance arts ranged from his life-long bonding with theatre to being a recitation artist of considerable repute (a talent caught on camera by Ray in Chatterjee’s debut film Apur Sansar). Back in 1956, Chatterjee began his career as an announcer with the All India Radio before Ray picked him up for one of the most fruitful collaborations in Indian film history. But his calling for radio turned full circle when at the fag-end of his career, Chatterjee returned to host a widely popular weekly show on a Kolkata-based FM station on a subject close to his heart and over which he maintained considerable expertise: Rabindranath Tagore.
He was also a poet, with over 15 published poetry titles to his credit, and editor of one of Bengal’s most respected literary magazines Ekshan for two decades. Chatterjee’s rather seamless venture into the arena of fine arts working on water colour and acrylic mediums on canvases are well appreciated. It was a passion he preferred to keep largely within the bounds of his closest circles, though.
But theatre always remained Chatterjee’s first love and he returned to it at every opportunity that beaconed. For someone who was handheld and influenced by stage personalities like Mrityunjoy Sil and Sisir Bhaduri during his days as a student, Chatterjee acting prowess on stage had already been shaped by the likes of Ahindra Choudhury even before he stepped into the world of cinema. In the course of time, Chatterjee carried forward the glorious tradition of stage stalwarts who made it big in cinema – actors like Jahar Roy, Utpal Dutta, Rabi Ghosh, Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay, Sabitri Chatterjee and Sobha Sen – and directed and acted in over a dozen plays to bring about a fresh look to public theatre in Bengal.
A journey that started with Mukhosh, an adaptation of WW Jacob’s horror short story, in 1956 went through the annals of Bengal’s stage production history with plays like Phera (1987), Nilkantha (1988), Ghatak Biday (1990), Tiktiki (1995) and Homapakhi (2006), to name a few.
Since November 2010, the thespian’s portrayal of Raja Lear, Shakespeare’s angry old king, in Suman Mukhopadhyay’s adaptation of King Lear allowed Chatterjee to fulfil his long-cherished dream of playing a Shakespearean protagonist and dominate the stage like a colossus before curtains were forced on the play few years later. Chatterjee had publicly regretted the discontinuance and expressed his wish to return for that role which, alas, he never could. In 2011, Chatterjee even wrote, directed and acted in an autobiographical production, Tritiyo Onko Otoeb (The Third Act, Therefore) which mapped the personal, social, political and historical journey he underwent in his eventful life.
Indeed, recognition poured in for Chatterjee much later in his career than he or his fans would have expected them to come. Chatterjee was awarded with Padma Bhushan in 2004 which he accepted after refusing Padma Shri twice before. His skepticism for National Awards possibly stemmed from a latent grudge that some of his best works with Ray and other directors in his heydays weren’t recognized. “A National Award calls for a lot of lobbyism. It is not an honest appreciation of someone’s skill,” the actor had maintained.
One recognition that Chatterjee must have cherished over most others is the Sangeet Natak Akademi Tagore Ratna in 1998 for his contribution to Bengali theatre. Only Dadasaheb Phalke and the French Legion of Honour awards may have equaled that recognition of achievement or marginally more.
Of the four Filmfare awards he won, the Lifetime Achievement Award – South in 1995 may have held some merit for him because one of Chatterjee’s admired directors, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, also shared dais with him for the same award that year.
But Chatterjee’s greatest award has always been the love and admiration of his fans and co-workers in the industry and in the larger cultural space of Bengal. A workaholic to the core, Chatterjee was able to continue performing till his very last day till Covid 19 forced him to be hospitalized. Chatterjee confessed on several occasions that he uttered the refrain “Fight-Koni-Fight”, the leitmotif of Koni, in his own life to lift his ageing spirits in difficult times. He embodied that fighter spirit till the very end.
The lithe, tall man who burst on to the domain of Indian cinema six decades ago with an infectious smile while playing Apu, one of Indian cinema’s most endearing characters, and went on to propound the naturalist style of acting in Bengali cinema and then transitioned to character roles which fitted almost naturally with his graceful ageing, Chatterjee will remain as one of Bengal’s last Renaissance man in a Hall of Fame that’s reserved for a handful.
Thank you, Soumitra Chatterjee, for living amongst us.