15 November 2020

Bidding Adieu to a Colossus

19.01.1935 - 15.11.2020

He was Apu. He was Feluda. He was Amal. He was the handsome star with the gentle smile. He was my introduction to Satyajit Ray. And he was the reason that I began to explore Bengali cinema. Watching him in black & white on a grainy 16” television introduced me to sub-titled films – Apur Sansar (1959), Devi (1960), Charulata (1964), Aranyer Din Ratri (1970), Ghare Baire (1984), Kapurush (1965)
If all the films I mentioned are Ray films, that’s because Soumitra Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray had a unique working relationship – 14 classic movies. It’s not as if he didn’t act with other renowned directors, Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen among them. But it was through Ray’s films that Chatterjee was introduced to the world beyond Bengal’s borders. Ray himself was minimal in his praise of his constant collaborator, but in 1990, for a retrospective of Chatterjee’s films, Ray wrote, “I will have faith in Soumitra till the last day of my creative life.” Chatterjee treasured this as the ultimate tribute, as he told author Amitava Nag (Beyond Apu 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee).
Ironically, the man who was such a huge part of Ray’s cinema won his national honours for films he did with other directors – special jury mentions for Antradhan (1991, Tapan Sinha) and Dekha (2000, Goutam Ghosh). He received a National Award for Best Actor even later – for Podokkhep (2006, Suman Ghosh). (Chatterjee had turned down the ‘Special Mention’ Award for Dekha, because he felt the Awards were biased – the ‘Best Actor’ award had been given to Anil Kapoor for Pukar.

It would be a shame therefore to constrain him to a box labelled ‘Ray’s hero’; though Ray introduced him and Chatterjee considered him his mentor, once saying that he was willing to act the role of a doorman in a single scene in Ray’s films if the auteur called, his talent reached over and beyond – to other directors, and to other artistic fields such as theatre. He not only wrote his own plays but directed quite a few of them. He also edited a magazine, he painted, he published dozens of books of essays and poetry. 

With Shashi Kapoor, Felicity Kendall and Madhur Jaffrey at the Berlinale
Picture Courtesy: Film History Pics
American critic Pauline Kael’s described Chatterjee as ‘a man who moved so differently in the different roles he played that he’s almost unrecognisable.’ Cinema lovers would agree. Remember his turn as Mayurbhan, the swashbuckling villain in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bondi (1961) where he locked horns with another Bengali legend – Uttam Kumar? It was a fabulous collaboration, the cerebral intellectual and the romantic heartthrob. Even in Ray’s films, Chatterjee as the sensitive Apu in Apur Sansar was different from his role as the flamboyant Feluda, donning one outlandish disguise after another. If he is the urbane, suave Ashim in Aranyer Din Ratri, sparking an elegant, coy Sharmila Tagore (his first heroine), he’s the fiery revolutionary Sandip in Ghare Baire. He’s also the determined swimming coach in Kony (1986) as well as the high-spirited youth-without-a-direction Subir of Teen Bhubaner Paare (1969).

But his soft-spoken persona on screen was, according to the actor himself, very different from real life – his very public spat with Ritwik Ghatak has been chronicled before. According to the actor himself, Mrinal Sen had to pull him off Ghatak. Chatterjee also did not shy away from speaking out on various public issues; unlike many celebrities, the well-read actor was very forthright in expressing his views, including signing the petition against the CAA-NPR-NRC.
He was also one of the few Bengali celebrities who came out to protest the censorship of Anik Dutta’s political satire, Bhobishyoter Bhoot which, despite having got its censor certificate, had been unceremoniously yanked from the theatres.

Chatterjee continued to act well after his prime, though he often bemoaned the state of the Bengali film industry which he said had deteriorated, as well as the vulgarity that had crept into the dialogues, which he felt was unnecessary. Those views reflected the innate decency that Chatterjee brought into his depictions.

The last of the greats from Bengal’s golden age is no more. Another link is broken, another tribute is written with aching regret for those hazy afternoons, for a moment in time that stands erased. As always, the loss is leavened by knowing the legacy remains captive on celluloid, for future generations to watch, and to love. 

Rest in peace, Soumitrada… you will be missed.

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