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19 January 2022

The Renaissance Man

Slightly more than a year after Soumitra Chatterjee’s demise, and just in time for his birth anniversary, comes a slim volume of reminiscences, titled “Soumitra Chatterjee – A Filmmaker Remembers”.

Om Books International
176 pages
ISBN-10: 93-92834-17-9
ISBN-13: 978-93-92834-17-2 

Authored by Suman Ghosh, a critically acclaimed film director, the book reads like a memoir, choc-a-bloc with stories from the sets of his films with the veteran actor, as much as it is a personal diary that chronicles the conversations he had with the man who, over the years, came to be much more than mentor, friend, philosopher and guide. That journey – from “Soumitra Chatterjee” to “Soumitra kaku” is told in an engaging manner over the course of 150+ pages.

With a foreword by Sharmila Tagore who began her acting career with Soumitra Chatterjee, the book delves into peeling away the layers of the actor who is known and revered by cineastes to reveal the man behind the many pathbreaking roles he performed over a career that stretched over five-plus decades. An introductory essay by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri introduces us to Suman Ghosh’s films that starred the late actor.

In his 'Author's Note', Ghosh mentions that the book was never meant to be an objective exercise. That disclaimer was unnecessary – Ghosh’s affection for the subject of his book is evident in every word. However, this is no hagiography; there’s no attempt to put Soumitra Chatterjee on a pedestal either as a person or as an actor. Instead, he lets the warmth of his words envelop the reader, taking them along to show them the person he knew – not just the actor who honed his craft till the last, but a man, curious about life, full of zest towards his work until the last, and committed to his craft.

Ghosh first met Soumitra Chatterjee in person on the sets of Goutam Ghose’s Dekha (2000). It took him days to screw up the courage to speak to the great man. But five years later, when he was ready to dip his toes into filmmaking, Ghosh would reach out to Soumitra Chatterjee who, much to his delight, agreed to do Podokkhep (2005). With the actor on board, it was easy to convince Nandita Das to join the Ghosh’s debut feature. Incidentally, Podokkhep would give Soumitra Chatterjee his first ever National Award for Best Actor.

Ghosh’s professional collaboration with Soumitra Chatterjee stretched over 15 years and five films (including a guest appearance in Nobel Chor (2012)) culminating with Bosu Poribar (2019), an adaptation of The Dead, from James Joyce’s Dubliners. Years in which their relationship evolved at a more personal level – from their many addas where they discussed every subject under the sun to exchanging piles of books that each wanted the other to read.

Ghosh’s essays take us through his experiences with Soumitra Chatterjee – the actor’s insatiable curiosity; the meticulous detailing of each character he chose to play, his utter dedication to his work. The essays also include the veteran actor’s anecdotes about the actors with whom he worked – from his regular meetings with supposed-rival Uttam Kumar to his admiration for veteran actress, Sabitri Devi; his friendship with Sharmila Tagore and her husband to his appreciation of the craft of younger actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Manoj Bajpai, Irrffan Khan, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui; from his interactions with the author’s family and his driver to his reminiscences of working with Satyajit Ray.

The final chapter includes two in-depth interviews of Soumitra Chatterjee by the author covering a range of topics associated with the art and craft of performance. Ghosh ends his memoirs with a purely subjective but well-curated list of the actor’s finest performances outside Satyajit Ray’s films; in his extensive analysis of the diverse characters that Soumitra Chatterjee played, Ghosh reveals a keen eye for the craft behind each of the performances.  

Soumitra Chatterjee – A Filmmaker Remembers is an intimate personal memoir, engaging and revealing. For a change, it is also well-edited though I raised an eyebrow at the choice of typeface – script – for the Interludes. The only other peeve I have is that a few of the incidents/anecdotes are repeated, probably as a result of those essays having been published elsewhere before becoming part of this volume. A sharper editorial eye could have avoided that, but this is a minor peeve. Because Soumitra Chatterjee – A Filmmaker Remembers is, as Sharmila Tagore put it so succinctly in her foreword, “a welcome addition to the existing literature on Indian cinema.” 

*An edited version of this review is published on The Daily Eye.

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