Even in His Depiction of Smallness, Soumitra Chatterjee Remained Tall

Here was an actor who enshrined the everyday cruelty of being a thinking being who has to go about his world. He was innately Bengali and reflected his people's concerns.

At first, when Satyajit Ray created ‘Feluda’, his drawings of the famous young detective resembled Ray himself. The face was angular to a fault, the stature quite similar to Ray’s own. By the time Ray drew the last picture of Feluda, the face had entirely changed to Soumitra Chatterjee’s. It was not just Ray, Soumitra could tailor every one’s imaginations to no end. 

Ray’s ‘Feluda’.

There is not a dry eye in Bengal today. It is not just because Soumitra was an accomplished actor. He had worked for so long, and had been a part of so many efforts, that he became every Bengali’s prized possession. There is a Soumitra in every household, a Soumitra in every personal memory.

He may have been a director’s actor, he may have been a sound designer’s dream, but to the audience, he was their very best friend. 

No number of French honours, no black and white photographs of him hobnobbing in Berlin, no end of awards, no hardbound books of poetry, no number of assertions that he was a ‘legend’ takes away the fact that in Soumitra’s face Bengal saw its most essential, homely struggle. 

Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu.

Partly owing to the time in which his career soared and mostly because of the roles he chose, Soumitra became the symbol of the constant loss and rough consciousness which wracked the Bengali being.

When he was troubled young Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959), Bengal was reflected in the worry on his brow. Its youth had little to look forward to, there was crippling food shortage and the littlest of efforts were mired in layers of corruption. Apu is turned away because he has passed the Intermediate level whereas the teacher’s job only asked for a Matric – a qualification level below Intermediate. Of the many stories surrounding Soumitra is one that says that the actor too was denied a teacher’s job because he was overqualified for it.

In the time that it took for Soumitra to come to glory, Bengal remained wracked with problems. Flood, poverty, war and the Naxal uprising kept a generation on its toes and at once produced undeniable art.

These worries and concerns lingered on his face as he became the detective in a cotton kurta and shawl (1979), the car driver with a plague in his heart (1962), a rebel teacher who would bring down a government (1980), a swimming coach with rallying cry (1984) and a man on a train (2016). 

Soumitra Chatterjee, in various roles.

For those who aged along with Soumitra, he was their great Bengali hero. Never just an actor, he was a quiet literary force, spearheading journals, directing plays, translating them and fitting every description of the beloved Bengali intellectual.

So timeless were his roles, so enduring his meditations, that even for the nineties generation, the sight of Soumitra walking across the screen with a jhola on his shoulder is still expression for our essential worries: ‘Are we cowards? Are we only defined by our ancestors? Do we have it in ourselves to do that next thing?’ 

To attempt to put words to Soumitra’s range would be futile but his ability to reach a character’s inner core shines particularly in his role in one of the least remembered Ray films, Kapurush (1965), where he is a man who runs into a former lover. She is willing to risk it all again, but he simply falters. This faltering, at a time when it matters, is such a salient Bengali trait that although difficult to digest, it defines us greatly. Soumitra essayed this cowardice magnificently. Even in his depiction of smallness, he was tall.

Soumitra Chatterjee in Ray’s ‘Kapurush’.

It is a great boon to witness in one’s lifetime, an actor who is, at once, a poet. Soumitra utilised his innate consciousness and read deeply into his characters. 

As a result, in nearly all of his roles, Soumitra enshrined the everyday cruelty of being a thinking being who has to go about his world. There can be no doubt that Soumitra gave himself to his characters wholly, but he was also possessed of a quality that made directors write characters and conceptualise films for him.

In his book, The Master and I, Soumitra writes that the first time Ray saw him, he remarked that he was much too old for Apu. But even then, that Soumitra could be Apu was a given for Ray, who developed a screenplay with Soumitra’s face and diction in mind.

A popular still of Apur Sansar, shows him looking at the camera while his young and accidental bride Sharmila Tagore looks away. The scene has been taken apart and its depths excavated in many a sweltering Film Studies class, but its magic holds, irrespective. Apu, the realist, asks an audience to partake in his doom. Aparna, the dreamer, looks to a future that she is not a part of.

Ray eventually drew it into the film’s first poster.

The first poster of ‘Apur Sansar’.

Much of the persona that Soumitra expressed in the public, and that we saw, is frankly astounding. Why, until his very last day, was he so shorn of self importance? Why did he have none of the actorly airs we know performers define themselves with? Why, at 80, when he took the stage and began speaking, did his voice never tremble? How did the poetry that he wrote cover such an astounding range of cadences and rhyme schemes? 

There are no answers except that Soumitra was a legend, and yet he was naggingly, entirely like us.

He was political, his devotion to the Left never wavered, his life began with struggle, and it saw success but never so much that he could drown himself in it. At the age of 84, he appeared in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and signed campaign posters. He read endlessly, appeared in award shows, and looked humanely bored in photographs with fans. In one of his last written pieces, he wrote that the only viable alternative to the march of rightwing thinking is the Left.

Soumitra Chatterjee signs an anti-CAA poster. Photo: Facebook/Smi Ta

His circumstances dictated that he worked until his last day. Those who knew him best always said that for a man so plagued by personal sorrows, he worked with great joy.

This brings us to the Soumitra on stage. A sizeable chunk of Bengal’s actors would pin the moment which turned them to the profession as the one in which they saw Soumitra perform. Understated, with aeons of study behind each portrayal, his masterful diction rang out across Kolkata’s theatres for half a century.

He leaves us with the memories of his portrayal of Lear, a character written in Elizabethan England but no less Bengali in his tragic decision-making. In a production of high value and a stellar ensemble, Soumitra dazzled like only he could.

Evening after evening, Soumitra’s Lear quivered upon betrayal, slumped upon recognition of his flaw and cried with sincerity after the moment of reversal. The show ran to packed houses. 

To remember Chatterjee is to remember the best of Bangla cinema, theatre, elocution and literature. He has given Bengal heritage and he lives in every actor, lover and writer born after him.