Soumitra Chatterjee, a Quintessential Bengali Icon

Chatterjee was unlike any other actor for the craft and the consistency with which he worked for 62 years.

Soumitra Chatterjee, Dadasaheb Phalke awardee, Padma Bhushan, recipient of National Awards for his films and global recognition for his extraordinary career of 62 years, including the Legion d’honneur, is an icon, but not a run of the mill icon of Bengali cinema. His passing away will not change his stature, nor turn him into one more frame in the long line up of past greats of Indian and world cinema.

Because Chatterjee was more than an actor; he was a person with many parts – poet, essayist, editor, playwright, thespian, painter and one who brought to the recitation of Rabindranath Tagore and Jibananda Das a depth of intellectual understanding that set him apart. Even though he worked exclusively in Bengali cinema, telefilms, serials and the stage, he was a part of world cinema; not because of his incredible talent or his exceptional career; he was world class. Samik Bandopadhyay, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of film and theatre, observed that the actor permeated his craft with the richness of all his other creative and intellectual pursuits. As the editor of the three volumes of Chatterjee’s collected writings, Bandopadhyay pointed to the prodigious creative energy of the actor, who worked with words, lines and colours, the body and above all, the reflective mind.

No actor is or was even remotely close to the quality that Chatterjee delivered in every film in which he performed, because each time he found from the depths of his being something unique to breathe life into the role. He was unlike any other actor for the craft and the consistency with which he worked for 62 years.

He was discovered by Satyajit Ray and starred in 14 out of the total of 29 films the maestro made. His debut film was the unforgettable Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) made in 1958, the last of the one of the greatest films ever made, the Pather Panchali trilogy. He was also cast in two of the documentaries out of the five that Ray made, making him a favourite.

Soumitra Chatterjee in ‘Apur Sansar’.

He will remain vivid in the Bengali imagination as the quintessential bhadralok, a gentleman, passionate about the culture and the place, the language and its creativity. He was elegant, courteous, handsome, charming, his virility stowed away behind his consuming passion for the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore and Jibananda Das, his love for the theatre and his association, as co-founder and one time editor of the literary little magazine, Ekkhon. He read Marx and Lenin as a student and a young man and remained a committed Leftist all his life. His last published piece was for the Puja volume of Ganashakti, the newspaper of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The one other talent that makes him a bhadralok was his short lived engagement with sports, as a second division hockey player.

For a super star, Chatterjee was unusually unconcerned by the glamour and the glitz, the thrill of public adulation. He lived simply, in a house on a government housing estate; the same house in which he had lived for over three decades. He worked out of a study, which was also the room where he met visitors; the room was a converted outhouse. He was accessible and clearly never felt the need to protect his stardom from the public at large. There were no muscular bodyguards or a bevy of minders, to signal his star status.

“He is perhaps unique,” Bandopadhyay said, because before he began working in films, he already had a clear and cerebral understanding of cinema. He was not drawn to the dazzle and the glamour of being an actor for cinema, Bandopadhyay adds. He was an actor and that was his commitment, on screen and on the stage. Soumitra Chatterjee in many of his interviews explains this moment of arrival and it is an extraordinary beginning. To summarise what he said: he began watching films when he was in school. He continued to watch world cinema and Indian cinema through college and till his destiny delivered him into the hands of Satyajit Ray. He watched films trying to understand the medium and the work of the actor.

Before becoming an actor in cinema, Chatterjee considered for a while if theatre was his metier. He admitted to being “snooty and snobbish” about films. He met the legendary actor and director Sisir Bhaduri and was deeply influenced by his craft. He acted in a play that was produced by Bhaduri’s group, but explored the opportunity that cinema offered.

Rejected for a role in Neelachaler Mahaprabhu on the life of Sri Chaitanya, Chatterjee met destiny when he met Satyajit Ray in the hope of getting the role of Apu in the second part of the Pather Panchali trilogy, Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and was rejected because he was too old. Satyajit Ray saw him and decided to make the third film in the series, Apur Sansar and the rest is history.

His oeuvre spanned superlative performances under Ray’s direction. Chatterjee was undeniably Apu personified in Apur Sansar, he was Amulya in Samapti of Teen Kanya, he was the troubled and proud Rajput in Abhijan (The Expedition), he was Amal incarnate in Charulata, The Lonely Wife, he was Uma Prasad in Devi, he was Kapurush, The Coward in yet another Ray film. From the romantic hero, Chatterjee segued effortlessly to playing Ray’s famous sleuth, Feluda aka Prodosh Chandra Mitter. He will be, forever, Feluda; like Sean Connery was Bond, James Bond. There have been other Feludas, but none who matched Chatterjee as the resourceful detective.

In Ray’s Ganashatru, Chatterjee was the rationalist ageing doctor fighting superstition; in Shakha Proshakha, he was a mentally troubled, angry middle aged hero and in Ghare Baire, he was Sandeep, the ruthless revolutionary dallying with his friend’s wife. In each film, he delivered compelling performances that were as much the genius of the director as they were facets of an extraordinary actor, who dug deep within himself to create the roles he played.

He worked with Mrinal Sen in Akash Kusum, and in an entirely different kind of film, a pot boiler as it were, Jhinder Bondi, The Prisoner of Jhind with Tapan Sinha, in which the novice Chatterjee was pitted against the all time and immortal mega star of the Bengali screen, Uttam Kumar. It was astonishing that Chatterjee stole the film from Uttam Kumar and learnt how to walk on screen into the bargain. He acknowledged his debt to Tapan Sinha for teaching him to understand the gait and its importance in cinema. Soumitra Chatterjee never worked with Ritwick Ghatak and deprecatingly explained the gap as fortunate, because it would have been a clash of temperaments.

And he worked with more recent filmmakers including Aparna Sen, Goutam Ghosh and Rituporno Ghosh, even in telefilms and serials. Over a professional life of 62 years, Chatterjee worked with generations of directors, adapting to the changes in the industry and remained always a superb craftsman, giving his best in even the worst of productions.

With seemingly extraordinary ease, Chatterjee travelled through the multiple eras of Bengali cinema during his lifetime. He said in one of his interviews, that he always took the role seriously. This professional commitment, which was almost impersonal, in the sense that he gave to every role, regardless of the script, the direction and the production, a part of himself that was a reflection of his deep search for meaning within the character he was required to play. This happened early in his career, after a rebuke from Satyajit Ray, who took him to task for laughing during a take in a run of the mill production, when he had his back to the camera. The maestro read Chatterjee’s amusement in the way his back looked on camera, underscoring that the camera does not lie. This is a story that Chatterjee recalled in several interviews as an unforgettable lesson in the art of acting.

About him, Ray was dispassionately critical, observing that though Chatterjee was a much more intelligent actor than Uttam Kumar, the megastar, who still reigns as the evergreen hero of Bengali cinema, his “distaste” for the material, that is, poor direction and inadequate scripts, “shows.” In contrast, Ray said that Uttam Kumar always turned out acceptable performances regardless of the script or the direction. Chatterjee disagreed with Ray’s magisterial verdict, but he did change his way of delivering a performance on camera.

With Chatterjee’s entry into Bengali cinema in 1958, another star was born; he was the quiet contrast to the magnetic Uttam Kumar. With two such remarkable talents, the Bengali film industry was unusually rich and a string of stunning performances were delivered by the two stars, in entirely different registers. There was gossip about the fierce rivalry between Chatterjee and Uttam Kumar. Every time he was asked, Chatterjee scoffed at the very idea.

When Ray chose Uttam Kumar to play the role of Nayak, The Hero, a film that won two National Awards, Chatterjee said he felt deprived in several interviews at different times. He also said that when he saw the film, he acknowledged that Ray had chosen the best for a role that only Uttam Kumar could have delivered. These were not grudging acknowledgments by Chatterjee; there was a sincere appreciation for clever casting on the one hand and a quiet confidence in his own abilities vis-a-vis the megastar of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar.

From hero to the ageing hero, Chatterjee has played many parts. Over the years, the grace with which he aged and turned out beautifully crafted performances on old age, each one different and unique – in Bela Seshe, In the Autumn of My Life, to his latest works in 2019 and 2020, Bosu Paribar, The Bose Family, Bohomaan, The Flow and 61 Garpar Lane – is what sets him apart. He decided that he would be an actor long before he became one.

Soumitra Chatterjee in ‘Bela Seshe’.

His first love was the theatre. Soumitra Chatterjee returned to the theatre in 1978, with his own production Naam Jiban, This is Life. Samik Bandopadhyay says of his theatre, “Soumitra would reinvent the role” through the hundreds of performances that he delivered. Theatre offers this opportunity, unlike cinema, where once the job is done, it is over, Bandopadhyay adds. Chatterjee seized this opportunity to reinterpret and breathed life into every performance. His interpretation of King Lear, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play in Bengali, is powerful and mesmerising. About theatre, Chatterjee said “I have control,” which is exactly the opposite of the cinema, where the director “is the captain of the ship.”

The “intelligent actor,” as Ray described him, said of cinema, “it is very lifelike,” quieter, no heroics, no exaggerations; “as though someone had stealthily captured sections of real life on celluloid.” And every performance that he delivered bore the imprint of his understanding of the cinema, where real life segues into reel life. As his metier, the cinema was like the actor, quiet and unexaggerated.

He worked with some of the most beautiful women in Indian cinema – Sharmila Tagore, Suchitra Sen, who remains an idol for every generation of Bengali since she first appeared on the screens in 1952, Madhabi Mukherjee who turned out an unparalleled lyrical performance as bouthan in Charulata, and, then there was Waheeda Rehman. For him, the most beautiful of them all was Rehman, who was Gulabi to his Narasingh in Ray’s Abhijan.

The number of films in which Chatterjee worked, his tireless capacity to continue working till he fell ill the last time does not encompass all that he was and all that he did. He worked because as he explained time and again, Bengali cinema was a poor paymaster and he needed to work to earn his “bread and butter and some jam.” The extraordinary thing about his long career is the quality of the work he delivered, including two recent films on Alzheimer’s and related disorders, Mayurakshi and Shraboner Dhara, as well as an earlier short film on which he worked with the Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India, Kolkata Chapter.

As an actor, Chatterjee was wooed by the Bombay film industry, but never accepted an assignment; pushed to explain his preference for Bengali cinema, he was known to quote an evocative poem by Jibnanda Das, ‘Banglar Mukh (The Face of Bengal)’ from a collection aptly titled Beautiful Bengal (Ruposhi Bangla).

There was an intellectual universe he inhabited where he wrote and recited, declaring that he could spend an entire night reciting from the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Jibananda Das. Like Apu, in Apur Sansar, Chatterjee could deliver Rabindranath in an endless stream as he could Jibananda. When his recording of ‘Banalata Sen’, a mystical-romantic poem by Jibananda, was included in an album, it immortalised the work, the poet and the voice that recited it.

He was an activist, who successfully demanded better pay and work conditions for the hundreds of technicians and staff of the Bengali film industry. He was a champion of the freedom of expression.

There can be no inventory of world cinema without Satyajit Ray. Ipso facto, there can be no inventory of world cinema without Soumitra Chatterjee.

Born on January 19, 1935 in Kolkata, Soumitra Chatterjee is survived by his daughter and grandson..

Shikha Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based commentator.