My mother often narrates how she had actually ‘seen’ Soumitra Chatterjee ‘in-person’ at the time she had just joined college, and how she and her friends were almost fainting. She also mentions that it was a political rally, and Soumitra and others were collecting funds during the Food Movement in West Bengal (1966).
My father also recounts how he and Soumitra were in the same college (in different departments, and in disparate years) and how he had also ‘seen’ Soumitra in the famed Coffee House in Kolkata.
In a manner of speaking, Apu’s (see Apur Sansar, 1959) arrival from the village into the big city of Kolkata was Soumitra’s own journey, and in time, the actor came to represent an entire generation – principally the politically motivated youth of the 1960s. My note on Soumitra’s roles thus follow the flight of Apu.
A few things transpire from stories surrounding the actor – first, Soumitra was a man in the streets and he was often spotted; and yet, Soumitra was the hero of the Bengali middle-classes.
He personified the middle classes, and in fact, was a person who had arrived from a small town, studied in a college, was involved with Left cultural-politics, imagined himself to be a writer/author, edited a journal, was a group theatre activist and a playwright, rallied on the streets, and eventually became a star who could compete with Uttam Kumar, and receive international recognition.
Soumitra therefore, so to speak, came to portray on the enchanted screen himself as well as the aspirations of his own times.
Charulata, Stree, Khudhita Pashan, Samapti
He recurrently played an educated man, with a sharp intellect, an advanced writing skill and an equally precise speech; moreover, he was gifted with chiseled features, and a slim body.
Some of the Left icons seemed to have influenced such figurations. Only Soumitra was visibly more endearing, he had the charm of a hero, and truly was one. This persona journeyed from the late 19th century contexts of the formation of Bengali Bhadralok (as reflected Devi (1960), Samapti (1962), Charulata (1964), Stree (1972), also alluded in Kshudhita Pashan (1960), Jhinder Bandi (1961), etc.), to arrive as a Bengali internationalist.
Teen Bhubaner Parey
The ‘first’ Soumitra film that I saw (on television) was Teen Bhubaner Parey (1969), in which he plays a misguided youth who spends his time loitering, and in the factories, and sooner or later gets involved with an educated women Sarasi (played by Tanuja).
Sarasi takes up the project of ‘schooling’ Montu, and as Montu earns his degrees and a job, gradually their relationship deteriorates. The film signposts post-independence disenchantments, and there were other films, which underlined similar sense of failure, the follies and the apparent roadblock.
Saat Pake Bandha, Kapurush, Akash Kusum
Teen Bhubaner Parey speaks to other Soumitra films like Saat Pake Bandha (1963) as well as Kapurush (1965) and Akash Kusum (1965). It is not surprising, thus, that some of these were adapted into popular Hindi films (for instance, Kora Kagaz  and Manzil ). In such films, Soumitra bore a sense of despair which was presented through his nuanced facial expressions, a deep line of worry plastered on the forehead, a turn of the head, a rather poetic hand gesture, which so wistfully conveyed a troubled political situation and the strife for social change. It was almost impossible to not have empathy for this contemplative image, and all that Soumitra stood for.
Basanta Bilap, Aranyer Din Ratri
I have a special liking for Basanta Bilap (1973) particularly because it underscores the transitions that women made. A story set precisely in a suburban space, the film is a comedy about the many misunderstanding and romantic liaisons which are forged between a group of working women living in a hostel, and a bunch of local youth.
The specifics of the locale in the film, and descriptions of the (government) jobs that were becoming available, as well as the senses of mobility (of the ‘refugees’ as well), make the film significant. Such a group was also a real-life consortium, comprising Soumitra’s comrades and fellow workers.
They included Rabi Ghosh, Anup Kumar and others, who were directly associated with the Communist party. Such formations were also reflected upon in Ray’s classic Aranyer Din Ratri (1970). Furthermore, both Ray and mainstream Bengali cinema were borrowing heavily from literary texts, which narrated such social conditions.
Baksa Badal, Jai Baba Felunath
Yet, by the mid 1970s such radicalism was waning, and Soumitra’s image was gradually crystallising into the figure of the Bengali Bhadralok, alternately Bengali intellectual, following films like Baksa Badal (1970) in which he manipulates a young woman (Aparna Sen) to fall in love with him, and the cult of Sonar Kella (1974). By then, the Soumitra persona appeared far more ‘established’, shunning the ambiguities, which was symptomatic of the earlier decades.
Over time, this persona shunned some of the self-doubt and became a mainstay for Ray’s celebrated “private detective”, Prodosh Mitter aka ‘Feluda’.
After the release of Jai Baba Felunath (1979), the second Feluda film (and following the death of Uttam Kumar in 1980), the situation of the film industry changed remarkably, in tandem with the shifting political scenario of West Bengal. During this industrial shift, from predominantly Bengali literary modes to popular forms (also marked by the uses of colour), Soumitra not only played father figures, but also performed characters of shrewd villains.
Pratishodh, Kony, Atanka
A film like Pratishodh (1981), by Sukhen Das, which features both Uttam Kumar (in parts only) and Soumitra, therefore, is as much a revenge of the ‘under-educated’, under-classes and under-caste, as it signals a political and cultural drift. In that regard, both Kony (1984) and Atanka (1986) are crucial.
A thorough study of Soumitra’s 300 something films could perhaps alert us about such social formations across the regions. Briefly, Soumitra, and his teaming with Aparna Sen, produces a haunting effect, reminding us of the political possibilities of a certain time.
Madhuja Mukherjee is a visual artist, curator, writer and filmmaker. She is professor of Film Studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.