The legend of Soumitra Chatterjee


[Photo Courtsey : Amitava Nag]

“I have always been in doubt about my work. I always thought that entertainment business was not worthwhile but time and again for more than 50 years I have been accepted, loved and made to feel as one of my own by my countrymen. I love them [viewers] and that is the reason why I am doing cinema. I salute them as they have supplied me with energy and dedication of what I think is a good art.” This is what Soumitra Chatterjee had to say at the award function where he was conferred the Dadasahab Phalke award in 2012 – the highest award in India for contributions in cinema.

The announcement of the award was indeed a surprise to many including the essayist considering the fact that Soumitra’s relation with the National film awards is strangely lukewarm. He was never conferred the award for the Best Actor in his heydays and then finally received it for a rather inconsequential role in a seemingly innocuous film Padakshep (2006, Dir: Suman Ghosh).  His closeness to the frontline leaders of the CPI(M) (ex-Chief Minister Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharyya being a friend) and his marked Marxist lineage probably added to this delineation – he refused Padma Shri twice before accepting Padma Bhushan in 2004. He however was conferred with the Officier des Arts et Metiers, one of the highest award for arts given by the French government and the Lifetime Award from the organizers of the Naples Film Festival, Italy in 1999. So why did he accept Dadashaheb Phalke? “I have not much belief in the awards and the way they are been given. Nor do I have much faith in the juries many times. I don’t need an award at this stage of life as well. However I did accept this since I found this one award which is till date slightly free from the politics and nepotism associated with the other awards. If you see the other recipients you will find that apart from one or probably two, everyone else is very deserving”- this is what he told me in a personal conversation. Soumitra Chatterjee on one hand represents this aspect of the Bengali Renaissance which thrived on being different and exploiting a new facet of the cultural heritage and hegemony.

As the light gets low, the breezing wind reminds us of an impending storm. Charu and Manda were playing cards in the bedroom. As the storm intensifies they are forced to leave the afternoon siesta. It is at this point in time that Amal enters like a comet. He chants ‘Hare Murare’ from the memorable Bangla novel “Anandamath” by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Soumitra Chatterjee was Amal to me for quite a long time. It wasn’t the first Chatterjee film that I watched, nor, was it his first film. But whenever I get to think of him the couple of images that strike me include the above from Satyajit Ray’s classic “Charulata” (1964). The other being Apu in Ray’s third film of the epic trilogy “Apur Sansar” (1959). Chatterjee had been Ray’s ‘one-man stock company’ (as Pauline Kael coined him) – a collaboration in 14 films which has a staggering range from Apu to Gangacharan in “Ashani Sanket” (1973), Felu in the detective films (1974 and 1978), Sandip in “Ghare Baire” (1984) and the later films (1989, 1990). Apart from Ray, Soumitra had been an instant choice for most of eminent Bengali directors including Mrinal Sen , Tapan Sinha of the classical phase and Goutam Ghosh, Rituporno Ghosh or Aparna Sen of recent years — notable exceptions being Ritwik Ghatak and Buddhadeb Dasgupta.

As I look at Soumitra’s filmic career that spans over five decades, the two most important aspects that come to mind are – his professional rivalry with the Bengali matinee idol Uttam Kumar and the shift in his choice of films across the different decades. When Soumitra started his career in the late fifties / early sixties, Uttam Kumar had already been a star and probably the biggest of them all. His eloquent ‘natural’ style had been a perfect foil to his romantic overtones, pairing with the gorgeous Suchitra Sen. Satyajit Ray had started reeling out masterpieces and for the first time, the audience had a glimpse of the natural in Indian films. Uttam Kumar was quick to adapt even if his chance to act in a Ray film came much later in “Nayak” (1966). As he kept sweeping the audience off their feet, Soumitra’s image was that of a shy college pass-out in Apu. And few films after, by the mid sixties, Soumitra became the thinking man’s hero – the image of an ‘intellectual’. He had the intellectual ‘bangali babu’ eating out of his palms, added to the fact was his marked leftist lineage, his poet identity and his association with Sisir Bhaduri, the legendary theatre thespian.

The coffee-house go-er Bengali intelligentsia modeled themselves on him as a parallel to the more popular Uttam Kumar. Both of them did a number of films together but most famous are “Jhinder Bandi” (1961), “Stree” (1972), “Aparichito” (1969) and “Devdas”(1979). Barring Tapan Sinha’s “Jhinder Bandi” where he portrays the deadly yet sophisticated villain Mayurbahan as opposed to the king (dual role played by Uttam) in all these other films starring these legends, Soumitra played the second fiddle. Uttam played the confident male, going out and winning the world for him, while Soumitra epitomized as the defeated other. This is the singular image that Soumitra developed with ease, take Amal (“Charulata”) or Amitava of “Kapurush” (1965) – the glorification of a defeated individual has been a major fodder to his image being popular. In “Aparichito” (based on Dostyovesky’s “The Idiot”), Soumitra played the submissive ‘idiot’ who got deranged in the end, unable to cope with the pressures of the modern life.

In “Stree”, he goes to the city from the village in search of fortune and when he returns, finds his lady-love forcibly married to a zaminder (played by Uttam Kumar). Dejected he takes work in the same zamindar’s house, unknowingly as the complex saga of love and betrayal unfolds. In Saratchandra’s epic novel “Devdas”, Soumitra plays Devdas, the jilted lover who succumbs to alcohol who gets support from his friend in Chunilal (Uttam). Almost all these films rise above the mundane pot-boilers, more so by the power of acting of this duo. And their intelligence in doing justice to the roles that suit them best ensured that the films are seldom boring. Probably the best way to sum up their difference is to quote Satyajit Ray – ‘…the intelligent section of the crowd, particularly the girls, the Presidency College girls, would prefer Soumitra to Uttam. But they were in a minority, I’m afraid’.

Soumitra Chatterjee developed his cinematic persona in style and remained a character actor who also became a star. This was ensured due to the associations he had in his early film career. If we look into his first decade – the sixties we will find he had acted in more than forty films which includes seven Satyajit Ray films, two Tapan Sinha , three Asit Sen and three Mrinal Sen films. Most of these films (not only those of Ray) had been different – in form as well as in content. It’s a rare luxury for a new actor to work with so many talented directors of the time. To his credit, Chatterjee had grabbed these opportunities with both hands and delivered. The seventies saw a change – the political instability throughout the globe rubbed on the film industry as well. Whereas in Bombay, the mantle shifted from Rajesh Khanna to Amitabh Bachchan, in Bengal, Uttam Kumar still held sway. However, as he moved more and more to character acting keeping his star image intact, Soumitra moved just the opposite – he got himself to do more and more ‘commercial’ hero roles. This resulted in having only four Satyajit films and no other acclaimed director to work with. His appearance also changed as he grew old, from the Biblical reference of the ‘children of light’ to that with an urban sophistication.

In the next three decades Soumitra moved slowly to characterizations in his acting that commensurate his aging process. Thankfully, we could witness the thief Aghor in “Sansar Seemante”, or the teacher who witnessed a political murder in “Atanka”, the dictionary-writer who struggled like a sage in “Ekti Jiban”, the paralytic doctor who moves in a wheel-chair and fights for his differently-enabled patients in “Wheel Chair” or the icon of indomitable spirit and inspiration – the swimming trainer Kshitish Singha in “Kony”.

Apart from the silver screen, Soumitra spent more time on the stage since the early eighties. His initial theatre acting legacy with Sisir Bhaduri prompted him to return to his cradle as he produced theatres in packed houses – “Naam Jibon”, “Rajkumar”, “Phera”, “Nilkantha”, “Ghatak Biday” , “Atmakatha” and “Homapakhi” to name a few. Unlike in film where he remained only an actor, in theatre Soumitra became the writer (most of his plays are adaptations of foreign plays, though the adaptations are truly Indian and Bengali in spirit) and also the director apart from being the lead actor. True, probably his star image helped his theatre to start with but it is his range of topics and his strength of characterization that kept the audience interested for more than three decades now. Atleast with “Neelkantha”, “Tiktiki” and “Raja Lear”, Soumitra reached insurmountable heights and these will be included in any serious discussion on Soumitra as an actor – both in films and on stage.

At 80 and surviving cancer, Soumitra has seen it all – from being a cinema actor to a playwright, a theatre actor, a poet, a co-editor of the progressive literary magazine ‘Ekkhyan’ and a social activist. In 2013 his first solo exhibition of paintings got critical acclaim. Today Soumitra Chatterjee does occasionally lament for the lack of scope that he gets in contemporary Bengali films. Probably, like Norma Desmond (unforgettable Gloria Swanson) of “Sunset Boulevard”(1950), Soumitra sits back and rues – “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”.

Postscript: This article is edited and abridged from an original article published in Deep Focus cinema.

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This first-ever English-language book on Soumitra Chatterjee not only introduces the reader to an icon of Indian Cinema but also offers a unique Insight into the mind of a genious.