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Soumitra Chatterjee (1935 – 2020) Shoma A. Chatterji


I knew him quite well over the past two decades. We would meet occasionally, at press conferences, functions, and shared the platform with him three times and these are the most precious memories of my career as a journalist. But I remained so awe-struck in his presence that even speech seemed an issue with me. The gentle man that he was, he tried to put me at ease but I failed to warm up to it. Now, we will never meet as he has joined his mentors – Natasamrat Sisir Kumar Bhaduri of Bengali theatre and Satyajit Ray of cinema in a world we must all go to one day. It would be rather limiting to describe this man as a great actor. He was much more than that. He was an institution unto himself, a habit for the Bengali audience of theatre and cinema and lovers of Bengali poetry that has virtually grown up on his films – great, off-mainstream, mainstream and downright masala because he made no difference between art films and mainstream films or chose between one director and another. “Mr. Ray once advised me seeing one of my commercial films to continue doing these films much though I was embarrassed, disgusted and frustrated working in them. He said, ‘you must do this kind of thing so you may well do it seriously or else your work will suffer. ‘ I think he was right, At this stage, I aspire to be a perfect professional. A professional has a standard, a certain competence. He never disappoints. In some films, he may be great, in some he may be brilliant and in others, he should at least be good enough. This is the standard I have set for myself,” he elaborated in an interview some time ago. Chatterjee has directed and acted in more than a dozen significant plays for the Calcutta stage. Around fourteen books of poems penned by Soumitra have been published beginning with Jalapropater Dharey Dandabo Bole (To Stand by the Waterfall) in 1975. Droshta, an abstract translation of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, was published in 1995. In this year, at the Calcutta Book Fair, he surprised everyone with a long poem written in the form of paragraphs and not stanzas, in prose style which is an experiment he worked with at the ripe age of 85, any other noted poet would think over twice before venturing into.

I had the good fortune to watch four of his plays live in theatres and was mesmerized not only by his performance but also by the total production values he had created for his group comprised of freelance actors and often. His daughter Poulomi. Neelkontho was outstanding. Atmakatha, translated from Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play was magical not only in terms of performance but also in the way the stage design was structured to suit the autobiography of a famous author, which the play was about. Tritiyo Adhyay Otoeb was an autobiographical play he had composed, devised and acted in himself playing out the story of his entire life in three acts. “A serious interest in cinema started with the first Film Festival held in Calcutta after my parents shifted to Calcutta from Howrah. For the first time, I watched Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Fall of Berlin, with friends equally interested in cinema. These films changed my thinking about cinema. We saw Renoir’s River, shot in India. Then came Pather Panchali. Ray made four films before he did Apur Sansar. I now feel, those films were sort of a preparation for what was to come – my first film Apur Sansar,” reminisces the 70+ actor. Described by critic Pauline Kael as Satyajit Ray’s “one-stock company”, Soumitra Chatterjee, like his mentor, has been a pillar of creativity in Bengali cinema. About his desire to act, he would say, ““I loved to act even as a child. The home environment was not against these things. My grandfather was the president of an amateur dramatic club and we grew up hearing his anecdotes. My father acted in plays produced by a similar group. He was brilliant in the art of reciting poetry. As children, we would often put up our ‘plays’ at home, based on small booklets of children’s plays that could be bought from the market. I recall having ‘staged’ Tagore’s Mukut at home, improvising the stage, using bed sheets for curtains, getting help for props and costumes from my parents. We got a lot of encouragement from our parents. When I was in Std. V, I did a role in The Sleeping Princess for a school function. I loved the very feeling of acting. I found it fascinating. The praises, the back-patting, kept me wanting to do more. When we shifted to Calcutta, I recall having acted in Bengali translation of W.W.Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw for the Inter-University Youth Festival at Delhi in the mid-Fifties during my post-graduation. Ahindra Choudhury, a great name on the Bengali stage, was invited to polish our work. It was my Sisir Bhaduri link that finally decided that I wanted to become an actor and nothing else. If I do not act, I cease to exist.” Soumitra Chatterjee is one of the best things that could have happened to Indian cinema. Sad that national cinema has never tapped the potential of

this great personality. Sad also, that his contribution to Bengali art and culture is always linked only to cinema and that too, only with the name of Satyajit Ray and his films. Chatterjee has acted in 14 films directed by Satyajit Ray that comprised of many diverse layers of characterization, performance, style and presentation. Apur Sansar for instance, was very different from Abhijan. Aranyer Din Ratri presented a different Soumitra from the Soumitra we saw in Ganashatru, Shakha Proshakha or in the Feluda series. “I consider him my mentor, my guru whichever way you look at it. It was amazing how this man never repeated himself. I benefited immensely from this diversity in his presentation and choice of subject, story, everything,” says Chatterjee adding that he also considers his two films with Mrinal Sen, namely Akash Kusum, Protinidhi and Mahaprithibi, among his favourites apart from Tapan Sinha’s films. “Tapan Sinha held me by the hand and showed me the way. He is the best teacher I could ever have had,” says the actor who was vested with a very negative persona in Sinha’s period film Jhinder Bondi and the romantic, surreal setting he explored in Sinha’s Kshudita Pashan based on a Tagore story. When asked to define acting, he would say, “Acting is restricted by its quality of temporality because it is perhaps the only form of creative artistic expression that does not follow any rules and does not have any fixed formula. Music is based on sargam which one can of course toy around with, explore and experiment. Dance has abhinaya and rhythm. Magic too has certain rules. But acting is something the actor has to create temporarily at that given point of time in the play or the film which only a good director is able to hold in control. Actors can benefit under some directors only, not any and every director who sprouts up suddenly. Institutional training is also a construct and rules are created, they do not exist from the beginning of time.” The awards he won over the years have been glorifed by the actor bestowed the awards rather than it being the other way round. The awards earned dignity by bestowing him with the same. In his last years, he played roles that suited his age and his personality. Among these are Atanu Ghosh’s Mayurakshi in which he plays an old man slowly slipping into dementia, Anik Dutta’s Borun Babur Bondhu which recently bagged an international award, Shiboprasad Mukerjee and Nandita Roy’s Sanjhbati and Suman Ghosh’s Bosu Paribar. His performances in these films are a consolidation of the total dedication, discipline and hard work he had put in for 60 of his 85 years in the world.

Soumitra Chatterjee is perhaps, one of the most multi-dimensional talents in the country. A BBC Documentary on him was titled Gaach which means ‘Tree.’ What better title can one think of to define a man of the stature and the talent that Soumitra Chatterjee personified? Monday, November 16, 2020

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