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Tribute: 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

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