The man behind Apu
Soumitra Chatterjee will be remembered for not just his performances but also as one of the first ‘thinking actors’ of Bengali cinema. As the acting community mourns the loss of this luminary, we take a look at his body of work that crossed the boundaries of films and theatre to such other forms of art as elocution, writing and even painting
It was August 9, 1958. The place was Beleghata CIT Road, Calcutta (not Kolkata yet). Academy Award recipient Satyajit Ray was shooting the third part of his Apu trilogy, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). The protagonist, a young Apu (Apurba Kumar Roy), was being played by a debutant who, till then, had his training on stage under the tutelage of legendary Bengali theatre veteran Sisir Kumar Bhaduri. Retrospectively, that date remains a milestone in Indian films as it marked the day an actor rose on the sky of Bengali cinema – Soumitra Chattopadhyay (anglicised as Chatterjee). He continued to rule the worlds of Bengali and international cinema, and theatre uncontested till his demise on November 15, 2020. With him, Bengali cinema not only lost a great artiste but also one of the last legends of black and white celluloid that boasted such exceptional actors as Uttam Kumar, Utpal Dutt, Chhabi Biswas, Rabi Ghosh and the like.
During this long tenure in the sphere of performing arts, Chatterjee over-encompassed the Bengali psyche in various forms of art ranging from cinema, poetry and prose to even painting. Equally illustrious was his magnificent association with his mentor Ray until the latter’s death on April 23, 1992. Between Apur Sansar and Ray’s passing, the two collaborated in 14 feature films and created a legacy of unparalleled symphony and artistry on screen. Some of their most iconic cinematic ventures include Devi (1960), Charulata (1964), Kapurush (1965), Ayanyer Din Ratri (1970), Ashani Sanket (1973) and Ghare Baire (1985). It was often said that what famous Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune was to Akira Kurosawa and, currently, American star Robert De Niro is to Martin Scorsese, Chatterjee was to Ray. In fact, noted American film critic Pauline Kael described Chatterjee as Ray’s “one-man stock company”.
And not just Ray, in his distinguished career spanning over six decades, Chatterjee worked with such legendary National Award-winning filmmakers as Tapan Sinha (Jhinder Bandi, Atanka and Wheel Chair), Mrinal Sen (Akash Kushum and Pratinidhi), Asit Sen (Swayambara and Swaralipi), Ajoy Kar (Barnali and Saat Pake Bandha), Rituparno Ghosh (Asukh) and Goutam Ghosh (Dekha). In 1988, he even worked with French filmmaker Nicolas Klotz in his film La Nuit Bengali (The Bengali Night), which was set in Kolkata, appearing alongside noted English actors Hugh Grant and the late John Hurt.
By his own admission, Chatterjee had worked in over 300 films and numerous stage productions. “But what I regret is that of all my work, very few have been for children,” he had once said. Perhaps he couldn’t fathom the impact he created in the minds of his audience, especially children, when he portrayed the character of Prodosh (Pradosh) Chandra Mitter, popularly known as Feluda (a detective character created by Ray), in the movies Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979), both directed by Ray. Such was Chatterjee’s portrayal of the character that even though Feluda has been played by various actors over the years, for a true-blue Bengali, the mere mention of the detective brings visuals of the pensive actor . Chatterjee possessed, among other acting traits, the unique ability to delve into the psyche of a character and portray emotions that would best suit the role. In one of his earlier interviews he had mentioned how he had thought long and hard about the role of Feluda. “I realised that Felu is a person who thinks deeply, so much of his expressions would have to be depicted by the subtle movement of the eyes,” he had elaborated.
Award-winning filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan found in Chatterjee “the quintessential Bengali – intellectually inclined, of middle-class orientation, sensitive and likeable”. While talking about Chatterjee’s acting, National Award-winning director Shyam Benegal observed, “Is Satyajit [Ray] babu’s magnified artistic world fully radiant without Soumitra Chatterjee? It will be a futile exercise to think of a substitute for Chatterjee who portrayed so many tough and multi-dimensional characters on celluloid. He did not get any assistance from the sophisticated technology and unique camera of Hollywood; he had to work within a very limited technical support. He could cover many technical flaws with his magic of acting. What is most striking about Soumitra babu is his sensitivity, the unfading asset of a born actor. Charlie Chaplin [the UK], Toshiro Mifune and Gerard Depardieu [France] were sensitive actors who dominated the world of cinema with their brilliance. The contemporary scenario helped them develop their sensitive feelings to a great extent. But in case of Chatterjee, there was no easy grammar of sensitive acting, he had to frame everything on his own.”
But, most importantly, Soumitra Chatterjee was much more than just being a Ray actor. A matinee idol in his youth, he was one of the few in international standards who could dabble both mainstream films and the more artistic ones with equal poise and ease, and also lend his credibility on stage. Amongst his peers and seniors, he probably matured most gracefully with age. In theatre, his first love, he satiated his hunger of creative artistry beyond a mere performative one. He wrote plays, adapted them from different sources, directed and acted in them. He brought stylistic naturalism in the commercial Bengali stage and remained one of its biggest stars, intellectually and commercially. Being a regional actor confining his talents only to his vernacular Bengali language meant that Chatterjee’s reach was largely limited to a Bengali diaspora. His magnificent histrionics in smaller films and with emerging directors remained unnoticed beyond the shores of the Ganges. However, clinging to the soil livened his soul, nurtured it and helped him to explore and expand in the written word. It was in his poetry (with more than 15 collections) that we find the man strewn with doubts, filled emotions and inflicted with melancholy. The creative hunger made the child in him run for new things thereby conceiving newer creative paths for himself. He simply never remained idle.
The luminance of his oeuvre hosted awards that would glorify any actor of international resonance – Commandeur de l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1999) and the highly prestigious Chevalier of Legion d’Honneur (2017) bestowed by the Government of France. In India, he was honoured with the Padma Bhushan (2004), the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (the highest award in Indian cinema, 2012) and a National Award. In his acceptance speech of Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Chatterjee had said with utmost honesty, “I have always been in doubt about my work. I always thought that the 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 their own by my countrymen. I love them [viewers] and that is the reason I am doing cinema. I salute them as they have supplied me with energy and dedication of what I think is a good art.”
In numerous private conversations, Chatterjee spoke about repaying his debt and recompensing the love and joy he received from life. He will be remembered as the last link of an enlightened Bengali mind, the Renaissance grit and compassion. His body of work, including his writings, paintings and his cinema, provide us with an insight into his thoughts and his vision of unvanquished liberation of the human spirit.