Soumitra Chatterjee – Bengal’s Last Renaissance Man

Soumitra Chatterjee – Bengal’s Last Renaissance Man

For more than five decades, Soumitra Chatterjee has remained a quintessential part of Bengali cultural life.

Soumitra Chatterjee in Charulata.

“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.”

This is what Soumitra Chatterjee had to say at the award function where he was conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2012 – the highest award in India for contributions in cinema. The announcement of the award was indeed a surprise to many considering the fact that Chatterjee’s relations with the National Film Awards have been lukewarm at best.

He wasn’t conferred the award for the Best Actor during his heydays and when he finally received it, it was for Padakshep (2006), which is undoubtedly one of his minor works. His marked Marxist lineage probably had something to do with it – he had refused the Padma Shri twice before accepting Padma Bhushan in 2004.

When the news of him being conferred the Legion of Honour by the French government – who had also awarded him the Officier des Arts et Metiers earlier – came in, his fans and the industry was delighted.

What sets Chatterjee apart? Actually, everything. Where else can one find a cinema actor who is also a poet –with over a dozen poetry books to his credit – an essayist, a playwright with over 15 adaptations, a theatre director of more than 30 productions, an elocution artist, a painter and an editor for two decades of one of Bengal’s most versatile literary magazines Ekshan?

At his peak, he was a star, only second to the legendary Uttam Kumar at the box office. But he was also a polymath, and he remained grounded with a voice of his own at a time when most other stars preferred to remain silent, devoid of any political or polemical identities.

Soumitra Chatterjee. Credit: Facebook

Chatterjee visited factories to show his solidarity with the workers, walked in processions with them and yet could retain an old world charm and star persona all his own. In films like Saat Pake Bandha (1963), Pratinidhi (1964), Kinu Goalar Gali (1964), Kanch Kata Hire (1966), Baghini (1968) to name a few, the hero, as played by Chatterjee, is more ‘real’ – he speaks the language of the urban, middle-class commoner. He is also in love with a girl but seldom have we found him wooing the heroine for romantic pursuits in artificial settings.

With his handsome and striking screen presence, Chatterjee remained a character actor who also became a star. In the 1960s he acted in more than 40 films which include seven Satyajit Ray films, three by Mrinal Sen, two directed by Tapan Sinha and three by Asit Sen. It was a rare luxury for a new actor to work with so many talented directors of the time and this broadened his horizons and presented him with the opportunity to play different characters.

In Bengali cinema, he was one of the first proponents of the naturalistic style of acting, predominantly noticeable in the films of Ray and Sinha – that became his signature style in almost all his roles. Commenting on his acting in Ray’s Teen Kanya, veteran director Shyam Benegal had observed – “Soumitra Chatterjee’s performance can be compared to a fine Persian carpet, subtle and exquisite. It is only when you turn to look at the back of the carpet do you see the intricate weave that has gone into its making.”

Bursting on to the scene as Apu in Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959), the third part of The Apu Trilogy, Chatterjee captured the imagination of an audience hungry for something more than the usual romantic actors and roles. He followed it up with a series of Ray’s films but reached his zenith as Amal in Ray’s masterpiece Charulata (1964). It was with Amal that Chatterjee, with marked Tagorean features, culminated in the profile of an ‘innocent dreamer’ which no other actor could perform with such conviction.

Chatterjee became Ray’s ‘one-man stock company’ (as Pauline Kael coined him) – a staggering range from Apu to Gangacharan in Ashani Sanket, Felu in the two detective films (Sonar Killa and Joy Baba Felunath) to the villainous Sandip in Ghare Baire.

Since the late ‘60s, Chatterjee moved more into the commercial Bengali films as a typical hero with song and dance numbers. Who can forget the quintessential Manna Dey rendition – ‘Jibone ki pabona, bhulechhi se bhabona’ from the film Teen Bhubaner Pare (1969)?

In the next few decades, he smoothly transited to character roles that were commensurate with his natural, graceful ageing. In the process he acted as the teacher who witnessed a political murder in Atanka (1986), the dictionary-writer who struggled like a sage in Ekti Jiban (1990), the blind Leftist poet in Dekha (2001) and the benevolent old man who fixes others’ problems in Rupkatha Noy (2014).

However, any discussion on Chatterjee’s acting outside of Ray’s cinema should include other iconic roles as well – as the thief Aghor in Tarun Majumder’s Sansar Seemante (1975) where Chatterjee had to subdue his natural good looks partly with make-up and largely with his facial acting or as the paralytic doctor who moves in a wheelchair and fights for his differently-enabled patients in Tapan Sinha’s Wheel Chair (1994).

This image of the ‘fighter’ was visible in Saroj De’s Kony (1986) where Chatterjee played Kshit da, a swimming trainer with indomitable spirit and inspiration. Kshit da’s rousing call, ‘Fight, Kony, fight!’ is referenced in Bengali mass culture even today. For Chatterjee the role is close to his heart since at times of personal crises and mental turmoil (including the depressing times when he was fighting cancer) he would tell himself – ‘Fight, Soumitra, fight!’

In the 1970s, Chatterjee became known as a playwright, theatre-director and theatre-actor. This puts him in a class all his own. There were excellent film actors like Uttam Kumar (the biggest star), Chhabi Biswas and Bikas Roy, but none of them has his range – from a youth to the middle-aged citizen to the old Samaritan, Chatterjee played all characters with equal élan. Similarly, none of the stage actors including Sombhu Mitra, Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay and Utpal Dutt or even the legendary Sisir Kumar Bhaduri (Soumitra’s guru in theatre) had the filmic presence of Chatterjee.

His theatre career thrived at a time when it was ruled by the Group Theatres in Bengal. To Chatterjee’s credit, he continued his productions in the commercial theatre space which was dwindling, brought his cinematic under-acting technique to the theatre and yet became successful – both critically and also commercially. In Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Raja Lear, Chatterjee could act in his dream Shakespearean role – it remains one of the biggest top-grosser in Bengali theatre in recent times.

At 82, Chatterjee remains a perfectionist. He is busier than stars much younger than him. There is an inherent restlessness which keeps motivating him and makes him work tirelessly even today. For more than five decades, he has been part of Bengali cultural life, one of Bengal’s last Renaissance men along with two of his idols – Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray.

Amitava Nag is an independent film critic and the author of Beyond Apu – 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee.