The biggest disservice to Soumitra Chatterjee would be to categorise him as a Bengali actor. While his medium of interaction was Bengali, Chatterjee was undoubtedly an international figure, the last of the enlightened Renaissance men of Bengal, the blue-eyed boy of Satyajit Ray. From Ray’s iconic Apu, as the sleuth Feluda aka Prodosh Mitter or the fearless Udayan Pandit, Chatterjee has always left his impression on every film that he has ever been a part of.
Soon after the actor’s death, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted, “Feluda is no more. ‘Apu’ said goodbye. Farewell, Soumitra (Da) Chatterjee. He has been a legend in his lifetime. International, Indian and Bengali cinema has lost a giant. We will miss him dearly. The film world in Bengal has been orphaned. Best known for his films with Satyajit Ray, Soumitra Da was conferred with Legion of Honor, Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Banga Bibhushan, Padma Bhushan and several National Awards. A great loss. Saddened. Condolences to his family, the film fraternity and his admirers across the world.”
Also read: ‘Lost a family member’, says Satyajit Ray’s son pays tribute to Soumitra Chatterjee
With a film career that began in 1959, the Dadasaheb Phalke award winner not only emerged as a scion of the Bengali film industry and theatre world, but also left his indelible mark as a poet, editor and scholar.
Born on 19 January, 1935 at British Calcutta’s Mirjapur Street, Chatterjee spent the first 10 years of his life in Krishnanagar in the district of Nadia, West Bengal. Chatterjee’s grandfather Lalit Kumar Chatterjee was the president of a theatre group while his father Mohit Kumar Chattopahyay was an amateur actor. Soumitra, fondly known as Pulu, (the name later used for his screen friend in Apur Sansar), started acting in school plays and was soon recognised for his acting chops.
The Chatterjee family eventually moved to Howrah, where Chatterjee graduated from the City College and completed his MA in Bengali literature. At that time, he started taking acting lessons. Impressed by a performance of Shisir Kumar Bhaduri, theatre director and the doyen of Bengali theatre, a young Soumitra decided to take up acting as a profession.
He came in touch with Satyajit Ray during the casting for Aparajito (1956), the second film in the Apu Trilogy, but Ray offered him the role of adult Apu, two years later, in Apur Sansar (1959), Chatterjee’s debut film. The film laid the foundation of a director-actor combination, Soumitra and Satyajit, which is still unmatched in the Tollywood film industry. Ray featured the actor in 14 of his screen ventures, and also modelled his famous sleuth, Feluda, on him. In one of his interviews, Chatterjee had said, “Ray was possessive of me, like a father is of his son.” Their chemistry is akin to other key collaborations in the history of cinema like Mifune and Kurosawa, Mastroianni and Fellini, De Niro and Scorsese, DiCaprio and Scorsese, Max von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman, Jerzy Stuhr and Kieślowski.
Chatterjee had once recollected, “I was doing theatre at that point and had no celluloid dreams. In fact, I had reservations about Indian cinema. To us, theatre was high art while cinema was for mass consumption. Young people in theatre often suffer from this misconception and I was no different. But when I watched Pather Panchali (1955), it totally blew my mind. I never imagined that cinema could rise to that level and was convinced that this was how the future of acting and movies would be.”
In his six-decade long career, Chatterjee worked with filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Ajoy Kar and Gautam Ghose, to name a few. He became the star of Bengali films, with equal expertise and fan following in commercial and parallel cinema. 70s Kolkata film clubs used to buzz with debates, comparing his popularity with Uttam Kumar, Tollywood’s matinee idol.
All through his acting career, Chatterjee was bestowed with accolades. He received the ‘Officier des Arts et Metiers’, the highest award for arts given by the French government. Talking about the honour, he had said, “At this age, awards do not hold a great attraction. But I should say this award is slightly special as it comes from a country that is known for its cultural richness and artistic excellence.”
He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Italy. He turned down the honorary Padma Shri award from the Indian government in the 1970s though later, in 2004, he accepted the prestigious Padma Bhushan award from the President of India. He was the subject of a full-length documentary named Gaach by French film director Catherine Berge. In 1998, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. Incidentally, besides getting 8 times BFJA – Best Actor Awards and international recognition for his acting prowess, Chatterjee never won a National Film Award for acting in the early part of his career. In a gesture of protest, he turned down the 2001 Special Jury Award for Dekha directed by Goutam Ghose.
However, after receiving the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian honour given by Government of India in 2004, he changed his viewpoint towards awards, and stated, “Now I feel I don’t have the right to hurt my viewers by rejecting an award.” On 9 June 2008, he was awarded the 2007 National Film Award for Best Actor for 2006’s Podokkhep (Footsteps), which he accepted. In 2010, he won Best Supporting Actor at 54th Asia-Pacific Film Festival for his role in Angshumaner Chhobi (2009). In 2012, he was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India’s highest honour in cinema. In 2014, he received the introductory Filmfare Awards East for Best Male Actor (Critics) for his role in Rupkatha Noy. He also won the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award – South (1994)
Chatterjee had, for a large span of his life, a much-adored name in Bengali poetry. His verses earned praises and his works were featured in numerous little magazines. He shared close ties with his contemporary poets like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shati Chattopadhyay, Tarapada Roy, and was acknowledged for his editing skills for the little magazine Ekkhon.
Even at 85, a few days before testing positive for Covid-19, the veteran actor was busy shooting for his biopic, in a Tollygunge movie studio. Throughout his life, Chatterjee had time and again voiced his wish “to breath his last while performing onstage.” Destiny had fulfilled his desire as Bengal bids adieu to her last cultural icon, the beloved bhodrolok of Bengali cinema.
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