The curtains came down on an era in Bengali cinema as Soumitra Chatterjee, 85, the most illustrious protégé of the legendary director Satyajit Ray, died at a private hospital in south Kolkata at 12.15 pm on Sunday. He was suffering from Covid encephalopathy.
With the Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner’s departure, a 61-year-long journey in movies and plays that were influenced by Bengal’s history, creation of Bangladesh, the Emergency and rise of Marxism and shaped by the works of immortal writers, came to an end.
Most of the great actors with whom Chatterjee shared screen space – Chhabi Biswas, Uttam Kumar, Utpal Dutta and Subhendu Chatterjee to name just a few – passed away over the decades. Chatterjee was the last male face of what the veterans often referred to as the golden age. The chronicle of his life, which gave the audience around 300 movies in monochrome and colour, stands as a testimony.
When Mohit Kumar Chatterjee and his wife, Asha, had their second son on January 19, 1935, nobody in the family possibly thought that the name Soumitra would touch a chord with millions someday.
Fondly called Pulu, a nickname the Chatterjees found apt for the naughty boy who would run around the family’s home at Krishnanagar in Nadia district, Soumitra showed the first signs of a performer among the four siblings at a rather young age.
“Our family moved to Howrah when I was around ten. I was the high jump champion at the Howrah Zilla School. My parents had great influence on me. My father inspired me to be an actor while my mother guided me into the world of poetry,” Chatterjee said during a television show in 2010, six years after he had been awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third highest award given to civilians by the government of India.
The veteran was already 75 in 2010 but real recognition for the performer inside him had not yet come.
Unlike no other actor in Indian cinema, Chatterjee played the key roles in as many as 14 movies Ray made between 1959 and 1990. Most of these received national and international acclaim but Chatterjee, despite his outstanding performance in some, never got the national award for acting. These movies included Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), the third in Ray’s internationally recognised Apu Trilogy, in which Chatterjee made his debut in 1959 as the husband of another debutant, 15-year-old Sharmila Tagore.
Ray became Chatterjee’s mentor. Their partnership lasted till Ray’s second last movie, Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree), released in 1990. Their 31-year-long journey became unique as Ray made Chatterjee walk in and out of diverse characters such as private detective Pradosh Mitra or, a village teacher (Hirak Rajar Deshe or The Kingdom of Diamonds, 1980) who led people into a revolution against an autocratic king played by Utpal Dutta.
The other movies of Ray in which Chatterjee stood out are Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962), Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969), Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973), Ghare Baire (The Home and The World, 1984) and Ganashatru (Enemy of the People, 1989).
Director Shyam Benegal, while commenting on Chatterjee during an interview, said, “He has worked particularly for Satyajit Ray. All the films he has made for Ray are so extraordinary. He fits into the role in a way that he becomes the person you would know immediately. That’s a brilliant quality in an actor and he has that.”
Chatterjee, who graduated from City College and got his master’s degree in Bengali literature from the Calcutta University, was immensely inspired by thespian Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, an icon in his time. Chatterjee joined the theatre after college and got a job as an announcer at the All India Radio where he worked for about two years.
“I was closely associated with the great Sisir Kumar Bhaduri. It was almost predestined that I should be an actor. I made up my mind when I was doing my graduation. But I never thought that I would be a famous film star. Before witnessing a revolutionary change in India with Pather Panchali (the first part of Apu Trilogy and released in 1955) I had a snobbish kind of an idea about cinema. I didn’t like Bengali cinema those days,” Chatterjee candidly said during an interview decades after his debut.
Although he shared screen space with acclaimed performers such as Uttam Kumar, Utpal Dutt, Suchitra Sen, Tanuja and Sharmila Tagore, Chatterjee, unlike these co-actors, was always reluctant to try his luck in the Mumbai film industry. He appeared in only two full-length Hindi movies; Nirupama (1986), which was a telefilm, and Hindustani Sipahi (2002). Both were made by Bengali directors who had cast local actors. Some of the movies Chatterjee worked in were however later remade in Mumbai.
Often described by critics and fans as the hero of intellectual moviegoers and not the masses, Chatterjee also worked for the nationally acclaimed Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha.
He played the lead in Sen’s Akash Kusum (Up In the Clouds, 1965) opposite Aparna Sen, his life-long friend and co-actor in many projects. The movie was remade in Hindi 10 years later by another legendary director, Basu Chatterjee. Starring Amitabh Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterjee, Manzil (destination) did moderate business but its music composed by R D Burman remains a chartbuster.
With Sinha, Chatterjee worked in Khudita Pashan (Hungry Stones, 1960), Jhinder Bandi (the Prisoner of Jhind, 1961) and Atonko (Fear, 1984).
Based on a novel by Sharadindu Bandopadhyay who was inspired by Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, The Prisoner of Zenda, Jhinder Bandi saw Chatterjee playing a ruthless villain for the first time, and that too against Uttam Kumar who was then the star of Bengali cinema.
Chatterjee received the highest awards from the government of India rather late in life. He even refused the Padma Shree twice as he felt that his prowess had not been recognized.
“I have long since lost all interest in these awards because they have so often been awarded to someone who didn’t deserve it. It is not an ego problem. It is just reasonable thinking. I have acted in 14 of Ray’s films and I have not been considered to be the best actor in any of them,” Chatterjee once said during an interview.
Chatterjee received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1998 and 2011, the Padma Bhusan in 2004 and the National Film Award for acting in Podokkhep (footsteps) in 2006 although two of his more well-known movies got the National Film Award in 1991 and 2000.
Finally, in 2012, Chatterjee received the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke award and, in 2018, the government of France honoured him with the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, (Legion of Honour) the highest civilian award in France. But here too, Chatterjee followed his mentor. Ray received the award from the French government in 1987.
Chatterjee gave an emotional speech after accepting the Dadasaheb Phalke Award from Hamid Ansari, the Vice-President of India.
“I am really not in a frame of mind to say anything about this. All my life I am have been plagued with a doubt about my work and always thought that maybe this business of entertainment is not really worthwhile. And I have always thought that if I could instead do something like Albert Schweitzer and go away to a distant leper colony and serve people, my life would have been worthwhile. But time and again for the last more than 50 years I have been accepted, loved and made to feel as one of their own by my countrymen. I love them. I respect them. They are the reason I have come this long…. I salute them that they have supplied me with the energy and the determination to continue with what I believe in and what I think to be good art..,” said Chatterjee.
The recognition moved some of the stalwarts in the Indian film industry.
“Mr Chatterjee getting the Phalke award is eminently deserved. I think he is one of those actors who would be counted as one the best in the world,” director Govind Nihalni said in an interview.
An ardent follower of literature, a writer and a poet, Chatterjee loved drawing sketches as well. But he never left theatre, his first passion. He presented his first play during college days and directed or acted in a dozen more over the next decades.
In November 2010, Chatterjee put on makeup and Celtic costumes to appear on stage at the age of 75 as Raja Lear (Kind Lear), a play based on the tragedy by William Shakespeare and directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay. As he won accolades for the role, Chatterjee said at a literary festival that he would like to do Macbeth but was not sure if his health would permit it.
A statement Chatterjee made during his last interview to a Bengali news channel a few months ago showed the world his indomitable spirit and perhaps his vulnerability we well.
“I feel alive because I am still acting,” he said.
Nothing could be more true for a man who surprised the YouTube generation in 2015 by playing the husband of Radhika Apte, an actor a third his age, in Sujoy Ghosh’s 14-minuute film, Ahalya.
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