That Soumitra Chatterjee was our greatest living actor is unquestionable. What is also unquestionable is that very few of us have ever watched him on screen. He lived in Kolkata, as far away as possible from mainstream cinema, and worked only in Bengali films even though he won countless international awards. No, not the kind of awards we give away in Bollywood, televised to millions. Bengali cinema, being regional, very little of his work saw mainstream cultural acceptance. We only heard of him when he won an award somewhere across the globe. Or a book appeared on him, in some foreign language. We knew he was there when international critics raved about him. And of course we heard of him in the context of Satyajit Ray, who discovered him and put our cinema on the world map.
We heard of Soumitra also when he went to hospital last month. And now, we hear of him having passed away two days ago, at 85, from Covid complications.
Truth be said, Soumitra was bigger than the films he acted in. He was a poet, playwright, author. He even edited, I recall, a little magazine called Ekkhon for which Ray designed the occasional cover. He was, in that sense, a typical bhadralok, the proud upholder of a great tradition he learnt from the doyens of Bengali theatre, Sisir Bhaduri and Ahindra Chowdhury. The eclectic Renaissance man Bengal always adored.
When I was editing a book recently, of interviews with thirty great Indians, I persuaded Khalid (Mohammed) to go and meet him in Kolkata. I thought it would be interesting to see a mainstream critic profile the thoughts of one of regional cinema’s greatest, a man who debuted in the third film of the Apu trilogy and then stayed on to make 13 more films with Ray during the next three decades, from a Tagore classic to one of Bengal’s favourite characters, Feluda– the fictional detective created by Ray himself.
There were many more roles Soumitra played in an impossible lifetime. From the stylish, handsome, well-bred villain Mayurvahan in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bondi, a take on Rupert of Hentzau from The Prisoner of Zenda, to a petty thief sheltered by a prostitute in Tarun Majumdar’s Sansar Simantey to a doctor who calls out a temple whose ‘holy’ water causes a jaundice epidemic in Ganashatru, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. There were hundreds of roles, each more exacting than the other, in the 210 films he did.
It all began with Apur Sansar. Ray started the Apu trilogy with Pather Panchali, on a budget of Rs 70,000 given by the West Bengal government, its producer. Those were the early fifties when a newly independent India was ready to try anything. When Ray, who worked for an ad agency, approached the government with the script of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s classic, they promptly agreed and, rumour has it, sanctioned the money from their road construction budget since Pather Panchali translates into The Song of the Road.
Can you imagine a State government funding a feature? That too, a first film? Pather Panchali premiered in New York in 1955 in the Museum of Modern Art. The same year, it released in theatres in Calcutta and overnight Ray became this cult figure in the world of cinema. Since then, Pather Panchali has made it to the list of ten all-time great films many times.
The young Apu morphed into 13 more memorable roles created for Soumitra by Ray, of which my favourite is Amal in Charulata based on Tagore’s 1901 novella Nastanirh. It is also my favourite Ray film. Set in Calcutta in the late 19th century when the Bengal Renaissance was flowering, the story is about Charulata, a young, intelligent, beautiful housewife, played by Madhabi Mukherjee. Her husband Bhupati edits and prints a political newspaper. Bhupati is an upper-class Bengali intellectual with a keen eye for politics and India’s freedom struggle. Charu, on the other hand, is interested in the arts, literature and poetry. Soumitra plays Amal, Bhupati’s younger cousin who Bhupati encourages to support Charu’s literary pursuits since his newspaper leaves him no time for her.
Amal shares Charu’s love for poetry. They are of the same age and Amal provides her the companionship she yearns for. Their intimacy turns into forbidden love as Bhupati’s newspaper shuts down. A shattered Bhupati turns to Amal for emotional support. Amal, ridden by guilt, leaves unannounced to marry and go to England.
Bhupati discovers a heart-broken Charu reading Amal’s goodbye letter and realises Charu’s feelings for him. Can love risk betrayal? The story is one of Tagore’s finest and explores the nature of love, trust and infidelity in an era when traditions were crumbling, and literature was trying to create new definitions for love. It was Soumitra and Madhuri’s finest hour and Ray’s most compelling work.
I regret I did not know Soumitra well. Not as well as I knew Ray. I never knew Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen either, who were the most popular stars of that time and whose films I devoured as an adolescent. They were amazing. But what impressed me most was they were not heroes in the traditional sense; they were like us. They spoke like us. They dressed like us. They lived in homes like ours and they dreamt the same dreams as we did. This is what made them special. This is what made Soumitra special.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.