As we mourn Soumitra Chatterjee, a thespian of rare artistic integrity, we also celebrate his immense contribution to that kind of Indian cinema counted among the world’s best.
He will forever be synonymous with the sensitive, poetic, and tragically marked Apu and his final reconciliation with reality. The final image of a bearded Apu with his son Kajal astride his shoulders walking towards a new beginning is a magical vision of hope and renewal. A performance and screen persona that seeped into our soul with its purity, innocence, emotional resonance, and beguiling beauty. There are so many other facets of Soumitra Chatterjee that only a retrospective of his work will fill the gaps in our knowledge of him.
It is with great trepidation that I write this tribute because, for a non-Bengali, so much of his life and work is second-hand information. The rest of India outside the vast range of Bengali culture that encompasses literature, music, theatre, and cinema, is deprived of the immensity of his achievement. He is simply slotted as the alter ego of Satyajit Ray over 14 films, practically all major landmarks with a few minor works of our greatest auteur. This diminishes Chatterjee’s rich legacy. He is as much a renaissance man as the genius who cast him in Apur Sansar, the culmination of the seminal Apu Trilogy. Soumitra da as he was affectionately called, was an essayist, poet, a founder, and co-editor of a literary magazine Ekkhon (he left after some time), painter, playwright, and theatre director. Connoisseurs praise him for imbuing his recitation of Tagore and Jibanananda Das’ poetry with nuanced depth. He wrote extensively, and the redoubtable Samik Bandyopadhyay has edited three volumes of his work. His career as an actor continued over decades, 62 years to be precise. He worked with stalwarts Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha as well as the next generation of directors, Goutam Ghose, Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh, and newer filmmakers who explored unusual themes. The legendary thespian eased into character roles with the same commitment that he showed as the quintessential Ray hero.
Intellectual depth, artistic insight, and emotional intelligence. These qualities shine through his oeuvre and make him an actor who should be ranked among the best in the world. There is also a lightness of being that is ineffable. Combined with solidity, the depth of the character he portrays linger in our mind long after, years later in many instances: be it Apu, Amal, Feluda or the limping neurosurgeon of Dwando who intervenes to resolve the moral dilemma of a young woman or the enigmatic paterfamilias of Bela Sheshe who wants to divorce his devoted wife on the eve of a 50th anniversary. He was a professional who also had the humility to play roles that were not central to the film. Only a great actor aware of his worth and respect for the craft can accept aging with grace and dignity. He brought the same dignity to his portrayals, a very rare quality in the ego-ridden narcissistic world of acting.
In his essay Calm Without Fire Within, Satyajit Ray found the distinguishing trait of the oriental art in the ‘enormous reserves of power which never spilled over into emotional displays.’ (Chidananda Dasgupta, editor of Satyajit Ray, Film India series, 1981). The master director looked for this fine balance of suggested power and restraint. He found it in abundant measure with the young actor he chose to play the adult Apu. Ray’s cinema is a statement of the power of suggestion and restraint in expressing emotion. In Apur Sansar, Apu becomes the bridegroom when he attends the wedding as a guest of his friend who is the bride’s cousin. The intended groom is revealed to be mentally retarded. Apu seemingly bows to the belief that if a girl is not married on the auspicious date fixed, she will never marry. The narrative also hints at an unacknowledged attraction for the beautiful, sheltered Aparna. The carefree young man with literary aspirations blossoms before our eyes into a tender, caring husband in the cramped upstairs rooms where the newlyweds awaken to desire and love. Pauline Kael wrote in a different context, ‘No artist has done more than Satyajit Ray to make us re-evaluate the commonplace.’ Like a world in a grain of sand, Apu finds the joys of intimacy in a fallen hairpin under the pillow, lying content in bed while Aparna bustles in the open terrace lighting the chulha. Chatterjee’s smile as he holds the pin is suffused with wonder and inexpressible tenderness. It is tempting to linger on, relishing the poignant perfection of Apur Sansar – heartbroken Apu’s wanderings, working in a coal mine, tearing up his manuscript, not willing to accept the son at whose birth Aparna died. After five years, when he does visit the village by the river, his son Kajal has grown truculent, not willing to acknowledge the stranger in their midst nor amenable to his grandfather’s discipline. Chatterjee’s gradual acceptance of his son, triggered by his father-in-law’s raised stick, coalesces wordlessly into an expressive, enduring moment of pure cinema. A first film is like first love. Unforgettable, full of yearning for the magic of discovery.
Chatterjee’s subsequent roles were not reprisals of Apu. Far from it. In Charulata, Ray’s perfect masterpiece according to most people, including Soumitra Chatterjee himself, Amal is not without guile. He befriends the lonely Chaurlata, neglected by her newspaper publisher husband Bhupati, and encourages her to write. From chats on literary matters to playful camaraderie that Indian society allows between a married woman and her husband’s younger brother and companionable silences as she sways gently on the swing and he sprawls on a mat scribbling, Charu falling in love with the handsome young man closer to her in age is as inevitable as a bud unfurling. Amal has the sense to wake from this pleasant dreamlike state to realise the implications. He makes an excuse and runs away before it is too late. Not the shining idealist Apu, but a careless young man who is a bit of a coward. A wife’s love is taken for granted by the serious, rather stodgy Bhupati, and a lonely Bhabhi’s vulnerability to attention is blithely ignored by the insensitive Amal.
Chatterjee plays an opportunistic coward in Kapurush. As Amitabha Roy, looking for story material for a film, he comes across his old love, now the wife of the small tea estate owner when his car breaks down. He had let down Karuna, the girl he had loved. He has vague plans for making amends for his past betrayal, during a picnic the next day. Amitabha writes a hasty note to her, telling her he will wait for her at the station (he has decided not to wait for the taxi to be repaired). Unhappily married she might be, but Karuna comes to the station, only to take back the bottle of pills she had lent Amitabha the previous night. She knows men enough not to trust them. A role with grey shades that Chatterjee plays with the right nuances of guilt and cowardice.
A departure from playing a bhadralok Bengali is Abhijan’s Narsingh, a taciturn Rajput taxi driver. He is in a surly mood after the missionary school teacher he falls in love with loves someone else. He agrees to transport illicit goods for an untrustworthy businessman to get his license back. Gulabi (Waheeda Rehman), a woman with a shady reputation seeks Narsingh’s protection to escape the businessman’s unwanted attention. She is drawn to Narsingh and wants to live with him and he comes to her on the rebound but this road movie has no resolution, a destination to reach. Chatterjee plays this tough man with a vulnerable heart with world-weary stoicism.
Aranyer Din Ratri, Ray’s sojourn in the forest has been called Chekhovian and modern in a narrative that is freed from a rigid plot. It is also Mozartian in its structure, crediting Ray’s passion for and knowledge of western music. Aranyer Din Ratri underlines the suggestion of sexual simmer, as the forest setting frees the young men and women who meet there, from culturally and socially ingrained inhibitions. Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee) is the leader of the quartet of friends who have come to distant Palamu. Ashim has a rather inflated opinion of his worth as a young man with a good job, confident of attracting young women. He and his friends bribe a forest guest house’s watchman to stay there without a booking. Thank god for corruption, says one of them with the kind of smugness big city guys have when they come to these benighted parts. They come across another city family with two young women, targets for holiday dalliance. Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) is reserved and not an easy conquest for Ashim. Her widowed sister-in-law Jaya has a young son and sends out unmistakable signals to Sanjay, who is afraid to pick them up, let alone act on it when the opportunity presents itself. The crackle of sexual frisson sparks the air and only the sportsman in the group acts on it, taking up the dusky tribal girl he meets at a liquor shop. Ashim’s bubble of confidence is pricked by Aparna and the two do become friends but whether this will lead anywhere is left open. Chatterjee essays a self-satisfied young man’s smugness without offering redeeming qualities of underlying complexities that were part of Sunil Ganguli’s novel that Ray adapted and departed from.
Chatterjee is on record for preferring the novel but he played the role Ray wrote with his wonted professionalism. The director is the captain of the ship is the adage he believed in.
Often, Chatterjee returned to voicing Ray’s point of view, of rationality and mistrust of blind devotion to religious belief. Devi, set in the 1860s, is a masterpiece of atmospherics, rich period detail, and evocative suggestion, delving into the depths of a hallucinatory psyche. Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), the younger daughter-in-law is believed to be an incarnation of the goddess by her pious, widowed father-in-law. A fortuitous recovery of a sick child strengthens this belief, by Doyamoyee herself to the consternation of her husband Umapa da (Chatterjee) who is a student in Kolkata. He argues with his father but is not able to shake his staunch faith. He has enjoyed an equal relationship with Doya as we see them talk about his studies when in bed. But his effort to take her with him meets the brick wall of her growing belief in her own divinity. Her fragile mind is malleable and rationality has no chance against the power of ritual incarnation and worshipful adulation. When Uma comes back again to reclaim his deluded wife, it is too late. Unforeseen tragedy has driven her mad. Chatterjee conveys his helplessness and anguish at this destruction of someone so vulnerable and beautiful.
Ray also cast Soumitra Chatterjee against type in Ghare-Baire. Ray makes the Tagore novel, full of abstruse musings by its trio of characters, into a cautionary tale against infusing religious fervor into hyper-nationalism. Does it ring a warning for our times? Chatterjee plays Sandip, the charismatic rabble-rouser who exploits the goodness and quirky nobility of his friend Nikhilesh, a landowner with a conscience. Nikhilesh persuades his wife Bimala to come out of purdah to meet his friend. It is a test to see if his wife’s love is automatic, only to be expected because she has met no other men. Sandip charms and flatters Bimala to see herself as the queen bee, the surrogate goddess at whose altar nationalists worship. It ends in an inevitable tragedy with Nikhil’s death. Soumitra Chatterjee plays Sandip as a conscienceless opportunist who uses his potent charm to mentally seduce the wife of his friend and benefactor. A villain who flatters with winsome ways and finally betrays.
Soumitra Chatterjee became synonymous with the beloved detective Feluda, the clever, deductive hero of the phenomenally popular Feluda stories. Western critics have dismissed Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath as lesser works, superior fare for young adults. They have no idea of how many adults love these books. Soumitra Chatterjee is the definitive Feluda with his poise, suavity, and sharp wit. Other actors have paled in comparison.
With Ganashatru, Soumitra Chatterjee began his avatar of the good doctor with a conscience. His sharp features now softly rounded, Chatterjee symbolized the crusading doctor who put public health against religious fervor in this adaptation of Ibsen’s Public Enemy.
In Tapan Sinha’s Wheel Chair, he was the physically impaired neurologist who runs a home for the mentally and physically challenged in a semi-rural place. The rehabilitation of a traumatized rape victim is at the heart of this crusading film. In Sandip Ray’s The Broken Journey, Chatterjee remembers the sanctity of the Hippocratic oath he took years ago after a cushioned city life treating rich patients when his journey to Jamshedpur is held up. The inner journey of introspection, coming to terms with guilt, and resolve to be a true physician is an arc that Chatterjee covers with practised ease.
It is the more recent Dwando that draws the best from the actor. Dr. Ashok Mukherjee comes late in a narrative where Sudipta, a childless, working wife is caught in a dilemma: she is pregnant with another man’s child and her unsuspecting husband is diagnosed with a brain tumour. Dr. Mukherjee is a famous neurosurgeon who is brusque when she barges into his office. Undeterred by his rudeness, Sudipta once again forces her way into his house on a rainy night for a confrontation. Walking with a pronounced limp and arrogance expressed through heavy sarcasm, the skeptical doctor turns the counsellor when he hears her problem. ‘I am the poet of the body, I am the poet of the soul’, he recites Walt Whitman’s lines to the hysterical, angry woman who breaches his citadel to castigate him for his inhumanity. It takes a lot of self-belief even for a legendary veteran to say these lines – half in admonishment, half in awe at his own work – without sounding pretentious. Chatterjee holds center stage, with his voice and body language attuned to the nuanced script that takes him from snooty scientist to sentimental reminiscence and empathy for the woman caught in a dilemma. He plays God and settles the issue with a lie that he justifies with a quote from the Mahabharatha.
Bela Seshe is a very popular film that played outside Bengal. It is the last Soumitra Chatterjee film I saw. As Bishwanath Majumdar, owner of a famous bookshop, the thespian is the pivot around which the family drama revolves in the story. He admonishes his only son that he is not just a seller of books but a guide to readers, and gently nudges them towards good literature. On the last day of pujo, when his married daughters are also home, he drops the bombshell. He wants to divorce his wife of 49 years. Aarti seems unaffected and tells him some unpalatable truths: how his daughter-in-law holds her nose after he has used the toilet and she pours extra water to dispel the smell. But nothing seems to swerve the patriarch from his decision…till the family goes to Shantiniketan for a holiday and things have a way of settling themselves. Soumitra Chatterjee’s face, now rounded into benign maturity, is as expressive as ever. The smile, as endearing. The eyes speak a thousand words. And we listen, raptly.
This is a more precious tribute than the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Padma Bhushan, and Legion of Honour by the French government. He deserved them and more national honours. Soumitra Chatterjee did not set much store by awards. He was bigger than all these routine honours. He will live forever as Apu, Amal, and Feluda.