With the passing away of Soumitra Chatterjee, we see the departure of the last of Bengal’s cultural legends. But, even though he had a long, successful, and extremely popular film and stage career, his collaboration with Satyajit Ray, and how the duo immortalised various characters on-screen – and the acting masterclass Chatterjee delivered with every film – remains their biggest contribution to the cinematic legacy of this country, and a treasure for Bengalis to cherish forever.
If you are Bengali, “Shoumitro” is a family member. You talk about him like he is a pal, even if he is old enough to be your grandfather (which, if you’re a ’90s kid, he actually is). You have grown up watching him in films. Your parents have grown up watching his films. At the age of 84, last year, he had four releases. Shoumitro was always around. For many, he had been their first movie star crush, when he did the twist as a strapping, outrageously handsome, twenty-something, in Teen Bhubaner Pare, wooing Tanuja, lip-syncing to Manna Dey with romantic ballads that are popular even today. Others remember him as possibly one of this country’s most evocative, emotive, and expressive actors on screen. For many, he defined Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, although he appeared in only the last film, Apur Sansar. For others, it is Chatterjee’s Ray filmography that is enough proof of his explosive acting range and capacity. But most importantly, towering over all of that, he will always be Feluda, India’s best example of a private detective in literature, and the two films that Chatterjee starred in as the sleuth. Although a few other actors did don the mantle after Ray stopped making Feluda films, for generations to date, Shoumitro is Feluda.
Chatterjee debuted with Ray’s final installment of the Apu Trilogy, Apur Sansar. It was Sharmila Tagore’s debut too, someone he shared fantastic on-screen chemistry with in Apur Sansar and other subsequent films. Every performance of his in Ray’s films have been standouts – especially Samapti, Charulata, Heerak Rajar Deshe, Aranyer Din Ratri, Ashani Sanket, Shakha Proshakha, and of course, the two Feluda films, Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath.
Other than Ray, he collaborated with almost all the other top film-makers who were his contemporaries and has been a favourite of film-makers in every generation who sat behind the camera. He delivered knock out performances in Kshudhito Pashan (Tapan Sinha), Akash Kusum (Mrinal Sen), Baghini, Basanta Bilap, Parineeta, Teen Bhuboner Paare, Kony, Asukh (Rituparno Ghosh), Paromitar Ekdin (Aparna Sen), Hemlock Society (Srijit Mukherjee), and Posto. This is of course an extremely selected filmography, but this is a fantastic introduction to Chatterjee. His career spanned 60 years and is a body of work that cannot be matched by any actor in the Bengali industry presently.
I have seen every film of his. Even the trashy ones he made in the ’90s. I hunted those films down once streaming platforms happened. Of course, I laughed at them, but, I couldn’t hate him. A few years back I saw him on stage in Mumbai, the auditorium in Chembur overflowing with Bengalis who had travelled from as far as Kalyan, dressed like it was Durga Puja (it wasn’t, it was June), to watch “Shoumitro”. The man’s films are a part of the Bengali identity. I have loved him in his recent films like Moinak Bhowmik’s Maach Mishti & More, where he plays the cool granddad trying to keep the nostalgia alive in the days of WhatsApp. I still believe Chatterjee in Apur Sansar and Samapti is one of the country’s most memorable romantic performances. His flamboyance in Charulata – that stunning sequence of him singing a flirty Tagore ditty is one of Indian cinema’s most familiar scenes – makes you want to fall in love with him every time you watch the film.
In Heerak Rajar Deshe, he is the voice of the revolution and reason. And then, he is Feluda. In my family, if you are Bengali and haven’t read the Feluda novels and watched the two films that starred Chatterjee as the sleuth, we can’t be friends. Whenever my parents and I want to feel good and happy, we watch Sonar Kella or Joi Baba Felunath. I literally can rattle off both the films like a radio play, with background score and pauses and shot breakups. No Feluda has ever matched Chatterjee’s charisma, screen presence, and impeccable delivery. No Feluda looked as strikingly handsome and intelligent. No Feluda made you want to aspire to be like him, the quintessential Bengali gentleman who is worldly, knows everything, has read everything but is also deeply rooted in Bengaliness. And not just the other Feludas who followed, but no actor has made the kurta-chador look as irresistible on a Bengali man as Chatterjee as Feluda. Even today, when college boys want to pull a “traditional”, they fall back on the maroon kurta and grey chador combo, with side-parted wavy hair. From theatre, elocution, cinema, to politics and cultural impact and commentary, Soumitra Chatterjee has left an indelible mark on every aspect of the Bengali tapestry.
If one had to pick a voice that defines Bollywood, most of us would still pick Amitabh Bachchan. If a voice defines the Bengali industry, it is that of Soumitra Chatterjee. In recent years, he has been the lovable grandfather or patriarch on-screen – that silky, familiar, enriched-by-years-of-theatre voice, always laced with humour and a sarcastic bite, has been the resplendent voiceover that has introduced many films’ opening montages of Kolkata’s familiar cityscape. In a way, he is the voice of this city, a reminder of Kolkata’s past glory, a reminder that the last bright, shining flame is still burning brightly, like a candle in the wind of modernity, technology, instant, and OTT. The flame isn’t there today. Kolkata feels darker, dimmer.
Goodbye Apu. Goodbye Feluda. Mogojastro forever.
(Header credits: Wikimedia Commons)