Soumitra Chatterjee: The Renaissance Man India forgot

When Christopher Nolan visited India he mentioned that he had recently seen Pather Panchali and liked it. And as was expected, this made headlines, because, of course, Ray’s genius needs Nolan’s approval, duh! It is today fashionable to drop a mention of the Satyajit Ray classic if you are coming to India and especially if you are meeting the film fraternity here. But while we were debating what took Nolan so long to get acquainted with Ray’s work, something else happened. Soumitra Chatterjee, the legendary actor who was Ray’s most frequent collaborator and also often doubled up as his muse, came to Mumbai to perform in a play directed by his daughter Poulomi Bose.

Being from Kolkata and being a third-generation fan of Chatterjee, I expected a lot of noise around the performance, especially since the city is known for its love for Sunday theatre. But the auditorium was not even half full. It was that day I realised that most people outside Kolkata might be clueless about the existence of the most internationally celebrated Bengali actor till date. In fact, I had a rather hard time convincing people that Soumitra Chatterjee is actually ‘interview worthy’ and I was not mistaking him for someone else! I remember sending the PR his picture thinking that would help her recollect the man, it didn’t. What did was a clip from Ahalya, Sujoy Ghosh’s Radhika-Apte starring short film that ‘also’ features Chatterjee.

Anyway, I easily got the interview slot that day as no other Mumbai journalist had even sent a request for him and his name was not even highlighted anywhere in the promotions. I still consider being able to meet Chatterjee face-to-face my biggest achievement as a journalist till date. Being in a profession, which requires me to interview stars on a regular basis, the basic criteria is to not be star-struck and let personal emotions overpower work commitments. But, that day, meeting my childhood hero in his 80s, I really went blank in the head, weak in the knees, and I could see myself transform into a starry-eyed kid as I bent to touch his feet. However, it wasn’t a situation I had not considered, and hence for the first time I had all the questions written out on a sheet of paper. I just read them out in a state of trance and wished my dictaphone would record whatever he was saying, because I, by then, was just staring at his face and mouthing the questions based on his facial expressions and lip movements. Love might be blind, but adulation is deaf…and that day I realised that.

Soumitra Chatterjee: The Renaissance Man India forgot
Artwork by: Sayan Mukherjee

For us bongs, Soumitra Chatterjee was not just a star or an actor. Apart from being a Dadasaheb Phalke awardee, a holder of the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (the highest civilian award in France), and being a two-time National Award-winning actor, he was Feluda to every Bong kid, Apu to every boy in love, he was the role model, the prince charming, he was the ghorer chhele, ‘Shoumitro’, to every family where his charm could unite three generations of women in the house. But to most Bengalis he was essentially a ‘Raymond’s Man’, The Complete Man, who epitomised the very essence of the quintessential Bengali Bhadralok.

Anyway, I finished the interview and sent the article to my editor hoping that I have cracked another cover story, because an interview with such a legend is indeed in the same league as that of a Majidi interview…or, so I thought. But for the national media, who has today suddenly woken up to the existence of a certain ‘Soumitra Chatterjee, after his death, he wasn’t yet big enough to get a spread more than a single page of a magazine. The truth is, even though today world cinema is becoming part of dinner table conversation, when it comes to Indian cinema, we are still unable to look beyond Bollywood.

Today, Soumitra Chatterjee is headline worthy because he is dead. The actor extraordinaire, who had tested positive of COVID-19 on October 6, died at the age of 86 in Kolkata.

No, I will not introduce Soumitra Chatterjee to you, because it is practically impossible for me to squeeze in his legacy and talk about the phenomenon that was Chatterjee within such a short space and the newspapers will be flooded with such Wikipedia articles anyway.

Yes, he was to Satyajit Ray what Toshiro Mifune, was to Akira Kurosawa, or what Robert De Niro is to Martin Scorsese, theirs was one of those actor-director pairs that gave the international audiences some of the time-defying movie gems. Chatterjee’s association with the Oscar-winning director that started with his very first movie role spanned over three decades and fourteen films including Apur Sansar, Charulata and Ghare Baire. Of this, critic Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker: “Soumitra Chatterjee, Ray's one-man stock company, moves so differently in the different roles he plays them, he is almost unrecognisable.”

Yes, in Bengal, when he started off, it was the time and age of superstar Uttam Kumar. But instead of getting bedazzled by Kumar’s stardom or fading away in his halo, Chatterjee through his acting prowess coupled with his dashing good looks and off-screen personality of the boy-next-door, soon managed to charm create a niche of his own slowly but steadily dividing the Bengali audience into two staunch camps.

Yes, he was one of those rare leading men of Indian cinema of his generation who positioned himself as an actor and rather than a ‘hero’, something that actors today are trying to emulate.

But, apart from Ray, he had worked with Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Ajoy Kar, Raja Mitra, Aparna Sen, Goutam Ghose and Rituparno Ghosh and continued to work till the very end. He was also a politically-aware individual who never shied away from taking a strong stand against the regime. A prolific poet, a playwright, a thespian, and an orator, his recitations of Rabindranath Tagore and Jibananda Das alone could turn one into his life-long fan. He was also one of those rare actors who never gave up theatre even when he was among the top-billed movie stars. And he never looked at Hindi cinema for money, approval, or fame.

In his own words, “Actors, at least in those days, would venture into Hindi films for two reasons, money and fame. I was working with Satyajit Ray and had international fame. I didn’t feel the need to come to Bombay for that.”

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