When Soumitra Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray got together to work, there was always a great film that followed. And to think that we almost missed witnessing the genius of Soumitra Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray collaboration because of Soumitrada’ almost 6 ft height.
Soumitrada was a stage artist and also a radio announcer at that time. He had met Ray on the sets of one of his earlier films. Ray first rejected the 24-year-old Soumitra for playing the lead character Apu in his epic film Apur Sansar (the last of the Apu trilogy) because he was too tall. But perhaps his intense eyes and his unquenchable curiosity led to Ray ending up casting him in the film.
Soumitrada’s portrayal of a young impoverished writer who decides to give up on life after a heart break was so effective that the Chatterjee-Ray pair worked together in 13 more films. One of them was the popular Shonar Kella and Joy Baba Fellunath where Soumitrada played the iconic detective Feluda. The other films by this pair included Devi, Teen Kanya, Abhijan, Charulata, Kapurush, Aranyer din Ratri, Ashani Sanket, Hirak Rajer Deshe,Ghare Baire, Ganashatru and Shakha Proshakha.
Even though Apur Sansar got rave reviews for the film-maker, Soumitrada is said to have personally got maximum critical acclaim for his performance, surprisingly not in a Ray film but the Tapan Sinha film, Kshudhita Pashan, that released soon after his debut. Soumitra-da also worked with Bengal’s another celebrated director, Mrinal Sen in three films -- Punascha, Amal and Akash Kusum. But then even though celebrated film-makers like Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen showed faith and chose to repeat the actor, it was Soumitrada’s special friendship with Ray that carried the day. Those in the know say Ray looked at him as his son. He took Soumitra under his wings and would personally mentor him by gifting him film books and introducing him to world cinema.
With such mentoring and his own perseverance and hard work, Soumitrada soon became a household name, thus challenging the position of the then reigning superstar Uttam Kumar.
Much later in his career, the now legendary actor tried his hand at direction with the 1986 film, Stree Ki Patra, and managed to get critical acclaim.
Three hundred films and five decades later, Soumitra da continued not only being active on screen, but also drawing audiences till his last days. Internationally, Chatterjee worked in Nicolos Klotz’s The Bengal Night in 1988 and Florian Gallenberger’s Shadows of Time in 2004.
A playwright, editor, stage artiste (he returned to stage in 1978) and an actor par excellence, Soumitra-da was a creative force that his fraternity and his audiences worshipped. A man of strong will and kind heart, Soumitra-da turned down the Padmashree award twice, finally to receive the Padmabhushan. In 2012, he was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. It was in 2018 that the French government bestowed him with The Legion of Honour, exactly 30 years after the same French civilian honour was bestowed upon Ray.
The legendary actor passed away on October 15 2020, following complications arising from Covid 19, thus breaking millions of hearts.