SOUMITRA CHATTERJEE COMPLETES HALF CENTURY IN FILMS
Soumitra Chatterjee completes half century in films on September 19th, 2009. Join CalcuttaTube in our humble tribute to the living legend that started with Apu. An exclusive feature by Shoma A. Chatterjee on this extraordinary occasion. Share your comments with us. We will be adding comments from more Tollywood celebrities to this page.
by Shoma A. Chatterji
September 19, 2009 is said to be the 50th year of Soumitra Chatterjee in films.
For 50 years, from Satyajit Ray to Tapan Sinha to Mrinal Sen to Gautam Ghosh and Aparna Sen, all major directors have utilized Soumitra Chatterjee’s enormous talent. The thespian talent has also enriched television. He bagged the National Award for Podokhhep, directed by Suman Ghosh. Other awards include the Padma Bhushan, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his contribution to theatre. A BBC documentary on his life and works called Gaach, meaning ‘tree’ has also been made. He has directed and acted in more than ten significant plays with successful shows abroad. He has authored more than ten books of poetry, beginning with Jalapropater Dharey Dandabo Bole (To Stand by the Waterfall) in 1975. Droshta, an abstract translation of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, was published in 1995.
Soumitra Chatterjee is one of the best things that could have happened to Indian cinema. Sad that national cinema has never tapped the potential of this great personality. Sad also, that his contribution to Bengali art and culture is always linked only to cinema and that too, only with the name of Satyajit Ray and his films. There is much more to Soumitra Chatterjee than acting in 14 out of the 25 films of Ray.
“A serious interest in cinema started with the first Film Festival held in Calcutta after my parents shifted to Calcutta from Howrah. For the first time, I watched Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Fall of Berlin, with friends equally interested in cinema. These films changed my thinking about cinema. We saw Renoir’s River, shot in India. Then came Pather Panchali. Ray made four films before he did Apur Sansar. I now feel, those films were sort of a preparation for what was to come – my first film Apur Sansar,” reminisces the 70+ actor. Described by critic Pauline Kael as Satyajit Ray’s “one-stock company, Soumitra Chatterjee, like his mentor, has been a pillar of creativity in Bengali cinema.
He has never made a distinction between art films and commercial films. Just as one watches him emote a scene Rituparno Ghose’s Asookh, one can also be privy to Soumitra Chatterjee in a crassly commercial film like Swapan Saha’s Baba Keno Chakor. He has acted under the directorial baton very young directors like Atanu Ghosh and Suman Ghosh. He did not let ego to come in the way of an important role in Aparna Sen’s Paromitaar Ek Din. His play Neelkantha, written and directed by him with himself in the title role, first staged in 1988, was later revived on the Calcutta stage drawing a full house every time. Ekshan, one of the best literary magazines in Bengali was jointly edited by Chatterjee alongwith his close friend Nirmalya Acharya. It ceased publication after Acharya passed away a few years ago.
He has acted in around 300 films, ranging from 14 films of Satyajit Ray and crassly commercial potboilers He held on to his own even when Uttam Kumar was the reigning super-star. He had a different style, approach and method in acting. “Working with Uttam Kumar when he was already at the peak did not intimidate me because we shared a close family bond. I had seen him for the first time at my sister’s wedding. He was a close friend of the groom. Working together for the first time in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi (1961) only strengthened the friendship that continued till his death. There were fights but at the end of it all, he was like my elder brother,” says Chatterjee.
Ironically, Soumitra was rejected for a role in Neelachale Mahaprabhu after a screen test a few years before he was chosen to play Apu in Ray’s Apur Sansar. About his work alongside Uttam Kumar, Chatterjee says, “Uttam Kumar gave me a tremendous sense of competition. I had to deal with it on my own terms, without either imitating him, or being influenced by him. We were more like the East Bengal and Mohan Bagan football teams. Calcutta would always be divided into two warring groups when it came to choosing between the two of us. And we acted together in quite a few films. I did have my box office potential as hero. I would not have lasted this long if this had not been so.”
Asked to tick off the best roles apart from Ray’s films, he says, “I would love to mention Tarun Majumdar’s Sansar Seemantey, Kony, a sports-centered film directed by Saroj De. I liked Raja Mitra’s Ekti Jibon, a fictionalised account of the lexicographer who wrote the first Bengali dictionary. I enjoyed commercial films too – Agradaani, Babumoshai, Baghini, Chhutir Phandey, Jodi Jaantem and Sudur Niharika in which I did three different roles. Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum, Ajay Kar’s Malyadaan Babumoshai, Khunje Berai and Stree and Tarun Majumdar’s Ganadevata. Among recent films, I liked Podokhhep, Angshumaner Chhobi and Dwando.”
Tapan Sinha’s Wheel Chair remains one of the most challenging roles of his career. “I practiced moving about on a wheel chair because the physical details of how a man does minor things while seated on a wheel chair were important. But when it finally went on the floors, I could not practice all over again. I love the challenge of learning something for a specific role. For Kshudita Pashan, I had to learn horse riding. I discovered that riding a horse or moving about on a wheel chair helps form an insight into a given character. The man’s world-view changes. This differs from the world-view of a person who moves normally at ground level. The change in world-view changes his behaviour, his vision, his philosophy. These are reflected in his character. The physical approach to a character is very important. Once this is achieved, then a trip to the mental world of the character becomes seamless,” he sums up.