A gyani and a karmveer
The writer, a celebrated actor, mourns the death of Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020) and remembers him as a man with unquenchable thirst for life
I am feeling devastated, although I knew he was critical. He would have liked to have gone. If he wasn’t able to work, I don’t think he would have wanted to live. He was a Renaissance man -- the last of those idealistic people, who believed in values and beliefs about India, who kept art over commerce.
He was not only an actor, he was also a writer. When we were shooting for Abar Aranye, he used to write poems for his grandchildren on scraps of paper, and put it in his pocket. He would then take them out and say, “I have written it today. What do you think?” He could sing, his recitations are famous. I had the privilege of being on stage with him, reciting together.
We did not interact on a day-to-day basis, but I knew that he was fond of me, and he knew that I was fond of him. We met at such an impressionable age, he was 10 years older. I was barely a teen. We worked together in our first film in 1959, and that film (Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar/The World of Apu) with its romance, caught everybody’s imagination. Apu and Aparna have gone into the collective memory of generations.
I, later, moved to Bombay, but we never lost touch. We worked together in a few Bengali films, of Manikda (Ray) and others, or we did stage performances. I have never seen somebody who was so well informed on every subject. You always learnt something from Soumitra (Ray called him by his house name, Pulu, so did we), whether it was about theatre, cinema, politics, sports, or literature. He was a gyani -- in a scholarly way. He was also fun. He was always smiling that signature smile of his. It was impish, and at the same time also curious.
Though people call him a workaholic, I wouldn’t say that. I would call him a karmveer. ‘Workaholic’ sounds as if you are addicted. He was not addicted, he just wanted to continue to work, to work better. He wouldn’t sit idle. Doing nothing was not an option. And he was always making friends. He was not judgemental. Of course, he had strong opinions on many subjects and we would argue about them. Sometimes he would win, sometimes I would say, “Let’s agree to disagree”. But he believed in other people. The poetry he would recite, the things he would say, would always be rooted in some kind of values.
He was once asked, “What would you take with you when you go?" and he said: “Books”. When asked which books, he said, Gitabitan, Tagore’s song book, and Mahabharat. Then he said, “I have changed my mind. I will take Gitabitan because without that I cannot be, and I would take Abol Tabol (The Weird and the Absurd).” We all grew up on Abol Tabol, a collection of nonsense rhyme by Satyajit Ray’s father, Sukumar Ray. So you could see he believed in having fun, flowing with the times, in not wanting to know so much as living in the moment.
I will miss him. I could have learnt much more from him. But he has left us with so much. It will continue to give me pleasure, and pain.
(As told to Pallavi Srivastava)