Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020): Always graceful, always great
We look back at the legacy of one of Indian cinema’s brightest stars
How does an actor play the wind? For over half a century now, cineastes have dissected the evocative opening sequence of Satyajit Ray's Charulata (1964). We know the rhythms, the shots, the studied minutiae of provincial Bengal as revealed over one languorous afternoon with Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee). But what about the twist, the turn, the sudden shifting around of fate?
This is Soumitra Chatterjee, the wild and irrepressible Amal of Ray’s film, arriving in a squall to stir things up. In Charulata’s life, he arrives as the unruly summer wind, ruffling floor mats and sending bits of paper in a swirl. "Hare murare...," he announces dramatically before dropping to touch her feet. When he gets up, the order of his queries is telling: "Are you reading the literary magazines?" he asks. And then: "Where's my brother?"
The scene of Amal's arrival is momentous: he will soon be unclasping a flurry of muted desires in his bored and housebound sister-in-law. At the same time, there's a droll insouciance to Soumitra Chatterjee's performance that undercuts any metaphorical heavy-handedness. Such was the relaxed mastery of the Soumitra-Satyajit Ray combine. Writing in his book, Have You Seen…?, about 1000 must-see films, David Thomson noted, "She (Charulata) does not quite fall in love with the brother-in-law, but she falls for his version of love..."
Soumitra, who was battling covid complications, passed away in a Kolkata hospital on Sunday. He was 85. An institution of Bengali cinema and culture, Soumitra had acted in over 200 feature films; his penultimate appearance was in Anik Dutta's Borunbabur Bondhu, co-starring, poignantly, Madhabi Mukherjee. He was the first Indian to receive France’s highest award for artists, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and was the recipient of many coveted honours, including the National Award for Best Actor (2006), the Padma Bhushan (2004), and the Dadasaheb Phalke award (2012).
Though his association with Ray had ended with the director's demise in 1992 (they had last worked together on Shakha Proshakha), their legacies are forever intertwined. Soumitra debuted as the sensitive, unassuming star of Apur Sansar (1959), the final entry in Ray’s The Apu Trilogy. The actor had previously auditioned for Aparajito (1956), the second in the series, but was deemed too old for the adolescent Apu. Slipping into the role now, he inhabited Apu with sincerity and heart. The novelistic sweep of Ray’s film was matched by the actor’s deep awareness of the passage of time. It was a performance steeped in silences: gently folding up a letter in the rear of a tram, fuzzily turning the window on prying eyes next door. Sublime, too, were the moments of understated beauty he created with fellow debutant Sharmila Tagore, a partnership whose tragic afterglow informs the entire later half of the film.
To grossly simplify, there were two Soumitras in the Satyajit Ray canon: the canny, erudite leading man of the Feluda series (Sonar Kella followed Joi Baba Felunath) and the conflicted social figures of Abhijan, Ashani Sanket, and Ganashatru. The latter also figured in his collaborations with other stalwarts, notably Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum (1965). In between were the loving oddities: the foot-tapping fop in Teen Bhubaner Pare (1969), the upright teacher rescued by Goopy-Bagha in Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980). Another film of note was Kony (1986), a spirited sports-drama where he played coach to an underprivileged female swimmer (it won the National Award for Best Popular Film).
In the sixty years of his legacy, there’s hardly a conspicuous gap in Soumitra’s filmography. Late into his career, he kept appearing in mainstream and new-age Bengali cinema, often playing harried father figures in commercial films. He worked with Rituparno Ghosh on Asukh (1999), with Aparna Sen in Paromitar Ek Din (2000), with Srijith Mukerji in Hemlock Society (2012). Atanu Ghosh’s Mayurakshi (2017) cast him as an ailing octogenarian reuniting with his stateside son (Prosenjit Chatterjee). A moving portrait of generational reconciliation, the film is regarded among Soumitra’s best late-career works; it was also his last film with Prosenjit, an association that had endured since 1983’s Agradani.
There's a video on YouTube from earlier this year of Soumitra Chatterjee being interviewed by regional superstar Dev. For someone who exemplified the pinnacle of Bengal’s cinematic output, it’s telling how humbly and straightforwardly he answers Dev’s questions. Asked if the transition into the modern age was tough for him, Soumitra terms it “essential.” Later, when prodded about his on-screen rivalry with Uttam Kumar, he simply recalls the healthy competition they shared. “A lot of my coffee-house friends would act high-nosed about Uttam. But I will always tell them he’s a born actor.” It’s this innate decency we will miss as we bid farewell to the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee.