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The Polymath Who Ruled a Generation and More


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Soumitra Chatterjee was a man who had carved a niche in the hearts of most of the Bengalis, to say the least. With an acting career spanning more than sixty years, Soumitra was undoubtedly one of the most well-known faces in the drawing rooms across Bengal for several generations. An actor who may well claim to be the prolific performer that Bengal ever had, it is a pity that most people in their obituaries seem to remember little beside the fact that he played the role of the Bengali sleuth Feluda. There can be absolutely no doubt about the fact that Soumitra’s Feluda was an iconic act, but to limit such an illustrious performer within the space of a single character seems almost an insult to his artistic instinct.

We are fortunate to know quite a lot about the artistic life of Soumitra, as besides his acting, he has consistently been in the habit of writing, a considerable portion of which has been about the cinema and theatre of Bengal. He was perhaps the first actor to argue for the need of a systematic historiography of Bengali cinema in his book Agrapathikera (2010). Coming into close contact with the veteran thespian Sisirkumar Bhaduri at a young age, Soumitra had developed a taste for realistic acting. However, according to his own words, like many self-conscious intellectuals of his age, he initially nurtured a baseless snobbery towards cinema, regarding it as a much inferior artistic medium than the theatre. This misconception was quickly dispelled after watching Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955), a landmark in the history of Bengali cinema in more ways than one. Soumitra’s first tryst with Ray came through a college friend, who happened to be a friend’s friend of Nityananda Dutta, Ray's casting director. Though Ray dismissed Soumitra for being too tall and selected Smaran Ghoshal as Apu for his Aparajito (1956), he invited the aspiring actor for accompanying him on the set of Jalshaghar (1958), and it was while shooting this film that Ray declared before the veteran actor Chhabi Biswas that he has finalized Soumitra as the protagonist of his upcoming film Apur Sansar. Before beginning the shooting for Apur Sansar (1959), Ray provided the young actor with an entire psychobiography of Apu, in order to help the young actor to get in the skin of the character. After completing the shooting for this film, Ray told Soumitra, ‘The way you've worked in this film, you will most probably get more projects in the near future. However, if that doesn’t happen, you can be sure of a career as an assistant director of mine.’

The projects, however, started flowing in soon enough. Tapan Sinha, another premier Bengali director of the time, signed up Soumitra for his Kshudhito Pashan (1960). It was in Sinha's Jhinder Bandi (1961) that Soumitra appeared opposite the legendary Uttam Kumar as the antagonist Mayurbahan, an adaptation of the character Rupert Hentzau from Anthony Hope’s Late Victorian novel The Prisoner of Zenda (1894). He acted in no less than fourteen films directed by Ray, producing a director-actor partnership that was way more prolific than its Japanese counterpart of Akira Kurosawa-Toshiro Mifune. In Ray's Abhijan (1962), he starred opposite Waheeda Rehman, one of the leading ladies of contemporary Hindi film industry. While preparing for the role of Gangacharan in Ray's Ashani Sanket (1973), Soumitra spent a considerable time on location before shooting in order to observe the manners of local villagers, an example of method acting which was quite unusual at that time in Bengali cinema. Besides Apu and Feluda, he appeared in a number of iconic roles in the Ray films, the Rajput driver Narsingh in Abhijaan, the young protagonist Apurbo in Samapti (1961), the quintessentially helpless modern common man in Kapurush (1965), the rebellious teacher Udayan Pandit in Heerak Rajar Deshe (1980), the village priest Gangacharan, the hypocritical Sandip in Ghare Baire (1984), a Bengali adaptation of Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann in Ganashatru (1989) and a mentally challenged man in Shakha Prosakha (1990).

Much less talked about, however, is the wide range of roles Soumitra has played under various directors throughout his career. Even during the heyday of Uttam Kumar, he has managed to deliver memorable performances alongside Suchitra Sen in films such as Saat Pake Bandha (1963) and Datta (1976). He has delivered a whole gamut of unforgettable performances in the realistic films of Mrinal Sen- Pratinidhi (1964), Akash Kusum (1965), Tarun Majumdar- Sangsar Simantey (1975), Ganadevata (1978), Tapan Sinha- Atanka (1986), Wheel Chair (1994), Antardhan (1992) and others- Baghini (1968), Agradani (1983), Kony (1986). He has appeared consistently in the films of almost all the commercially successful directors over three decades such as Sukhen Das and Swapan Saha, winning the admiration of semi-urban mofussil audiences even in the so-called cringy, over-the-top melodramas such as Pratisodh (1981), Baba Keno Chakor (1998) and MLA Fatakeshto (2006), and proving successful in his jatra performances, beginning with Amar Meyeke Firiye Dao. He has been equally comfortable in working with the new generation of critically acclaimed directors such as Rituparno Ghosh, Srijit Mukherjee and Nandita Ray-Shibaprasad Mukhopadhyay. Apart from the Feluda and Goopy Bagha films, Soumitra has appeared in almost every children’s film in Bengali worthy of mention made from the eighties onwards, playing the antagonist Asit Dhar in Kakababu Here Gelen? (1995), the poor scion of a landowning family in Ajob Gayer Ajob Katha (1998), an eccentric scientist in Patalghor (2003) and an aged Byomkesh Bakshi in Durbeen (2014). It is an undeniable fact that he has been repeatedly typecast as a poetry-reciting, brooding old intellectual in the recent years, but that is a flaw which must lie with the directors, as Soumitra himself had repeatedly expressed his desire to try out new and different roles, occasionally succeeding in breaking the mould in films like Kaaler Rakhal (2009), 10:10 (2008) and Ahalya (2015). His works in non-Bengali films include Bejoy Chatterjee's Nirupama (1986) and Prashanta Bal's Hindustani Sipahi (2002) in Hindi and Nicholas Klotz's The Bengali Night (1988) in French, a cinematic adaptation of Mircea Eliade's novel of the same name. Besides acting for the screen, he has consistently carried on his work for the theatre, appearing in remarkable plays such as Rajkumar, Tiktiki and Raja Lear. Continuously on the lookout for new plays, he frequently expressed his regret for the lack of interest witnessed in successful authors like Sunil Gangopadhyay and Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay to produce powerful plays for the Bengali stage. Apart from producing a considerable volume of verse and miscellaneous prose, he has authored a number of books on film such as Manikdar Songe (1993), Charitrer Sandhane (2004) and Agrapathikera, immensely helpful for any young student of Bengali cinema. His prowess in recitation is well known, and he has lent his voice to a large number of remarkable projects, the most popular among them perhaps being the documentary on Sukumar Ray directed by his son Satyajit. A polymath in the truest sense of the term, Soumitra Chatterjee was a rare personality who possessed an immense amount of skill coupled with an astounding quantity of energy, which is proved by the sheer volume and range of work he has left behind. Calling him just an actor is almost an insult to his kaleidoscopic talent: he was a true artist to the core, if ever there was one.