Ekti Jibon One Life
With his great body of work with Satyajit Ray, in Bengali cinema and theatre, it's time to celebrate the genius of Soumitra ChatterjeePartha Mukherjee and Priyanka Mukherjee Kolkata
Soumitra Chatterjee is found sitting in a deserted auditorium as walls around him echo, "Are your views on awards as unenthusiastic as Gurudas Bhattacharya in Ekti Jibon (One Life), your onscreen portrayal?"
Soumitra looks around and beams a smile. "I've grown old enough to be a glutton for glimmer. His stellar performance in Ekti Jibon itself could have brought him a national award. Somewhere his on-screen rendering of the character reflects the artist himself."
Vignettes glides past as in a slide show as the septuagenarian rides back on time. He was born on January 19, 1935. The ecstatic mom christened the baby boy, Soumitra - after Soumitri Keshori, a mythological hero she had read about in Meghnadbadh Kabya by legendary renaissance icon Michael Madhusudan Dutt.
Although (then) Calcutta was his birthplace, much of his childhood was spent in the sylvan set-up of Krishnanagar, a sleepy hamlet in Nadia district in West Bengal. Soumitra was perhaps born with histrionic talent. He portrayed the characters in popular one-act plays of Tagore (like Mukut, Dakghar) with great perfection. Little Pulu (his nickname) would perform in skits at home on a makeshift stage. Even in school his prowess on stage was recognised. His performance in The Sleeping Princess, directed by Miss McArthur, the British principal, was reportedly much appreciated.
Little Pulu would also gorge on child fiction and mythological stories. "There was a plethora of romanticism in the atmosphere that we soaked in. I saw my father taking part in the civil disobedience and non-cooperation movement and courting arrest. We drew inspiration from these events," he says.
Following his father's transferable job, Soumitra was always in tow with his parents. After one year in Barasat, the Chatterjee family moved to Howrah - the gateway to Calcutta. By the time Soumitra took his matriculation exam from Howrah Jilla School, he had performed in many plays and formed a theatre group too. A school production of Mahendra Gupta's popular play Maharaja Nandakumar found him playing the role of a British general with élan.
With Soumitra getting admitted to City College on Amherst Street in 1951, the family settled in the Mirzapur Street residence of his maternal uncle in Calcutta. The city opened new windows.
It was at this juncture that he came in close contact with Sisir Kumar Bhaduri (1889-1959). He was introduced to the great thespian on January 34, 1956, when Bhaduri was performing at Srirangam for the last show of theatre legend Girish Chandra Ghose's Prafulla. Soumitra played Suresh to Sisir Kumar's Jogesh in this historic show hosted by the Banga Sanskriti Sammelan.
Soumitra joined the University of Calcutta for his post-graduation. He brought the university the best actor award for his role in a Bengali adaptation of WW Jacob's The Monkey's Paw from the All India Inter-University Youth Festival. Months before his Masters exam he was appointed a staff artist with All India Radio. Meanwhile, he was studying Stanislavsky, Eisenstein and Cherkasov with a certain intensity, watching Charles Chaplin's Limelight with a critical eye.
One morning in 1956, one of his friends took him to the 'Master', since he was looking for a younger face for Aparajito. Satyajit Ray found him too tall for the character, but he did not forget him. He called him in 1958 when he was looking for an adult Apu for Apur Sansar. There was a sense of perfection in the way the actor entered the role of a young, restless, tragic man in search of an identity.
Apur Sansar was released next year. Soumitra Chatterjee was catapulted to stardom. Ray found in him a perfect actor to fit his project of creating heroes, free from conventions and trimmed of the mushy effects of ritualistic romantic flicks. Soumitra was blessed to have found a mentor in the master filmmaker, who offered him to essay a vast array of roles in 14 films (Apur Sansar, Debi, Teen Kanya, Abhijan, Charulata, Kapurush O Mahapurush, Araneyr Dinratri, Ashani Sanket, Sonar Kella, Jai Baba Felunath, Heerak Rajar Deshe, Ghare Baire, Ganashatru, Sakha Prosakha), besides two documentaries.
From Amal in Charulata, modeled with nuanced subtlety after Rabindranath Tagore himself, to the suave city man out on a trip to the forest in Aranyer Dinratri, to the smart and quintessentially Bengali private investigator in his maroon kurta, smoking charminar cigarettes, the understated but superbly intelligent Feluda in Jai Baba Felunath and Sonar Kella, he was simply outstanding. Indeed, Soumitra as the cunning, charismatic political ideologue in Ghare Baire reflected the range of his talent, encompassing an astounding assortment of characters in this brilliant cinematic journey.
Soumitra had great faith in the maestro's 'artistic vision'. Ray became his friend-philosopher-guide during his early days as an actor and remained so till the end. "I was extremely fortunate to have him as my mentor," Soumitra said after Satyajit Ray died in 1992.
Ray also suggested Soumitra's name for the lead role in Tapan Sinha's epical Khshudhita Pashan (1960). The actor never rates his performances in the Ray films but holds Charulata close to his heart. Not surprisingly, whenever Ray attempted a fresh interpretation of Tagore's works, be it Charulata or the dark and politically charged Ghare Baire, he inevitably picked Soumitra for the male lead. When Ray started writing detective fiction, his illustrations bore remarkable similarity to Soumitra's personality. Critics remarked that the character of Feluda was modeled upon Ray himself. Some described Soumitra as his alter-ego!
A year before his death, Ray wrote: "I have cast him in 14 of my 27 films." On another occasion, he said, "Soumitra has fitted in all the roles that I have cast him. He is an extremely talented actor. There is a dearth of actors of his stature in Bengal."
Superstar and beloved of the masses, Uttam Kumar, reigned supreme as the ideal romantic hero when Soumitra made his debut in the Bengali film industry. And yet, he carved his own brilliant, aesthetic space. Be it the artist caught in emotional turmoil in Swaralipi (1961), the bewildered man in Kshudhita Pashan (1960), the swashbuckling villain in Jhinder Bandi (1961), or the frustrated protagonist in Akash Kusum (1965), Soumitra's portrayals have always been marked by a rare honesty towards his craft and characters.
He has been paired with all the leading ladies of his time and while his 'rival' Uttam Kumar enjoyed unimaginable popularity and mass adulation, Soumitra became the cerebral actor, his versatility spreading across multiple frameworks of realism and fiction. Sat Pake Bandha (directed by Ajoy Kar), Kinoo Goalar Gali (directed by OC Ganguly), Sansar Simante (directed by Tarun Mazumder) Agradanee (directed by Palash Bandopadhyay), Koni (directed by Saroj Dey), Maha Prithibi (directed by Mrinal Sen), Pashanda Pandit (directed by Sibprasad Sen), Uttaran (directed by Sandip Ray), Dekha (directed by Goutam Ghosh) - in a significant sense every film marked a creative high and reflected the actor's acumen.
Despite cinema, the theatre roots remained. In 1963, in Calcutta, he made his first appearance at Star Theatre as an actor of commercial theatre in Tapasi. In 1978, he produced Naam Jiban at Biswarupa Theatre. Its success spurred him to stage more plays.
His performance in Swapnasandhani's Tiktiki (1998), an adaptation of Peter Shaffer's Sleuth, reaffirmed his status as a stage actor. Since then, he has tirelessly adapted and translated plays, often directing them, enacting crucial roles. Nilkantha still runs to a packed house, whenever staged.
Homapakhi, his latest directorial work, deals with the highs and lows of mental illness. His ever-cherished dream of performing Shakespeare has at last been fulfilled. His performance as Raja Lear (King Lear), under the direction of Suman Mukhopadhyay, has been an exhilarating experience for the audience at the Minerva Theatre in Kolkata.
"The audience readily relates to the characters he creates," says playwright Monoj Mitra, "By dint of his performance he goes beyond the satisfaction of the senses and elevates his performance to such a level that you wait in the hall even after the show is over."
The bitter reality, however, is that Soumitra Chatterjee's vast and brilliant body of work and oeuvre still awaits an elevated evaluation. Seldom has his genius been acknowledged across the Bengal and national spectrum, despite still striving towards perfection, undeterred in his pursuit. For this great actor and performer, perhaps, recognition or glory means too little, too late, now. Because, the greatness lies in the authenticity of his work.