I must have been a teenager when I first saw Apur Sansar, the same age perhaps as Satyajit Ray’s 14-year-old schoolgirl-bride Sharmila Tagore, and decided I wanted a husband just like Apu. And I got him too. After marriage, my husband and I moved into a ground-floor apartment in Vashi that was as tiny and possession-less as Apu’s rented home. A discarded tea chest served as a stand for our black-and-white TV that needed a few hard whacks to get started and a laughing Madhubala graced the living room wall. We were as happy as Apu and Aparna.
Soumitra Chatterjee has always been part of my life. I’ve grown up with Feluda, Ray’s Charminar-smoking Sherlock Holmes and the carelessly dishevelled, romantically idealistic Amol whom a storm blows into lonely wife Charulata’s life and turns it upside down. And Teen Bhubaner Pare’s Montu whose Ke Tumi Nandini… was what the neighbourhood’s dadas invariably sang whenever a pretty girl passed by…
Over the years I’ve watched Apu grow older and greyer but it didn’t make Soumitrada any less an actor. The impoverished schoolteacher of Ekti Jibon who spends a lifetime compiling a comprehensive Bengali dictionary had me in tears one night… So did the anguished father of Atanka who looks at the scars of abuse inflicted on his only daughter’s body and tells her quietly that he’ll make sure she’ll never be hurt again…
And then there was Sashi Bhushan Sanyal, the blind poet of Dekha, whose ‘perfect’ performance got the thumbs up from even eye specialists in Kolkata after a special screening but was only considered worthy of a Special Jury Award by the National Award committee. Soumitrada turned down the ‘consolation prize’. And Apu’s stature grew in my eyes as the move sparked off newspaper headlines across the country, with the film’s director, Goutam Ghose, also refusing his award for best regional film.
Seven years later, Padokkhep fetched Soumitrada his first National Award. I buzzed him expecting elation and got indifference instead. “This wasn’t even my best performance,” he pointed out with rare candour, zeroing in on Devi’s progressive doctor, Charulata’s love, Sansar Seemante’s anti-hero, Ekti Jobon’s dream-chaser and Dekha’s blind poet as more deserving acts.
I recalled a friend telling me recently that in 1975, Soumitrada was one of the contenders for the National Award for Sansar Seemante but lost out to Kannada actor MV Vasudeva Rao who bagged it for Chomana Dudi. Reportedly, his mentor Satyajit Ray, with whom he’s done 14 films, and Uttam Kumar, his so-called rival, had been among those who had vociferously protested the ‘injustice’.
“Awards lost their credibility for me a long time ago and had this one come two-three years ago, I might have refused it too. But going by the number of calls I’ve been getting since the National Award was announced yesterday, I can see that it has given my fans cause to celebrate. How can I disappoint those who for 50 years have given me so much love,” Soumitrada had told me three years ago.
This year, after weeks of closed-door discussion and endless speculation, at the age of 77, he beat bad man Pran, Mr India Manoj Kumar and dancing diva Vyjayanthimala Bali to the Dadashaeb Phalke award. I buzzed him, he was a little under-the-weather and exhausted from a long day’s shoot of Goutam Ghose’s Sunya Anho (Act Zero) in which he plays a scientist. I rang off quickly knowing he’d have echoed the same sentiments, and fondly remembered his mentor Manikda (Satyajit Ray) who had brought him into our lives as Apu.
Ah Apu, he’s the first man I wanted to marry!