Had he been around then on May 2 he’d have turned 89. And 75- year-old Soumitra Chatterjee would have been a part of his mentor’s birthday celebrations. Chatterjee has collaborated with Ray on as many 15 films over a period of over three decades. And was to the cinema of Ray what Toshiro Mifune is to cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
I’ve grown up on some of these films. After watching Apur Sansar, he was the man of my dreams for a long time. It didn’t matter that he could only rent out a many-flights-up room, no household help and smoked cheap cigarettes. Like Aparna, I was sure I could manage. My only prayer was that I shouldn’t die too early like her. Of course, I didn’t tell him all this when after weeks of persuasion, he agreed to a telephonic. By then I was older and wiser. And he was many years older and many moons wiser. But of course, our conversation had to begin with The World Of Apu that even after almost four decades, was a heart-breaking love story.
Two grown up
The legend admitted that he had earlier auditioned for the role of Apu in Aparajito (The Unvanquished), the second film in the trilogy. But to his disappointment, he was too “grown-up” to play the teenager.
But obviously, he had made an impression because when Ray started work on Apur Sansar, he got a call. “As a student of literature, I had read Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel several times. And like so many in my generation, I identified with Apu in many ways. I too had grown up in small mofussil towns before coming to Kolkata in search of bigger horizons. So I could understand Apu’s dreams and connect with his romanticism,” he admitted.
Chatterjee’s co-star in the film was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Sharmila Tagore, and together they went on to team up for Ray’s Devi (The Goddess) that was almost like a natural extension to Apur Sansar. The film traced the conflict between a traditionalist father who believes his daughter-in-law to be an incarnation of the goddess, and the son whose exposure to European education makes him denounce the superstitions associations with a decandent Hindu culture.
If after Apur Sansar, Chatterjee was mobbed by young girls looking for a husband just like Apu, after Devi he had their parents coming to him and confessing to having faced a similar situation in real life.
The romantic returned as Aparna Sen’s schoolmaster husband in Samapti, the concluding story in Teen Kanya (Three Daughters). And then again as the somewhat charming rogue in Charulata (The Lonely Wife) who sweeps his sister-in-law off to a magical world, ‘sindhu paare’ (across the seven seas). Only the magic was an illusion.
That evening, talking about Charulata, Chatterjee confided that he wasn’t too happy with Manikda’s (Ray) first narration of his adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nashtanir that he had read during doing his post-graduation.
“Manikda had changed the ending and the image of Bhupati and Charu going back to their room together seemed too much of a compromise for me,” the actor pointed out. Obviously, Ray took his dissent seriously too because the next morning, Chatterjee was informed that the film would now conclude on a still of the estranged couple’s hands reaching out but not quite touching with the title superimposed on it. “It was very poignant and though Manikda once again drifted away from the original ending, this time I felt he had justified Tagore in cinematic language,” Chatterjee reasoned.
Sandip in Ghare Baire (Home And The World) was different from Amal of Charulata even though both men seduced the wives of two good men with the passion of their words. I’d been told that Ray who had been wanting to make Ghare Baire for years before finally bringing it to the screen in 1984, had initially wanted Chatterjee to play the husband Nikhilesh. So when did he change his mind?
“The reason was that Sandip had several long speeches and as Manikda pointed out, ‘Who speaks better Bengali than Soumitra,’” he smiled.
There were so many other movies that brought together the master and his muse — Abhijan (The Expedition), Kaapurush-O-Mahapurush (The Coward And The Holy Man), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days And Bights In The Forest), Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder), Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), Joi Baba Felunath (The Ekephant God), Hirak Rajar Deshe (Kingdom Of Diamonds), Ganashatru (Enemy Of The People), Shakha Proshakha (Branches Of The Tree). But for me, the one film that deserves mention in this too-short column is Sonar Kella.
For my children
This was the first of Ray’s Feluda films and the actor was thrilled “to make a film I could proudly show my son and daughter who were in their adolescence then”.
A year ago, I showed Sonar Kella to my 10-year-old daughter. She was charmed by the mind games of Mukul. For me, even after 35 years, Soumitra Chatterjee was impressive as a desi Holmes. What say Watson?