Soumitra Chatterjee: The living legend India forgot
Recently, the play Phera was presented as part of National School of Drama’s eighth Theatre Olympics in Mumbai. But very few people, apart from the Bengalis, had any idea who the old village chief on stage was. It was Soumitra Chatterjee,was a Dadasaheb Phale awardee, a holder of the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (the highest civilian award in France), and widely considered to be Satyajit Ray’s muse.
Stage vs screen
This is possibly because, unlike his contemporary matinee idols Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Supriya Choudhury, Soumitra Chatterjee never stepped out of Kolkata to act in mainstream Hindi films. His only connection with the Mumbai film industry was the role of Radhika Apte’s aged husband in Sujoy Ghosh’s critically acclaimed short film, Ahalya (2015).
Yet, Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray were frequent collaborators and have done as many as 14 films together, starting with the third part of Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, Apur Sansar (1959), a film that also marked the debut of Sharmila Tagore.
“Not many people know that he had initially rejected me for the role of Apu,” says Chatterjee. “I was doing theatre at that point and had no celluloid dreams. In fact, I had reservations about Indian cinema. To us, theatre was high art while cinema was for mass consumption. Young people in theatre often suffer from this misconception and I was no different. But when I watched Pather Panchali (1955), it totally blew my mind. I never imagined that cinema could rise to that level and was convinced that this was how the future of acting and movies would be.”
Even then, he had no intention to act in films. Chatterjee’s guru and role model was Shishir Kumar Bhaduri, the doyen of Bengali theatre. He just wanted to follow in Bhaduri’s footsteps. But on the advice of a friend who was a crew member of Ray’s team, Chatterjee decided to audition for the role of Apu in the Pather Panchali sequel, Aparajito (1956). “But Satyajit Ray told me that I didn’t fit the role of college-going Apu. He needed someone much younger. So, I left that day,” he recalls.
Aparajito went to the 1957 Venice Film Festival and received the Golden Lion award, the Cinema Nuovo Award and the Critics Award. At the press conference, Ray announced its sequel Apur Sansar.
“After Aparajito, he got in touch with me and offered the role of Apu in the third part,” says Chatterjee who was then 22 years old. Later, Ray told him that the idea of making a third film in the series came to him only after he met the actor.
Kolkata and the world
Chatterjee’s association with Ray spanned over three decades. According to Chatterjee, right after their first film together, the two started to develop a keen understanding of each other. He says, “We had similar tastes and outlooks. Also, our attitude to life in general was very similar. I have not really gone into consciously analysing the nature of our association. It was a real creative collaboration. I had tremendous respect for him and I trusted him unconditionally. But it was never a comparison of talents. He was an absolute genius.”
In Bengal, it was the time and age of Uttam Kumar, who was the undisputed king of the silver screen. But, the superstar never managed to overshadow Chatterjee. His acting prowess coupled with his dashing good looks and his off-screen personality of the boy-next-door helped him built a niche of his own.
But why did Chatterjee keep away from the Hindi film industry? “Actors, at least in those days, would venture into Hindi films for two reasons. Money and fame. I was working with Satyajit Ray and had international fame. I didn’t feel the need to come to Bombay for that,” he says. Indeed, Ray and Chatterjee were then the toast of the international festival circuit.
“Moreover the kind of roles Hindi films mostly offered back then didn’t really interest me,” says Chatterjee. “Although directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee were making good movies, those were few and far between. But I also must admit that I was too immature then to understand the importance of money.”
The play’s the thing
Chatterjee could have easily limited himself to playing the ‘romantic lead’ in mainstream Bengali cinema, but he preferred to play with the nuances of complicated characters instead, positioning himself as an actor and rather than a ‘hero’. But his subtle and naturalistic performances, coupled with his inherent charm, soon made him a star.Today, the actor has multiple National Awards and Filmfare awards in his kitty; he has worked with Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Ajoy Kar, Raja Mitra, Goutam Ghose and Rituparno Ghosh, and continues to work with the new generation of directors.
But he never left his first love, theatre. “I was always interested in acting and initially the only option was theatre,” he says. “It was merely a hobby. When I was in college, we relocated to Kolkata, and it was then that I saw a play of Shishir Kumar Bhaduri. It had such an impact on me that I decided to make theatre my profession.”
This is why, even at the peak of his film career, Chatterjee made regular stage appearances. “For the initial five years or so, I took a break from theatre. I had too much work in the movies and there was no time for it,” he says. “Also, we were having a bit of a problem getting the venues. But nothing could keep me away from it for too long. I realised soon that theatre is my life breath. And I have never left it since.”
In fact, he credits his acting prowess to theatre. “I keep reinventing myself as an actor through theatre. If I had not kept myself engaged in theatre, I am sure even my film acting would have suffered. I would have become stale and boring as an actor. And that was not a future I ever saw for myself,” he says.
Chatterjee is now collaborating with his daughter Poulomi Bose in her directorial debut with the Bengali play Phera, an adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit. “It is an old play that I used to do long back. Now, Poulomi has shortened and contemporised it. I am, of course, playing a different character that suits my age,” says the actor who is ready to experiment even now.
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From HT Brunch, July 15, 2018
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