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Remembering Soumitra Chatterjee’s Greatest Roles

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As we mourn Soumitra Chatterjee, an actor of rare artistic integrity, we also celebrate his immense contribution to this kind of Indian cinema which is among the best in the world.

He will forever be synonymous with the sensitive, poetic and tragically marked Apu and his final reconciliation with reality. The final image of a bearded Apu with his son Kajal astride his shoulders walking to a new beginning is a magical vision of hope and renewal. A performance and screen character who has infiltrated our soul with her purity, innocence, emotional resonance and alluring beauty. There are so many other facets of Soumitra Chatterjee that only a retrospective of his work will fill in the gaps in our knowledge of him.

It is with great trepidation that I write this tribute because, for a non-Bengali, much of his life and work is second-hand information. The rest of India, apart from the vast array of Bengali culture which encompasses literature, music, theater and cinema, is deprived of the immensity of its achievement. He’s simply billed as Satyajit Ray’s alter ego across 14 films, virtually all major landmarks with some minor works by our greatest author. It diminishes the rich heritage of Chatterjee. He is as much a Renaissance man as the genius who cast him Apur Sansar, the culmination of the seminal Apu Trilogy. Soumitra da, as he was affectionately known, was an essayist, poet, founder and co-editor of a literary magazine Ekkhon (he left after a while), painter, playwright and theater director. Connoisseurs praise him for infusing his recitation of the poetry of Tagore and Jibanananda Das with nuanced depth. He wrote a lot and the formidable Samik Bandyopadhyay edited three volumes of his work. His acting career continued for decades, 62 years to be precise. He has worked with mainstays Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha, as well as with the next generation of directors, Goutam Ghose, Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh and new filmmakers who have explored unusual themes. The legendary thespian has relaxed into character roles with the same commitment he has shown as Ray’s quintessential hero.

A photo of Apur Sansar

Intellectual depth, artistic insight and emotional intelligence. These qualities are reflected in his work and make him an actor who must be ranked among the best in the world. There is also a lightness of being which is ineffable. Combined with the solidity, the depth of the character he embodies persists long afterward, years later in many cases: be it Apu, Amal, Feluda or the lame neurosurgeon of Dwando who steps in to resolve a young woman’s moral dilemma or the enigmatic paterfamilias of Bela Sheshe who wants to divorce his devoted wife on the eve of a 50e anniversary. He was a professional who also had the humility to play roles that were not at the heart of the film. Only a great actor aware of his value and respect for the profession can accept to age with grace and dignity. He brought the same dignity to his performances, a quality very rare in the narcissistic and narcissistic world of acting.

In his essay Calm without inner fire, Satyajit Ray found the hallmark of oriental art in the “enormous reserves of power which have never overflowed in emotional manifestations.” (Chidananda Dasgupta, editor-in-chief of Satyajit Ray, Film India series, 1981). The principal was looking for that nice balance between suggested power and restraint. He found it in abundance with the young actor he chose to play the adult Apu. Ray’s cinema is a declaration of the power of suggestion and restraint in the expression of emotion. In Apur Sansar, Apu becomes the groom when he attends the wedding as a guest of his friend who is the cousin of the bride. The future groom turns out to be mentally retarded. Apu apparently inclines to the belief that if a girl is not married on the auspicious date set, she will never marry. The tale also alludes to an unrecognized attraction to the beautiful, sheltered Aparna. The carefree young man with literary aspirations blossoms before our eyes in a tender and caring husband in the cramped upstairs bedrooms where the newlyweds awaken to desire and love. Pauline Kael wrote in a different context: “ No artist has done more than Satyajit Ray to make us reassess the mundane. Like a world in a grain of sand, Apu rediscovers the joys of privacy in a hairpin fallen under the pillow, lying in her bed while Aparna busies herself on the open terrace lighting up the chulha. Chatterjee’s smile as he holds the pin is imbued with wonder and inexpressible tenderness. It’s tempting to linger, savoring the poignant perfection of Apur Sansar – the wanderings of Apu, heartbroken, working in a coal mine, tearing up his manuscript, not wanting to accept the son at whose birth Aparna died. After five years, when he visited the village by the river, his son Kajal grew earthy, unwilling to recognize the stranger among them or accepting his grandfather’s discipline. Chatterjee’s gradual acceptance of her son, triggered by her stepfather’s raised stick, merges wordlessly into an expressive and enduring moment of pure cinema. A first film is like a first love. Unforgettable, full of nostalgia for the magic of discovery.

Chatterjee’s subsequent roles were not retaliatory from Apu. Far from there. In CharulataRay’s perfect masterpiece according to most people, including Soumitra Chatterjee himself, Amal is not without cunning. He befriends the lonely Chaurlata, neglected by her husband Bhupati newspaper editor, and encourages her to write. From discussions of literary matters to the playful camaraderie that Indian society allows between a married woman and her husband’s younger brother and companion silences as she gently rocks the swing and he sprawls out on a carpet scribbling, Charu falling in love with the handsome young man closer to his age is as inevitable as a bud unfolding. Amal has the sense to wake up from this pleasant dreamlike state to realize the implications. He makes an excuse and runs away before it’s too late. Not the brilliant idealist Apu, but a carefree young man who is a bit of a coward. The love of a woman is taken for granted by the serious and rather awkward Bhupati, and the vulnerability of a lone Bhabhi to attention is blithely ignored by the insensitive Amal.

A still of Charulata

Chatterjee plays an opportunist coward in Kapurush. As Amitabha Roy, searching for story material for a film, he stumbles upon his old love, now the wife of the small owner of the tea estate when his car breaks down. He had let down Karuna, the girl he had loved. He has vague plans to mend his past betrayal, during a picnic the next day. Amitabha writes him a hasty note, telling him that he will be waiting for her at the train station (he has decided not to wait for the taxi to be fixed). She may unfortunately be married, but Karuna comes to the station, to retrieve the bottle of pills she had lent Amitabha the night before. She knows men enough not to trust them. A role in shades of gray that Chatterjee plays with the right undertones of guilt and cowardice.

A departure from play a bhadralok Bengali is Abhijan‘S Narsingh, a taciturn Rajput taxi driver. He is in a brooding mood after the teacher at the mission school he falls in love with loves someone else. He agrees to transport illicit goods for an untrustworthy businessman to get his license back. Gulabi (Waheeda Rehman), a woman of dubious reputation, seeks Narsingh’s protection to escape the unwanted attention of the businessman. She is attracted to Narsingh and wants to live with him and he comes to her on the rebound but this road movie has no resolution, a destination to reach. Chatterjee plays this tough man with a vulnerable heart with a world-weary stoicism.

A photo of Aranyer Din Ratri

Aranyer Din Ratri, Ray’s stay in the forest has been called Chekhovian and modern in a tale that is free from rigid plot. It is also Mozartian in its structure, attributing to Ray the passion and knowledge of Western music. Aranyer Din Ratri emphasizes the suggestion of a sexual simmering, because the scenery of the forest frees the young men and women who meet there, culturally and socially rooted inhibitions. Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee) is the leader of the quartet of friends who have come to distant Palamu. Ashim has a rather exaggerated opinion of his worth as a young man with a good job convinced to attract young women. He and his friends bribe the keeper of a forest guesthouse to stay there without a reservation. Thank goodness for the corruption, one said with the kind of smugness that big city guys have when they come to these dark areas. They come across another family in the city with two young women, targets for the holidays. Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) is reserved and is not an easy conquest for Ashim. His widowed sister-in-law, Jaya, has a young son and sends undeniable signals to Sanjay, who is afraid to get them back, let alone take action when the opportunity presents itself. The crackle of sexual thrill sparkles in the air and only the sportsman in the group acts on it, picking up the dark tribal girl he meets at a liquor store. Ashim’s bubble of confidence is stung by Aparna and the two become friends, but the question of whether this will lead somewhere remains open. Chatterjee tries the smugness of a content young man without offering the redeeming qualities of the underlying complexities that were part of Sunil Ganguli’s novel that Ray adapted and from which Ray walked away.

Chatterjee is credited with having preferred the novel, but he played the part Ray wrote with his usual professionalism. The director is the captain of the ship, that’s the adage he believed in.

Often, Chatterjee would come back to expressing Ray’s point of view of rationality and distrust of blind devotion to religious belief. Devi, set in the 1860s, is a masterpiece of atmosphere, rich period details and evocative suggestions, plunging into the depths of a mind-blowing psyche. Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), the youngest daughter-in-law would be an incarnation of the goddess by her pious widowed father. The fortuitous recovery of a sick child reinforces this belief, from Doyamoyee herself to the dismay of her husband Umapa da (Chatterjee) who is a student in Calcutta. He argues with his father but fails to shake his steadfast faith. He had an equal relationship with Doya as we see them talking about his studies in bed. But his efforts to take her with him meet the brick wall of his growing belief in his own divinity. Her fragile mind is malleable, and rationality stands no chance against the power of ritual incarnation and worshipful adulation. When Uma returns to get his cheated wife back, it’s too late. An unforeseen tragedy drove her mad. Chatterjee expresses his helplessness and anguish at this destruction of someone so vulnerable and beautiful.

Soumitra Chatterjee
An image of Ghare-Baire

Ray also cast Soumitra Chatterjee against the guy in Ghare-Baire. Ray makes of Tagore’s novel, full of abstruse reveries of his trio of characters, an edifying tale against the injection of religious fervor into hyper-nationalism. Does this sound a warning for our time? Chatterjee takes on the role of Sandip, the charismatic digger who harnesses the kindness and quirky nobility of his friend Nikhilesh, a landowner with a conscience. Nikhilesh persuades his wife Bimala to come out of purdah to meet her friend. It’s a test to see if his wife’s love is automatic, only expected because she hasn’t met any other man. Sandip charms and flatters Bimala to see herself as the queen bee, the surrogate goddess at whose altar the Nationalists worship. It ends in an inevitable tragedy with the death of Nikhil. Soumitra Chatterjee plays Sandip as a conscientious opportunist who uses his powerful charm to mentally seduce the wife of his friend and benefactor. A villain who flatters with seductive ways and ultimately betrays.

Soumitra Chatterjee has become synonymous with the beloved detective Feluda, the intelligent and deductive hero of the phenomenally popular Feluda stories. Western critics have rejected Sonar Kella and Joi baba felunath as minor works, higher price for young adults. They have no idea how many adults love these books. Soumitra Chatterjee is the definitive Feluda with his poise, smoothness and quick wit. Other actors paled in comparison.

With Ganashatru, Soumitra Chatterjee started her avatar of the good doctor with a conscience. With his clean features now slightly rounded, Chatterjee symbolized the doctor crusader who pitted public health against religious fervor in this adaptation of Ibsen. Public enemy.

In Tapan Sinha Wheelchair, he was the physically disabled neurologist who runs a home for the mentally and physically disabled in a semi-rural location. The rehabilitation of a traumatized rape victim is at the heart of this crusade film. In Sandip Ray’s The broken trip, Chatterjee remembers the sanctity of the Hippocratic Oath he took years ago after a spent city life caring for wealthy patients when his trip to Jamshedpur was delayed. The inner journey of soul-searching, accepting guilt, and resolving to be a real doctor is an arc Chatterjee covers with practical ease.

Soumitra Chatterjee
Dwando poster

This is the most recent Dwando who gets the best out of the actor. Dr Ashok Mukherjee arrives late in an account where Sudipta, a childless and working woman, is caught in a dilemma: she is pregnant with another man’s child and her unsuspecting husband is diagnosed with a brain tumor . Dr Mukherjee is a famous neurosurgeon who is abrupt when she bursts into his office. Undeterred by his rudeness, Sudipta again forces her way into her house on a rainy night for a showdown. Walking with a pronounced limp and arrogance expressed through heavy sarcasm, the skeptical doctor turns to the counselor when he hears his problem. “I am the poet of the body, I am the poet of the soul,” he recites Walt Whitman’s verses to the hysterical and angry woman who enters his citadel to castigate him for his inhumanity. It takes a lot of self-confidence, even for a legendary veteran to say these lines – half out of warning, half out of awe of his own work – without sounding pretentious. Chatterjee takes center stage, with his voice and body language in harmony with the nuanced storyline that takes him from arrogant scientist to sentimental reminiscence and empathy for the woman caught in a dilemma. He plays God and solves the problem with a lie that he justifies with a quote from the Mahabharatha.

Bela Seshe is a very popular movie that has been played outside of Bengal. This is the last Soumitra Chatterjee film that I saw. As Bishwanath Majumdar, owner of a famous bookstore, the thespian is the pivot around which the family drama revolves in history. He warns his only son that he is not only a book seller, but a guide for readers, and gently pushes them towards good literature. The last day of pujo, when his married daughters are also at home, he drops the bomb. He wants to divorce his 49-year-old wife. Aarti seems unaffected and tells him some nasty truths: how his stepdaughter holds her nose after using the toilet and that she pours extra water to dispel the smell. But nothing seems to distract the Patriarch from his decision… until the family goes to Shantiniketan for a vacation and things have a way to settle down. Soumitra Chatterjee’s face, now rounded to a benign maturity, is more expressive than ever. The smile, also endearing. The eyes speak a thousand words. And we listen with enthusiasm.

Soumitra Chatterjee
A still from Bela Seshe

It is a more precious tribute than the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Padma Bhushan and the Legion of Honor of the French government. He deserved them and other national honors. Soumitra Chatterjee didn’t pay much attention to awards. He was bigger than all those routine honors. He will live forever like Apu, Amal and Feluda.

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