On 24th July 1980, Mahanayak Uttam Kumar passed away. His death was unexpected, the result of a massive stroke. My paternal grandmother, an ardent and inconsolable admirer of the star, refused to eat. On 15 November 2020, the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee breathed his last. For more than a month, his battle with COVID-19 has been a matter of extensive media coverage. Every other day we would find updates about his unresponsive and failing health. His demise didn’t surprise cinema lovers. We all saw it coming. So, when I went downstairs to inform my maternal grandmother of the news, I found her sitting pensively. She already knew. Her age didn’t permit her to skip dinner but she retired early, ate a morsel and hardly spoke a word.
But here’s the catch. She wasn’t the only one grieving for this immense loss. The sense of bereavement trickled down to the youngest generation in my house, my 15-year-old sister who knew the actor as Feluda, the most popular sleuth in Bengali literature.
While Kumar and Chatterjee represent the two factions that Bengali audience has been divided into, the latter was the flagbearer of a much more accessible narrative. Uttam Kumar was the star; suave and charismatic. Soumitra was down-to-earth, a disarming mix of romantic and cerebral. So deeply did his personality and sensibilities seep into the characters he was portraying that one cannot imagine them without remembering his intelligent face, piercing eyes and defenseless charm. It doesn’t matter if the people he played were fictitious, written by authors who had no particular face in mind. Today, if one reads Tagore’s Nashta Nir (the book on which Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata is based), they will finish the book visualizing Amal as Soumitra Chatterjee. This is irrespective of the fact whether they have watched the film or not. Similarly, he is Apu incarnate.
Very often, Soumitra Chatterjee was described as Satyajit Ray’s muse. The actor marked his debut as Apu in Apur Sansar, the third film in the celebrated Pather Panchali trilogy. He starred in fourteen of the director’s films. Some of his best works were accredited to Ray. Together, they created a cinematic chronicle that encapsulated imaginative thought, subtle expression of complexities, the vulnerability of characters and above all, enlightenment. They created frames and moments that have crystallized in our collective consciousness. Recollect the warm poignance of the final scenes of Apur Sansar. Apu, with his young son balanced on his shoulders, is walking away from a past of untimely loss and towards a new future of hope and rekindled relationships. In the backdrop is an idyllic river, a boat floating on the calm waters. Apu hesitates to reveal to his young son that he is his father. Instead, he introduces himself as a bondhu (friend). That split-second reluctance holds within itself the entire emotional arc of not only Apur Sansar but the entire Pather Panchali trilogy. Right from Apu losing his sister Durga to a fever, his arrival and struggle to survive in Kolkata, the death of his beloved Aparna and finally uniting with his son.
Through Soumitra Chatterjee’s approach to emotion and expression, we haven’t been spoon-fed happiness or grief or for that matter, any sentiment. This isn’t the Yashvardhan Raichand brand of emoting with dramatic music and glycerin fogging the screen. This is understated, moving and full of space for the audience to comprehend the depth of what has transpired. And this isn’t only for an intense moment. He was capable of conjuring copious amounts of charm without being overbearing. In Charulata, Chatterjee is playing Tagore’s Oh Go Bideshini on the piano when his sister-in-law arrives with paan. Lightheartedly, he refuses to accept her present and continues with the song. Attractive and endearing, without clogging the viewer’s sensibilities with tropes.
Soumitra Chatterjee never agreed to be cast in the mold of the demure Bengali bhodrolok. In the 1969 Bengali adaptation of Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda, he portrayed a menacing antagonist with ease. Pitted against Uttam Kumar, the megastar of Bengali cinema, Soumitra Chatterjee held his ground! In fact, the era in which Bengali films were overcome with the juti (star-couple) fever with Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen leading the pack, Chatterjee stood out for his refusal to be pushed into that direction. He even dabbled with the strict-yet-caring sports coach characterization much before Kabir Khan stepped into the picture. In the 1984 film Koni, Chatterjee plays Khidda, a swimming instructor. He takes a talented girl named Koni under his tutelage. But Koni’s journey to becoming a professional swimmer is thwarted by poverty and petty politics. In the 32nd National Film Awards, the film was honoured as the Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment.
Soumitra Chatterjee belonged to children as much as he belonged to adults. Adults my age will remember him most vividly as Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s Charminar-puffing detective whose greatest weapon was his magajastra (the power of brains). Tall, often sarcastic, fiercely protective of his companions and dignified, Chatterjee’s portrayal transformed the character into a cultural icon. Ray’s Feluda can be considered as respite amongst the dreadful and one-tone depictions of the character that the screen has seen in the last few years. No actor has been able to imbibe Feluda with Chatterjee’s cleverness and dry wit.
Many are unaware that, unknowingly, Soumitra Chatterjee had sparked a revolution in fashion. Never a proponent of flamboyant dressing, he popularized smart casuals. Feluda ignited the trend of wearing the Bengali-style kurta with trousers and a Kashmiri shawl wrapped around the shoulders. In Aranyer Din Ratri, Chatterjee’s character Ashim wore crisp shirts, trousers, big watches and sunglasses. Pranay Baidya went a step ahead and created an entire line of men’s clothing inspired by the actor’s striped kurta in Charulata.
To conclude that Soumitra Chatterjee’s career was a bed of roses liberally sprinkled with meaningful cinema and consistent accolades will be undermining his tenacity. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Bengali film industry went through an era of acute crisis. Piracy was rampant and the quality of films was terrible (to say the least). During this time, he had to accept roles that were nowhere near his intellectual capacity. Nonetheless, he tried to rise above the difficulties and starred in impactful films such as Koni and Tapan Sinha’s Atanka. Both made strong commentaries on evils such as poverty, lobbying in sports, and political murders.
As I write the conclusion, my mother has logged off from her official portal and my sister has finished her studies. They plan to spend the evening watching Joy Baba Felunath on Zee TV. Soumitra Chatterjee lives on. In his characters. In the history of intelligent cinema. In the legacy of unaffected, naturalistic performances. In childhood memories. In middle-class households who learnt to appreciate film by watching Soumitra’r Chobi (translation: Films of Soumitra).