The 1960s was the era of Uttam Kumar who quickly rose to be a megastar. Conventional roles, realistic portrayals and Marxist ideology made him stand out from the rest. Enter Soumitra Chatterjee, all of 6’ 2”, and kajoled eyes and expressions expressive enough to perfectly illustrate a scene without dialogues in Bengali celluloid.
It was Apur Sansar, the third part of the Panther Panchali series, that marked the debut of Soumitra Chatterjee on the silver screen. Largely remembered as Apu, the protagonist of Apur Sansar, Soumitra shone in many movies. Of the 300-odd films in his film career, it would be difficult to choose the best 20. The effort, however, was done by the actor himself and then compiled by author Amitava Nag.
The book is an effort to give the actor an identification beyond his debut character.
The introduction is a synopsis of Soumitra’s career – from his debut to his becoming a star, his rivalry with Uttam Kumar, roles that made him distinct in the crowd, his love for theatre and his clandestine talents. Like his film career, the book too begins with Apur Sansar which was released in 1959. Soumitra fondly remembers his first interaction with the legendary Satyajit Ray and what finally got him the role.
“Oh-ho, you are a bit taller than my conception of Apu”, was Ray’s first reaction on seeing Soumitra. Yet, he bagged the role.
Soumitra was Ray’s discovery, a gem that got finely polished with every film he did under his master. The duo came together for 14 films across three decades with a wide range of subjects. As noted by international film critic and scholar Pauline Kael, “Soumitra Chatterjee was Ray’s one-man stock company”.
The pair made some major movies to boost the identity of Bengali cinema.
After Apur Sansar, Soumitra was seen in Ray’s Samapti, a farcical movie by genre; and then Abhijan. Next came Charulata, which was based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Nashtaneer. Soumitra’s Amal remains one of the most memorable characters and was one of his finest performances.
“The journey of Apu, the epitome of the innocent young romantic, culminates in the personality of Amal,” writes.
The fourth and fifth movies with Ray are not mentioned and the reader jumps to Aranyer Din Ratri, the seventh with the master, followed by Ashani Sanket - a movie based on the Bengal famine of 1943. Ray again took a complex Tagore novel, Ghare Baire, as his foundation and cast Soumitra as Sandip, a revolutionary.
“To be honest, Ghare Baire is not a novel that I like very much. There are parts of the novel where Sandip's actions or dialogues appear quite unbelievable. In that sense, Ray’s Sandip is a ‘bad man’ who is easy to accept,” Soumitra says of one his finest achievements.
Prodosh Chandra Mitter aka Feluda remains Bengal’s most popular sleuth. And Feluda got a face when Ray brought the character to life with Soumitra in Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath. The character was a creation of Ray himself.
In later years, Soumitra started accepting roles in mainstream cinema like
Basanta Bilap, a quintessential romantic comedy that marked his 50h film, and Baksho Badal. To back tracks a bit – to 1961, when Bengali cinema witnessed a major landmark. Jhinder Bandi, based on Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda and helmed by Tapan Sinha brought together Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee for the first time in a single frame. For four-film old Soumitra, playing the role of the villain Mayurbahan was an impressive step forward.
In 1969 came Teen Bhuboner Paare, that became the biggest hit and featured one of Soumitra’s most memorable roles – Subir, a high-spirited young man. The song Jiban e ki pabona, which saw Soumitra doing the twist, remains iconic in the Bengali cultural space.
Sansar Simante, directed by Tarun Majumdar, was much needed for Soumitra Chatterjee to prove his critics wrong on two counts: first, that he could do a brilliant job in roles other than a typical middle-class Bengali, and second, that he could also deliver a non-Ray film”.
Then came Kony, which is remembered for the role of Khitda that Soumitra played – probably as iconic a character as Apu or Feluda; Ekti Jibon was perhaps his most epic film where Soumitra goes from playing a man in his 40s to a sick 80-year-old in the movie and in Wheel Chair he played the challenging role of a neurologist who is himself paralysed.
Though Soumitra still continues to act in movies and appear on advertisements, the book ends the list with Dekha directed by Gautam Ghose. “With Dekha the circle is complete – the wide-eyed dreamer Apu grows old, confronts reality and finally becomes the blind Sashi,” Nag quotes Ghose as saying.
The book then turns to a prologue where Soumitra talks about his first love - theatre and the author then throws a light on Soumitra’s love for poems. There are also quotes from other eminent personalities – from directors Adoor Gopalakrishnan to Shyam Benegal, actors Nandita Das to Sharmila Tagore, all speaking about Soumitra’s immense acting caliber.
Given all this, Soumitra’s National Award in 2006 for Podokheep and the Dada Saheb Phalke award for lifetime achievement in 2012 were most appropriate.