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Soumitra Chatterjee: the poet and the activist behind the actor

Soumitra Chatterjee was more than an actor – he wrote poetry, painted, and always had time to speak up for those without a voice

Soumitra Chatterjee in a scene from 'Apur Sansar'.
Soumitra Chatterjee in a scene from 'Apur Sansar'.

You learn more about a culture when you notice who they mourn. When the good folks of Kolkata turned out in their streets over the weekend, they were not mourning a charismatic politician, nor a religious guru, definitely not a sports superstar, and certainly not a swashbuckling movie star. They came out to mourn an actor who personified the best virtues of humanity to which we aspire.

Calling Soumitra Chatterjee an actor diminishes him – he did act in films, and plays, but he was a renaissance man who wrote poetry and painted. He was honoured by the French before India celebrated him with appropriately high awards, and he was on the side of justice and freedom and the marginalised on every major challenge that India faced. Even in his 80s, he found the time to oppose the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, and he always had the time to speak up for those whose voices people with power sought to stifle.

We remember him for the 14 films he made with Satyajit Ray, and to be fair, those films did make his name recognisable in the universe beyond Bengal. If Rabindranath Tagore was the original ambassador of the Bengali genius in his time through words and imagery, Ray gave it the wings cinema could.

But Ray’s artistry needed a face, and that was the winsome Chatterjee – as Apu, in Apur Sansar, he is fondling the hairpin on his pillow soon after his unexpected marriage with Aparna (Sharmila Tagore); and after her death, the pathos he personifies as he goes to the top of a rock and lets float the novel he is writing; and then the uplifting final scene, where he reconciles with his son, lifts him on his shoulders, and takes him back with him, on that long road, where the song of the road, pather panchali, will continue. He is Narsingh, the taxi driver in Abhijan, as he swings between good and evil, between honour and shame, between ambition and love. As Pradosh Mitter, or Feluda, the Charminar-smoking detective with an encyclopaedic memory, intrepid brain, impish humour and boyish curiosity, he solves intractable mysteries in Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath.

Ray’s artistry needed a face, and that was the winsome Chatterjee

There is Amal in Charulata, as he rushes into his cousin’s home like the whirlwind, scarcely aware he would be disrupting lives, marvelling at the onomatopoeic beauty of the word, playing the piano and singing Ami chinigo chini to an indulgent and adoring Madhabi Mukherjee. As the humiliated Gangacharan Chakrabarti in Ashani Sanket, he is aware of his inadequacies and frustration over what starvation does during the Bengal famine. As Sandip in Ghare Baire, he betrays his friend Nikhilesh, seduces his wife Bimala, while rousing masses against the British and sowing the seeds of violence at the time of the partition of Bengal in 1905. And as Dr Ashok Gupta, in Ganashatru, he fights an unwinnable battle against blind faith and religiosity.

I met him first when he made Ganashatru, in the late 1980s, based on Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People. I was a correspondent at India Today at that time, and I had gone to Calcutta, as the city was then known, to write about Bengali cinema. The new Ray film was the talk of the town. Ray had been ailing, and his associates were unwilling to let me see him, since some of them were still upset over a lukewarm piece the magazine had run a few years ago.

Rather than argue with the gate-keepers, I sought out Chatterjee, who had acted in the film. Not only did he meet me, he also spoke with great warmth about the film, his relationship with Ray, how Ray had moved the story from Ibsen’s stark and bleak Norway to boisterous Bengal, and injected a contemporary tone to the film. Ibsen’s play was about a spa with contaminated water and the town’s motive to keep the spa running was financial; in Ray’s version, the spa became a temple, and the contaminated water became a metaphor of chilling relevance to the India of late 1980s, as the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had begun flexing its muscles. Chatterjee connected those dots, speaking with great conviction, and soundly made the case for rationality, which he felt India must never lose. As his activism showed since, he remained steadfast in his beliefs.

To be sure, his work with Ray was but a small fraction of his many other roles. There is the mysterious, strangely sinister artist Goutam Sadhu in that eerie short film made recently, Ahalya, where the artist turns his subjects into dolls. There is The Bridge, in which the compassionate but lonely Santanu, encounters a disturbed woman who is about to end her life, and in making her believe again he rediscovers why life is worth living – the bridge, at once a spot where life can end, or where a new beginning can be made, making two parts meet. In Atanka, he confronts the reality of his own students committing murder during the lawless phase of Bengal politics. In Mrinal Sen’s Pratinidhi, he is Niren, where he tries to earn the love of his step-son, but the child’s unwillingness shatters the family. And in Posto, he is Dinen Lahiri, in an inter-generational conflict over his grandson.

Fortunate are those who saw him on stage – as Oswald Alwing in Bidehi, his translation of another Ibsen play, Ghosts, and his magnificent performance as Shakespeare’s Lear, in jatra plays. The week of his death saw the release of his recording of Sukumar Ray’s nonsense verse, Abol Tabol. Even in his winter, he was the lion.

Chatterjee’s magnificent work with other directors – Ajoy Kar, Tapan Sinha, and Mrinal Sen shows how his talent was his

Critics have noted the remarkable durability of the Ray-Chatterjee relationship – other partnerships have been tumultuous (Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa), tempestuous (Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog), or shorter (Marcello Mastroianni and Federico Fellini, or, for that matter, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Francois Truffaut). Chatterjee’s magnificent work with other directors – Ajoy Kar, Tapan Sinha, and Mrinal Sen shows how his talent was his: Ray knew how to nurture it, and even create our mental image of who he was – or was it that Chatterjee made Ray’s imagination vivid and real?

Where would Ray have been without Chatterjee?

Less known outside Bengal was Chatterjee the poet. Urbane in tone, his poems reflected on the world he knew and travelled in – the physical exterior and the thoughts in his mind. He wrote of black musicians and American freeways, the setting sun at Chhotanagpur plateau, and about landscapes frozen in time where “the river will forget itself and turn into the sea,” and, as one would expect, about love. The Internet has a rich repository of the poems of Tagore, Sukumar Ray, Jibanananda Das, and his own, in his sonorous voice.

Soumitra Chatterjee embodied the nuance of a character, showing human frailties and fragility: whether an unlikeable protagonist who reveals unexpected humanity, to a well-meaning middle-class man with a fatal, vulnerable flaw: he played people as they are, and not as heroic constructs. He personified the angst of the modern educated Indian, tied down by tradition and accepting it because he must, and yet nursing his scepticism within. The pain must not be allowed to overwhelm, equanimity was the guiding light, and then there was that smile after all – natural, honest, human.

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