Soumitra Chatterjee – Towering Thespian with a Poignant Appeal

BY KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA

Recently I had the good fortune of serendipitously coming across a book chronicling the life, work, passions and oeuvre of the eminent film actor and cultural personality of the thespian Soumitra Chatterjee in a vintage bookstore titled ‘Soumitra Chatterjee: A life in Cinema, Theatre, Poetry & Painting’ authored by the duo, Arjun Sengupta and Partha Mukherjee.  My mind drifted in a momentary flash to the memory of a large billboard with a life-sized portrait of Soumitra Chatterjee captioned ‘Thiarthoerey Soumitra’, broadly translated as ‘Soumitra at 73’ with his silver haired, bespectacled demeanour with a benign smile looming over a bridge in Kolkata.  This portrait in the billboard left an enduring impression on my mind which captured the very essence of his personality, summed up as a ‘towering thespian with a poignant appeal’ cutting across all ages, classes, creed and sections of society; a distinct aura which was magnanimous and modest despite his acting prowess towering over the tinsel world buttressed by his excellent skills of narration in his slow, deep, charming voice and a refined sophisticated intellectual acumen. Yet this same towering personality had a wider appeal, a poignancy in his acting which touched the very depths of our heart and emotions, it’s this personal ‘poignant appeal’ what for me defines him as a very unique celluloid hero. This particular book deserves mention and praise for the meticulous research done on his background and evolution as a film personality and actor which is expressed in a simple, engrossing manner making it an interesting read for the wider audience about this ‘towering thespian’ Soumitra Chatterjee. Soumitra was perhaps one of the last of its kind who were inspired by the Bengali Renaissance and had a very distinct Renaissance personality of broad ranging scholarship, artistic interests and aesthetics. Soumitra Chatterjee was an accomplished actor conferred with prestigious awards; Padma Bhushan, Dadasaheb Phalke and the French Le’gion d’Honneur.   Sadly the legend of acting Soumitra Chatterjee passed away in 2021 due to health problems exacerbated by Covid infection and an era of Bengali cinema and arts came to an end!! Henceforth let us explore and discuss the contours and diverse dimensions of this celluloid giant Soumitra Chatterjee with my special focus and interest on the Renaissance Bengali Bhadralok aesthete which the book has excellently elucidated.  

SOUMITRA – CHILDHOOD, GROWING UP YEARS – EVOLUTION OF A BENGALI RENAISSANCE BHADRALOK  –  POET, PAINTER & THE ARTIST: 

‘One needs, in order to write well, habits as well as ideas; and though the ideas may be born in solitude, the forms taken by these ideas, the image one uses to render them understandable, almost always belong to the memories of one’s upbringing and of the society in which one has lived’ (Madame de Stael—Holstein, De la litte’rature conside’re’e dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales).  

These words of Madame de Stael hold very true and aptly describes the life and oeuvre of Soumitra Chatterjee who was one of the last and finest product of the Bengali Renaissance heritage and his upbringing that of the archetypal Bengali sophisticated and cultured Bhadralok.  Soumitra grew up in a milieu where scholarship, erudition, cultural pursuit, appreciation of arts ruled the roost shaping one’s mind and aesthetics during their embryonic phase which left a lasting impression on the soul. This was the enduring legacy of the Bengali Renaissance which flickered like a lamp with its last glow during the early decades of post-Independence Bengal.   

Soumitra Chatterjee was born in Kolkata(old name Calcutta) on the 19th January, 1935 to an educated and cultured Bengali middle-class Bhadralok family. Early years of growing up for Soumitra were caught in the whirlwind of politics of freedom struggle; it was pretty close to home since Bagha Jatin, Jatindranath Mukherjee was his grandfather, Lalit Kumar Chatterjee’s nephew. His grandfather Lalit Kumar Chatterjee an enormous influence on his mind with his ideas about ‘Swadeshi’ politics which inspired feelings of patriotism in him. His formative years were spent in the town of Krishnanagar in Bengal where he dabbled in theater and started learning the ropes about acting and artistry. Soumitra grew up surrounded by books and his father would buy the latest or current bestsellers which would absorb the young ‘Pulu’(as nicknamed at home) for hours tucked away in a corner of the house.  His reading range was wide as a voracious reader covering Classics, Bestsellers, Children Stories and wide array of subjects.  His early reading and subsequent exhaustive erudition lent a special blend to his acting and influenced his profession in the celluloid world both directly and indirectly. In terms of direct influence Soumitra was influenced by Stanislavsky’s ‘My life in Art’ and held the art and technique learnt quite meaningful and relevant apart from gathering knowledge about dramatic theme and structure from works like Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ and Allardyve Nicoll’s ‘Theory of Drama’.  Literature provided him powerful insight and understanding of human nature. As he mentions a ‘gluttony for reading’ was inculcated at an early impressionable nascent stage and there was this element of tender soul seeking or in quest of the mystery of the wider world or beyond in their words and illustrations through browsing of Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe and Scotts Ivanhoe along with the cerebral works of Dickens, Dumas, Hugo and Tolstoy.  Hence it’s important to realize that erudition and scholarship was critical in the flourishing of his acting talent and the later brilliant performance.  For instance, the traumatic images of the corpses lying around in the aftermath of the 1943 Bengal Famine translated into brilliant authentic acting in the role of a desperately poor Brahmin in Satyajit Ray’s classic ‘Ashwini Sanket’ in 1973 which was a very realistic portrayal of the ghastly Bengal Famine.  Few of the homes visited from his childhood days recounted in the book which were his favourite ‘reading’ grounds included that of Sir Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay, his paternal aunt’s father-in-law who boasted of a gigantic collection and large parts were donated to the National Library and that of his maternal grandfather Sourindramohan Mukhopadhyay, a famous Bengali novelist. Soumitra recollects in the book the refined and cultured ambiance of his maternal grandfather’s residence which operated as a Salon for litterateurs, scholars and erudite bibliophiles.  Here watching living breathing writers in their flesh and blood penning books and discussing them was most certainly awe-inspiring for the young boy. 

The growing up world of shelves lining walls laden with rows of old, antiquated and new books does resonate with many of my generation of Bengali middle-class Bhadralok. I recollect fondly as a child and teenager visiting homes of retired professionals eking out a modest existence from their paltry pension where one was confronted with the visual feast of delight of enchanting books like encyclopaedias and old, musty books with mellowed amber pages of works of old masters along with latest bestsellers picked up at a railway station or airport bookstore.  Home libraries were a sine qua non for the Bengali Bhadralok middle class and needn’t belong to an elite to have the indulgence of book and fiery cultural and intellectual discussions over steaming cups of chai. 

As a consequence of his Bengali Renaissance upbringing Soumitra developed taste and talent for poetry and painting.  Soumitra’s tryst with painting was an extremely private affair, termed the ‘informality of doodling’ and most were unaware about the excellence of craft which when revealed to the wider world in an exhibition which for the art connoisseurs came across as striking, beautiful, poignant and imbued with a sense of originality.  

Soumitra immersed himself in writing poetry being inspired by the fascinating notion of ‘Romantic Love’ and themes like first flush of love, pangs of separation, unrequited love and a yearning nostalgia to be reunited with nature found place in his poetry. As the authors rightly paraphrase it, ‘His genius as a craftsman is evident in his career as an actor, yet the mind that informs those performances is best glimpsed through his poetry.’ His poems have been widely published with the and had launched a poetry platform for offering space to emerging poets for expressing their talent and it was titled “Ekshan”. True to the Bengali Renaissance spirit of Soumitra, Tagore was the dominant influence on his poetry since Tagore was intricately woven into his sensibility which was expressed through the vehicle of poetry.  Soumitra due to his erudition and sophisticated cultural aesthetics emerged as the ‘Intellectual Hero’ of Bengali cinema. 

THE ‘POIGNANT APPEAL’ EVERYDAY LIFE COMMON HUMAN BEING ACTOR

I must recount an eerie and memorable encounter; on the day of the tragic demise of Soumitra Chatterjee I received a WhatsApp message from Victorda(the actor Victor Banerjee) which was a clip from the movie ‘Lathi’ where both Soumitra and Victorda acted together. This scene was a poignant one where Soumitra a pensioned widower who is eking out an existence of genteel poverty is worried about his ability to buy a dhoti on his birthday as a testimony to the memory of his late wife who used to offer him dhoti as a birthday gift.  Here in the bank he encounters Victor Banerjee who intervenes and offers to gift him the Birthday dhoti since his wife perceived him as her brother which makes him Soumitra’s brother-in-law and the conversation moves one to tears laden with emotions. It’s this virtuosity what I have termed as the ‘poignant appeal’ of Soumitra and this short snippet was the perfect embodiment.   In his later years or shall we term ‘Post-Satyajit Ray’ Soumitra emerged in full blossom with his virtuosity of a wide appeal cutting across cross-section of society. There were several films where he played the role of simple ordinary citizens yet Bhadralok in its ethos and values, in one of the notable ones being 1986 film ‘Atanko directed by Tapan Sinha where Soumitra the proverbial idealistic, cultured, civilized school teacher is threatened to remain silent having been a spectator to a political murder and is tormented within himself with regards to his values. The intimidation doesn’t deter ‘Sir’ as his character was known in the film from being triumphant against the hoodlum bullies.  This film brings out that noble spirit, idealism, moral rectitude and a sense of mission in Soumitra in its starkest manifestation which made him a ‘darling’ hero of the Bengali educated and cultured classes.  One of the most famous and memorable film being ‘Koni’, a 1986 release where Soumitra plays the role of a swimming coach encouraging to the point of goading a young swimmer ‘Koni’ with his memorable lines ‘Fight Koni Fight’ to win against all hurdles.  Khitda embodied the Bengali middle-class ideal egalitarianism which affirms faith in creation of opportunities for those without access to financial resources. The oblivion and even a slight contempt for the vulgarities of quick fame and money manifested in the character of Khitda won a wide popularity amongst the Bengali audience.  The film is now an artifact of the Bengali popular culture. In both the films, ‘Lathi’ and ‘Atanka’ the motif was the dignified but frugal existence which became the hallmark of a large swathe of Bengali middle-class Bhadralok society. This implied standing up for what one believes to be ‘Right’ and ‘Just’ and a certain disdain towards crass materialism and pursuit of power. 

Personally I found his ‘ordinary’ acting roles as extraordinary and true celluloid hero since this provides inspiration for us to lead our lives with dignity.  Again here I recollect with awe and respect the role of Soumitra as a senior citizen in  the film ‘Ballygunge Court’ combating loneliness, alienation and insecurities of leading a life where the progenies are in distant lands.  The movie I recollect struck a chord with several members of Indian diaspora and their parents back in India.  

This ‘poignant popular’ appeal was achieved through imparting a sense of realism and authenticity to the roles and characters he played on the screen. Soumitra had the uncanny skill of bringing in a healthy dose of realism through subtle additions to the depths of the emotions portrayed thus connecting it to the reality of the people living their lives. As the authors in the book very aptly and accurately mention that there was an element of ‘authenticity of emotions’ and a refusal to cultivate the ‘persona of a ‘larger than life’ superstar removed from the mundane reality.’ Although in the twilight years of his acting life Soumitra lamented the lack of intellectuality in Bengali cinema since his self-image was that of an ‘intellectual hero’ I would argue the values-based theme and noble mission characters he engaged in his celluloid endeavours definitely compensated for the paucity of high-brow abstract intellectual ideas and even reached higher depths of human emotional depth and richness of thought. As the book mentions that Soumitra mentions that ‘It was not just acting.  I really wanted to give something back to society, do something important and constructive’. 

RAY THE MAESTRO AND HIS ‘ONE-STOP COMPANY’ SOUMITRA

Soumitra’s tryst with the serious world of stage and lights was initiated under the tutelage of the promethean  cinema maestro Satyajit Ray. Prior to his entry into the celluloid world his rites of passage into the world of acting was mentored by the theatre legend Sisir Bhaduri whom he held up as a ‘guru’ and remained an ardent disciple throughout his life. His debut with Ray was in the classic Bengali film ‘Apur Sansar’ which part of a trilogy where Soumitra played the role of an educated, forlorn, idealistic, romantic Bengali young man leading an idyllic existence with modest economic means. This journey with Ray led him to work on 14 films, often defined as ‘one-man stock company’ of Ray(Pauline Keal), included some iconic ones like ‘Sonar Kella’ and ‘Joy Baba Felunath’ which have become canonical works in Bengali cultural world. Generations of Bengali children have grown up on the staple diet of ‘Feluda’ the intelligent detective with an encyclopaedic knowledge of world affairs played by Soumitra Chatterjee. Apart from the popular Ray films Soumitra acted in the first adaptation of Tagore by the maestro in the film ‘Devi’ and ‘Charulata’ based on another novely by Tagore. His legacy in the repertoire of Ray is a vast topic which deserves a distinct article. 

How we remember and celebrate his legacy?? 

I think Soumitra Chatterjee endures as an inspiration for future generations of actors and is best captured in these lines drawn from this wonderful book: ‘Some poets have sung this history earlier, now others are singing again in future still others will sing’. (Souti, First canto, Adiparva)

Kaustav Bhattacharyya is an entrepreneur and independent researcher based in Bengaluru, India and holds a PhD in Management Studies from Cass Business School, London. Kaustav is an Anglosphere enthusiast and celebrates the Indian cosmpolitanism.