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Friday, April 16, 2021

Remembering Soumitra Chatterjee: How The Veteran Actor Shaped Bengali Cinema

After a month-long battle with COVID-induced encephalopathy, veteran Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee breathed his last on 15th November 2020, leaving an unfillable void in the world of Indian cinema. With his brilliant acting and charismatic persona, he won hearts and accolades around the world. The Padma Bhushan and Dadasaheb Phalke awardee had an illustrious career on silver screen spanning nearly six decades. He was also honoured by France with their highest civilian award Légion d’Honneur in 2018.

Where Magic Happened: Soumitra Chatterjee Meets Satyajit Ray

He began his journey in 1959 playing the titular role of Apu in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) – in the third film of Satyajit Ray’s timeless Apu Trilogy. An effortless portrayal of the character placed a debutante Soumitra on an international pedestal.

soumitra chatterjee looking up in a scene from Apur Sansar
Soumitra Chatterjee in his debut film Apur Sansar (Credits: Pinterest)

Later, Soumitra went to collaborate with Ray in fourteen films, playing one iconic character after another. The duo has often been compared to legendary alliances in international cinema – from De Niro-Scorcese to Mifune-Kurosawa. From a young, free-spirited Amal in Charulata to Gangacharan – a rural priest struggling in the Bengal famine (Ashani Sanket), Soumitra played each role with spectacular perfection. It is even said that Ray wrote some of his roles specifically keeping Soumitra in mind. Playing the famous Bengali sleuth ‘Feluda’ was another such milestone in his association with Satyajit Ray.

In 1980, his role as the rebel Udayan Master in Hirak Rajar Deshe struck a chord with the voice of political dissent in the country. The 1990 film Shakha Prashakha remains his last collaboration with Satyajit Ray, where Soumitra rendered a moving performance as the psychologically-challenged Proshanto.

Other Notable Performances

Soumitra also paired up with other celebrated directors of Bengali cinema, like Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar and Rituparno Ghosh, among others. He has starred in over 300 movies, with no two of his characters being similar.

As an actor, his range was diverse and experimental. For instance, in 1961, he played a charming but evil Mayurbahan in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bondi. In the same year, he beautifully captured the nuances of a shy, romantic Amulya in Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya.

In 1963, Soumitra gained global recognition after his film Saat Pake Bandha was featured at Moscow International Film Festival. Here he starred opposite Suchitra Sen as the eccentric and haughty Prof Sukhendu Datta.

Throughout the next few decades, he shone in a wide range of films, including mainstream romantic comedies like Teen Bhubaner Pare (1969), Prothom Kadam Phool (1969), Basanta Bilaap (1973) etc.

soumitra chatterjee as raja lear on stage
As Raja Lear on stage (Credits: The Telegraph)

Soumitra continued starring in different films and collaborating with new directors. Alongside, he also regularly performed on stage as a veteran thespian. His performance as Raja Lear, in the Bengali adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, deserves a special mention here. His last film happens to be Bela Shuru – an upcoming family drama directed by Nandita Ray and Shiboprosad Mukherjee.

A Fearless Voice, A Legend Lost

In his personal life, he had a strong voice as well. He declined the Padma Shri awards twice in protest of the biased attitude of the committee towards regional cinema and their alleged favour of Bollywood. Throughout his life, Soumitra Chatterjee had also spoken up against controversial political decisions time and again, irrespective of the party in power.

Not known to many, Soumitra Chatterjee was a versatile genius. He was an accomplished poet and playwright as well, aside from being an eminent actor. He has around 20 published poetry books to his name. In addition, he also painted at his leisure and his paintings were showcased in exhibitions often.

Above all, he was an actor of extraordinary acumen. In a 2016 interview, when asked about his extreme zeal for acting even at such an age, he revealed, “I have a fear: If I don’t work, I won’t exist.”

Today, as the world mourns his unfortunate demise, we pay our heartfelt tribute to the legend.

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