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‘Working with Soumitra Chatterjee was a lifetime experience’: Bengali actor Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee

“This sword of mine shall give them instant way,

Where they shall rest for ever.–Trumpets, speak!”

When Soumitra Chatterjee played Shakespeare’s King Lear on the stage, all eyes would linger on him. He was a legend, an icon, an actor whose performances overpowered everything else when he was on the stage or the screen.

His poise expressed both grace and dignity, and his baritone voice would leave the audience shivering.

We lost the quintessential Bengali icon — an actor, director, playwright, writer and poet — on November 15, 2020.

An inescapable gloom dawned upon the world. Bengalis across the globe shed tears and rewatched his exemplary works of art, that stages and television screens had a privilege to show.

Soon after the demise of our beloved Feluda, Platocast spoke to Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee — elocutionist, singer, actor — about his favorite Soumitra Jethu (uncle), whose daughter is a friend of his.

Sujoy has also shared the screen with Soumitra Chatterjee in the famous Bengali family drama film Bela Seshe, where he played the role of Soumitra’s son-in-law.

“The first time I saw Soumitra Jethu was at his house,” Sujoy says. “Like any other art-loving human being, I have always adored him as an actor, but his theatrical pursuit is what amazed me the most, every time I watched him.”

“It is interesting to note that most of his plays have been adaptations of foreign classics. Soumitra Jethu, I believe, is the man who revived the entire scene of public theatre. When public theatre was moving towards sleaze and vulgarity, he came and gave us plays that were not only commercially successful, but also the transposition of the milieu was fabulous. Even if his plays were adaptations of an American play, or a French play, he had the power to turn them into something so Indian, so quintessentially Bengali, one wouldn’t care if it was an adaptation. One wouldn’t care to compare,” he adds.

Soumitra Chatterjee, Sujoy says, was not only a brilliant actor but also played the role of an actor’s manager, he was writing, directing, acting and producing, which was remarkable. 

Soumitra Chatterjee, in various interviews, also claimed that he did not care about awards.

“This was not out of indignation. This kind of indifference made him an artist of relevance to me. In an interview, he had once said that the biggest competition that he had in his era was himself. This kind outlook towards life is perhaps what led to him excel in each film that he acted in,” Sujoy says.

“I have had the good fortune of sharing the stage with Soumitra Jethu on a number of readings. He was an extraordinary elocutionist. He would tell me: ‘Sujoy, storytelling is an art which people often perform melodramatically. It is much more melodrama, we need to cut that off completely.’ Jethu was beyond just cinema. His contribution towards art, especially in Bengal, will never be forgotten,” Sujoy adds.

Soumitra Chatterjee, Sujoy says, was aware of his commercial position. He knew that art cannot come free, and he was one of the most expensive male elocutionists in Kolkata. People would line up to buy tickets, they would fight over the front seat — all because Soumitra Chatterjee was an artist who added value to everything he did.

Soumitra Chatterjee was also an excellent poet, and his poems were often very dark. Inspired by his favourite poet Jibanananda Das, his poems would often portray this abstract mysticism.

“This is all about artist Soumitra Jethu. In personal life, he was warm, kind and affectionate,” Sujoy says. “I remember requesting him to come and launch the digital compilation of a number of Rabindrasangeet that I sang, and I told him that I cannot pay anything for this because I did not have the budget. I was launching the album out of my love for music.”

“He listened to me for two minutes and then said: ‘Balok, tumi pakami koro na. Ami aashbo. Tomar gaan amar khoob bhalo laage (My boy, keep quiet. I will definitely come. I love your singing)’,” he adds.

Sujoy worked with Soumitra Chatterjee in Bela Seshe, directed by the duo Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee. Bela Seshe is a tale of relationships. It explores the intricacies of a married life, of expectations and promises.

“My first shot in the film was with Soumitra Jethu, and I wasn’t aware of it. The interesting thing is, as I sat with an icon like him, I realised that he never intimidated me. It was beautiful how comfortable he made me feel,” Sujoy says.

“The kind of homework that he did for his roles was phenomenal. There is this scene in the film where I play the Esraj, and he is immersed in the music. If you watch him carefully, the finer muscles of his cheeks and the contours of his face — his whole expression in the scene is a classroom right there. He was a very finite actor. He believed in precision, and he knew the measurements of his performance. He knew his movements, he knew exactly how much to move. The mathematical precision he had as an actor was matchless,” he added. “If you had to act with someone like Soumitra Chatterjee, you could not go unprepared.” 

From Nilkantha (Ivan Turgenev), Bidehi (Henrik Ibsen), Tiktiki (Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth) to his struggling middle-class man in Naam Jibon (Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl), Soumitra Chatterjee did exceptional adaptations of European and American plays. With the man, our hope for seeing more of him and his splendid performances is gone.

“One thing I am going to miss the most is that I do not know whom to go back to now. This is a huge void,” says Sujoy.

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