Bela Sheshe to Asukh, celebrating Soumitra Chatterjee's iconic performances beyond the Satyajit Ray universe
Chatterjee’s body of work, spanning over 300 films, is vast, versatile, and defining. He became representative of the educated Bengali middle-class in a way that was both accessible and aspirational.
Back in 2019, when the Mamata Banerjee government pulled Anik Dutta’s political satire, Bhobhishyoter Bhoot out of theatres despite the film having a censor certificate, it became a cultural touchpoint on the dismal state of artistic freedom of expression under the ruling establishment. Dutta had been a vocal critic of the Chief Minister and Banerjee hasn’t ever been known to take well to either rebellion or criticism (Bhobhishyoter Bhoot took direct digs at the shortcomings of the Trinamool Congress). At the time, the Bengali film fraternity, most of whom also led a double life as MLAs and MPs, fell silent, toeing the line of the administration.
But 84-year-old Soumitra Chatterjee joined the protest against the film’s unofficial ban on the streets of Kolkata alongside Aparna Sen and Buddhadeb Dasgupta. In an open letter, Chatterjee also called the move “unprecedented,” accusing the Mamata Banerjee government of fascism. Exactly a year later, Chatterjee’s protest shifted to the big screen: He starred in Borunbabur Bondhu, another anti-establishment Anik Dutta film that underlined political disillusionment with a piercing clarity. Riots break out in the climactic moment of the film, foreshadowing in a way what was unfolding in Delhi. (The actor was also a leading voice of reason during the anti-CAA protests in West Bengal in December 2019). In the last few years, if there was something that was becoming clearer with every passing day, it was the fact that Chatterjee has always put his money where his mouth is.
With the actor’s death yesterday, Bengali cinema didn’t just lose a cerebral artist – it also lost its unfailing conscience.
In his 61-year-long-career in film, Soumitra Chatterjee never ventured out of West Bengal and yet his legacy as an artist, universal and flattering in equal measure, has rarely been confined to just being regarded as a Bengali actor. Chatterjee’s body of work, spanning over 300 films, is vast, versatile, and defining. He became representative of the educated Bengali middle-class in a way that was both accessible and aspirational. Even Uttam Kumar, Chatterjee’s rival, could only manage one of those two things. For multiple generations, Chatterjee has acted as both, an introduction to cinema as well as an institution of cinema, essaying every imaginable facet of Bengali existence on screen. Even before I knew him as Soumitra Chatterjee, the film star, I knew him as Feluda, the intrepid detective who relied on “mogojastra” (the intelligence weapon); as Apu, the grief-stricken young man who loses the love of his life; as Amal, the charismatic, playful man stuck between duty and desire.
The actor’s existence was synonymous to innumerable childhoods the same way Satyajit Ray became synonymous to his career – Chatterjee debuted in Apur Sansar (1959), the third installment of Ray’s The Apu trilogy with a career-defining turn, sparking off an actor-filmmaker collaboration that lasted for 13 more films over three decades. Each of these outings (Devi, Teen Kanya, Charulata, Aranyer Din Ratri, Sonar Kella, Joi Baba Felunath, Abhijaan, Ghare Baire) have earned their place in the annals of Indian cinema, marking a period of technical finesse, box-office success, artistic fulfillment, and numerous National Award and international recognitions.
Although Ray has collaborated with other actors – most notably with Kumar, the de-facto leading man of the 60s’ – there was perhaps no other actor as indispensable to his storytelling as Chatterjee. It was a partnership for the ages, one that is often compared to the likes of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese; Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa; Marcello Mastroianni and Federico Fellini.
This association undoubtedly heralded Chatterjee’s cachet as Bengali cinema’s indisputable character actor who went beyond being just a star, it also led to audiences typecasting him only as Ray’s famous protagonist. There's a good reason that the 14 Ray films that Chatterjee acted in is the default entry point into his career – they are after all, his most popular films, ones that educated an Uttam Kumar-reared audience to the joys of an unaffected performance and is tied to his international fame. But at the same time, it feels like a distortion of his oeuvre if these 14 films are taken as the last word on Chatterjee’s abilities as an actor instead of a window into his filmography.
Ray’s death might have created a vacuum in Chatterjee’s life but it hardly dented his billing as an actor; his career continued thriving even after.
That’s because the actor’s brilliance lay in him being a polymath – he was a poet, author, theatre actor and director, elocutionist, painter, editor of “Ekhon”, a literary magazine (Ray designed the covers for all the issues), an indefatigable activist, and a film star. This brand of artistic plurality has similarly spilled over to his acting choices. Over the years, Chatterjee has earned the distinction of being the first choice for some of the most definitive voices of Bengali cinema: He has worked with the greats (Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Saroj Dey) who laid down the blueprint for Bengali cinema, as well as the rising voices (Sandip Ray, Rituparno Ghosh, Swapan Saha, Sujoy Ghosh, Atanu Ghosh, Anik Dutta, Parambrata Chatterjee) entasked with taking it forward. Just like there's no question that Chatterjee’s best films are the ones under the tutelage of Satyajit Ray, similarly it’s also a fact that there are more than a handful of Chatterjee performances worth seeking out that exist outside the Ray universe.
To see Soumitra Chatterjee only through the prism of Ray’s vision is to consent to seeing a dazzling albeit an incomplete picture. Below is a list of nine films that reflect the length and breadth of Soumitra Chatterjee’s unique versatility and vitality as an actor.
The fact that Soumitra Chatterjee is one of the few actors who has aged in front of the big screen has never been more obvious than in Atanu Ghosh’s National-Award winning Mayurakshi, an emotionally alert film that excavates the intimacies of parenting, memories, and the grief that both bring.
The actor looks frighteningly old, the lines on his face serving both as a catalyst for the film as well as a justification for it. He plays a 84-year-old retired history professor afflicted with dementia whose son (Prosenjit Chatterjee) flies down from Chicago to tend to him while battling personal demons of his own.
The character driven film that rests on the emotionally confrontational five-day reunion of father and son, is prime evidence of Chatterjee’s excellence and relevance as an actor intensifying with age. For someone who is inextricable from the articulation of youth on screen, Chatterjee also succeeded in becoming central to the idea of old age on the big screen, giving a face to unfulfillment and regret with an inimitable lived-in sensitivity. There’s a goosebump-inducing scene toward the end of the film that unknowingly blurs the distance between reel and real. When his son visits him in the hospital, his face is desperate for an acknowledgement that his life amounted to something. “Bhule jash na” (Don’t forget me), he tells his son, his voice quivering. “Bhulbo na” (I won’t forget), his son promises. Neither will we.
Bela Sheshe (2015)
In Shibhoprasad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy’s family drama, Chatterjee played a 75-year-old family man who seeks divorce from his wife (played by Swatilekha Sengupta, his co-star from Ghare Baire) after 50 years of marriage, much to the disapproval of his four kids. To my mind, Chatterjee’s quiet, assured turn in this film was one of the more ambitious and exciting decisions in his career for it subverted long-held notions about family, marriage, and duty, the three pillars of middle-class Bengali existence, with logic and verve. In many ways, Chatterjee’s existence has single-handedly shaped the resurgence of interest in stories about old age in Bengali cinema that go beyond notions of sacrifice and silent spectators. If there was ever any doubt over Chatterjee’s pull as a film star, Bela Sheshe put that to end: it made history by continuously playing for 250 days in single screen theatres, becoming the longest running Bengali film.
In Sujoy Ghosh’s 14-minute-short film, a fevered reimagining of the mythology of Ahalya, Soumitra Chatterjee played Goutam Sadhu, an aged artist married to the attractive Ahalya (Radhika Apte), decades younger to him. Set in modern-day Kolkata, Ahalya borrowed its premise from the Ramayana tale in which Ahalya (the “most beautiful woman ever created”) was seduced by Indra who disguised himself as her husband Gautama Maharishi. When the sage caught them, he cursed Ahalya for infidelity by turning her into a stone.
On his part, Ghosh crafts the interpretation as an atmospheric thriller, one that hides more than it reveals until it reaches the point of explosion. And even though the film rests equally on the motivations and desires of its three players (here, Indra is a police inspector), Chatterjee is indisputably, the backbone of this tale of morality. His turn as Goutam Sadhu is at once, harmless and menacing, a classic example of a celebrated acting legend exploiting his old age and favourable reputation to get away with villainy. To watch Chatterjee build dread in Ahalya (the film marked his digital debut) with a smile or a casual sleight of hand is to experience the craftsmanship of an artist who can give even the sharpest plot-twists a run for their money.
In Goutam Ghose’s most compelling film, Chatterjee essayed the central role of a once-renowned poet facing near blindness and struggling to find inspiration. It’s a performance that deserves more acclaim simply because of how much empathy Chatterjee brought to the role, despite the bitterness and indifference that defined his character. In a sense, his turn breathed a new voice to the depiction of visual impairment on the Indian screen, using it as an aid and not a crutch. When the film won Chatterjee a Special Jury Award for Best Actor, he refused to accept what he deemed was a “consolation prize” as a protest against the lack of credibility of the National Awards. (Anil Kapoor won the main award for Pukaar that year).
There has perhaps been no other actor in Bengali cinema who was so proficient in evoking the grammar of crisis with a measured vulnerability in the same vein as Soumitra Chatterjee. The actor’s only collaboration with Rituparno Ghosh resulted in a National Award-winning film, an underseen classic about the dynamics of an estranged father and daughter in the face of tragedy (also one of the few films that cast a man as a caregiver). Chatterjee’s expressive face articulated sheer helplessness, often without dialogue, and his body language, slowed down and laborious, cut right through the distrust that one comes to embrace as they gets older. There’s something to say about the fact that most of Chatterjee’s films have revolved around one or the other kind of loss. It almost seems like a second language for him. Asukh then, feels like a homecoming: a film where the actor looks the most fearful he has ever been and yet knows the nooks and crannies by heart.
The actor shared another creatively nourishing partnership with filmmaker Tapan Sinha, with whom he worked on two other films, including Antardhan (1992) and the celebrated Wheelchair (1994). In the technically gripping Atanka, Chatterjee played an elderly schoolteacher facing a moral conundrum: he witnesses a violent murder orchestrated by his former students and is threatened with dire consequences if he doesn't look the other way. Based on real events, the film was a potent allegory of our society’s collective depravity of moral courage. Chatterjee’s face expertly conveyed his range, flitting between fear and courage. That it was Bengali cinema's conscience leading the search for our collective conscience made it all the more poetic.
One of Chatterjee’s most well-known performances saw him play the role of Khitda, a temperamental swimming coach who became as much of a household fixation as Apu or Amal. The film revolves around the titular Koni, an underprivileged girl who Khitda takes under his wing, a move that culminates into her competing nationally as a swimmer while fighting social and political stigmas. The straightforward tale of adversity acquired an edge due to Chatterjee’s restrained performance as an Everyman, one that was far-removed from the usual urban characters he was known for. Khitda represented the leftist Bengali who believed in dignity of life and Chatterjee played him with a physical alertness that displayed the urgency and struggle of the middle-class to survive. Adapted from a novel by sports journalist Moti Nandi, the film’s rallying cry “Fight, Koni, Fight!” turned into a catchphrase that continues to be used for inspiration till this day. Koni is as masterful a reminder as any that Soumitra Chatterjee didn’t just make movies about the middle-class; he made it for them.
An unfairly forgotten film, Salil Dutta’s Aparichito – visibly influenced from Fyodor Distoyevsky’s The Idiot – was one of the few films that managed the coup of bringing together Chatterjee and Uttam Kumar in the same frame. Although Kumar was given the flashier role of an aggressive gangster, it was really Chatterjee who emerged as the silver lining of the film. The actor evocatively played a young man confronting his mental illness, delivering a sensational performance that mimicked the confusion and clarity of a nervous breakdown.
Akash Kusum (1965)
In this Mrinal Sen film about Ajay Sarkar, a young ambitious middle-class executive longing to get ahead in life. Chatterjee’s turn that brought out the dichotomies of reality not staying true to aspiration, almost seemed like a middle-class confession. The actor built tension out of the duality of his character, one who was prone to romanticism even when the cruelties of life stared right back at him. The reverence for upward social mobility that Chatterjee brought out in Sarkar became all the more impactful when it became his undoing.
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