Book review — Suman Ghosh's Soumitra Chatterjee: A Film-maker Remembers is a thirst-quencher for incurable cinephilia

In most Suman Ghosh films, Soumitra Chatterjee played characters who had no option but to stare at their own mortality and memory. It makes sense then that Ghosh has written a book on Chatterjee that is eventually an excavation of memory.

Poulomi Das January 19, 2022 10:54:38 IST
Book review — Suman Ghosh's Soumitra Chatterjee: A Film-maker Remembers is a thirst-quencher for incurable cinephilia

Book cover of Soumitra Chatterjee: A Film-Maker Remembers

Soumitra Chatterjee won his first National Award in 2008 for Suman Ghosh’s Podokkhep (2006), nearly five decades into his illustrious acting career spanning over 300 films. The achievement reads both like a consolation and a joke. 

Chatterjee, one of India’s greatest cultural icons, knew it himself, famously remarking at the time that he won the award for a performance that was one of his best but certainly was not the best performance of his career. After all, this is an actor who debuted with a magnetic turn in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959), forging a deep working relationship with the filmmaker, with whom he worked across 14 films. Although his Ray filmography continues to be fetishishised in the media, Chatterjee’s early oeuvre is also stacked with vital performances in films directed by noted Bengali filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, and Ajoy Kar. To not recognise Chatterjee’s artistry at a time when he was operating at the peak of his capabilities revealed the hypocrisy of awards in India. 

By the time he won the National Award, the actor, who passed away in November last year, did not think much of awards. In 2001, Chatterjee had refused a Special Jury National Award for his role in Goutam Ghose’s Dekha (2000) as a mark of protest, angered at the inherent lobbyism that dictated their distribution. For instance, Anil Kapoor won the National Award for Best Actor that year, awarded for a film that was immensely forgettable, and a performance that was not remarkable. Dekha, on the other hand, in which Chatterjee plays a blind and disenchanted poet, remains one of his most complex and intricate roles.. 

In Soumitra Chatterjee: A Film-maker Remembers, filmmaker Suman Ghosh, who directed Chatterjee (he refers to him as Soumitra-kaku) in five films, including the National Award-winning Podokkhep, makes a case for the versatility of Chatterjee’s artistry in the latter half of his career. That is to say, Chatterjee was an actor who did not just define innumerable childhoods but someone who also grew old on screen, giving a face to mortality. Any examination of Chatterjee’s legacy is incomplete without a thorough consideration of the fact that he delivered some of his most moving, emotionally alert performances after he turned 60. 

Ghosh makes an attempt in a similar direction. Structuring the 160-odd pages of his book mainly around his memories of working with Chatterjee, Ghosh paints a portrait of the acting legend as a devoted artiste and a generous human being. 

Still, Soumitra Chatterjee: A Film-maker Remembers is not a definitive account of the actor’s legacy nor can it act as an instructive manual for film criticism. Instead, Ghosh designs the book as a thirst-quencher for incurable cinephilia. In that, the book offers an intimate record of Chatterjee’s acting process, his relationship with art, and the way the actor chose to lead his life when the cameras were not rolling. What makes the affair immeasurably fascinating is that it is told from the eyes of someone who demanded the absolute truth out of Chatterjee in front of the camera. 

Divided into nine chapters, which include adda sessions Ghosh remembers having with Chatterjee, the book resembles an extended personal essay. The prose is interspersed with valuable photographs of Chatterjee on set as well as photographs of candid moments between acting legends (one picture captures Chatterjee rehearsing his lines in the dark, and Aparna Sen turning her phone’s torchlight on to aid the process). Much of the easy, unpretentious prose points at Chatterjee’s self-awareness, his mental agility, and his ability to recognise brilliance.

In his decade-long working partnership with Chatterjee, Ghosh worked with the actor in five films: lead roles in Podokkhep (2008), Dwando (2009), Peace Haven (2016), and Basu Paribar (2018), and a small role in Nobel Chor (2012). Like any self-respecting Bengali, he was a fan of the actor much before he became a filmmaker. “Bengalis of our generation do not even recollect when we first became conscious about personalities such as Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar, or Soumitra Chatterjee,” Ghosh writes in the book. “It is as if they are dinned into us at birth. Soumitra Chatterjee’s Feluda was a part of our psyche while growing up.” 

In one way or the other, Podokkhep, Dwando, Peace Haven, and Basu Paribar — the four Ghosh films in which Chatterjee played the lead role — have all revolved around the cruelties of aging.

In each of these films, Chatterjee played characters who had no option but to stare at their own mortality and memory. It makes sense then that Ghosh has written a book on Chatterjee that is eventually an excavation of memory. 

Much of the book, which has a foreword by Chatterjee’s co-star and friend Sharmila Tagore, revolves around the transformative effect that Chatterjee ended up having on the people around him, especially Ghosh. The filmmaker argues that Chatterjee exhibited all qualities of a “Renaissance man,” someone who “exhibited his intrinsic humanism through his writings, his paintings, his theatre, and of course, his film performances.” 

He remembers him as a disciplined artist with an incurable appetite for curiosity, someone who treated his craft like ascetics view meditation. In his presence, Ghosh could see himself plumb the depths of his creativity — Chatterjee was always up for a challenge, and prided himself for delivering monumental performances even in films that were undeserving of them. But most importantly, Ghosh posits Chatterjee as someone who was acutely aware that the film was always larger than himself. 

Book review  Suman Ghoshs Soumitra Chatterjee A Filmmaker Remembers is a thirstquencher for incurable cinephilia

Suman Ghosh and Soumitra Chatterjee

Almost all of the anecdotes that Ghosh provides in Soumitra Chatterjee: A Film-maker Remembers allow for a deeper engagement with Chatterjee as an artist — how much he valued his craft, and how much he went out of his way to ensure that Ghosh realised the sanctity of filmmaking. But there is one brief anecdote that stands out as a testament to Chatterjee’s incomparable legacy. 

In Nobel Chor, Ghosh got the opportunity to cast Mithun Chakraborty and Chatterjee opposite each other. Chatterjee had a small role in the film, not that limited screen time has ever deterred the actor from stealing scenes. Ghosh writes that Chatterjee prepared for the role — he was playing a village school teacher in Nobel Chor — as if it was the most important film of his career. As someone who has an amazing ability to master different Bengali accents, he had already managed to have the Bolpur accent down pat. 

That was not the case with Chakraborty who was struggling with the dialect. Eventually, he decided to speak without an accent, instead enunciating certain words in a way “convey a rustic feel.” When Chatterjee noticed it, he decided to sacrifice his own authenticity and lose the accent. If he did go ahead with his accent, it would have been another display of the actor’s range and his grasp over his own craft but it would have undermined the film. And if there is one thing that Ghosh learnt from a decade of becoming friends with the actor, it is the fact that there is nothing better for a film than having Soumitra Chatterjee in it.

Soumitra Chatterjee: A Film-maker Remembers is published by Om Books International.

Poulomi Das is a film and culture writer, critic, and programmer. Follow more of her writing on Twitter.

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