On Soumitra Chatterjee's birth anniversary, Sharmila Tagore, Sandip Ray remember actor's 'ineradicable legacy'
Sharmila Tagore who co-starred in Soumitra Chatterjee’s several films, including Apur Sansar and Devi, says she doesn’t know of anyone as erudite as him: 'He could talk about any subject under the sun'
It’s hard to speak of Soumitra Chatterjee in the past when his relevance is renewed in and by every generation. Soumitra is the subject of a biopic that actor Parambrata Chatterjee, one of the admires of Soumitra, has directed. The film titled Abhijaan (the title of one of the 14 films that Soumitra did with Satyajit Ray) features Soumitra as himself while Jisshu Sengupta plays his younger version (although Jisshu looks nothing like the magnificent original).
Parambrata got the rare opportunity to spend time with the great actor. “It was magical. Because I not only got a chance to make a film on one of the greatest actors I also had the rare privilege of directing him in one of his last film where he played himself.”
Satyajit Ray’s son Sandip, grew up watching his father and Soumitra Chatterjee, the great twosome at work.
“It was one of world cinema’s most accomplished collaborations…. comparable with Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni and with Kurosawa and Mifune,” says the affable Sandip, himself a filmmaker of considerable repute.
“Soumitra Babu’s collaboration with my father started from before I was born. He had gone to my father to be cast in Pather Panchali in 1959. My father found him too old to play Apu. Later he cast Soumitra Babu as Apu in Apur Sansar, that’s how their collaboration started.”
Sandip cannot stop marvelling at the variety of films Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee did together. “No two roles in the films they did together are comparable. Soumitra played the most varied characters in my father’s films…I can’t pick favourites. But Apur (in Apur Sansar) and Amal (in Charulata) were widely lauded. I also liked the taxi driver that Soumitra Babu played in my father’s Abhijaan where he had to speak in Hindi throughout. I came into the picture with Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) in 1973. I became a full-fledged assistant to my father with Ashani Sanket. That’s when I got a chance to observe the two of them at work. It was a learning experience for me. All the greats are gone. Recently one of my father’s closest associates photographer Nemai Ghosh also passed away. It is frightening.”
Later Sandip got a chance to direct Soumitra Chatterjee in two films. “The first was Uttaron in 1994. It was written by my father. He wanted to make the film with Soumitra Babu and I did the needful after my father passed away. My second film with Soumitra Babu was Nishijapon in 2005 based on a famous Bengali novel by Narayan Gangopadhyay.”
Directing this great actor was like collaborating with a family member. “Soumitra Babu was like my own uncle. He was very close to my father even outside the studio sets. He came home very often. Losing him is like losing a close member of my family. One by one, they’re all leaving. Losing Soumitra Babu was a shock to me. I met him just days before he was hospitalised for Covid, for an archival documentary that his daughter was making. He was in the pink of health, conversing with everyone the whole day. Soumitra Babu was a very learned man. But he didn’t allow his knowledge to come in the way of his democratic attitude. Whether it was an actor or a spotboy he was equally friendly with all. And yes, one more thing. He always encouraged new directors, did not hesitate in working with them. You have no idea what that meant to younger directors who come into the Bengali film industry in the generations following my father.”
Sandip reveals more on his father’s collaboration with Soumitra Chatterjee. “They met beyond their shootings quite regularly to discuss the magazine titled Ekhon which Soumitra Babu edited. My father suggested the name of the magazine. His screenplays were regularly published in Ekhon.”
Sharmila Tagore who played Soumitrada’s leading lady in several films including the Ray classics Apur Sansar and Devi says she doesn’t know of anyone as erudite as Soumitra. "He could talk about any subject under the sun and with irrefutable knowledge. Soumitra and I started our careers together in Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar. He was 10 years older than me, but I never felt the gap. He was a dear and loyal friend, always supporting me when the need arose. If he saw me being questioned, he would invariably defend me. After my husband Tiger (Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi) and Shashi Kapoor, I have lost another very dear friend. I was an actor by accident," she continues.
"He always wanted to be an actor. Our friendship started with the words that we exchanged as husband and wife in Apur Sansar. I was not supposed to understand some of the big words that he used in the film. Our exchanges in the film were very revealing. In one sequence he uses a very sophisticated Bengali word for 'dedicate' when he tells me he will dedicate his book to his wife. I pretend to not understand the word. I remember in another scene, he explains to me why he can't spend more time with me as he has to earn a living. I gently suggest that he stop doing all the extra tuition and come straight home every day. The words we spoke to one another in these scenes established a bond between us which existed right till his passing away. When we acted together or conversed, I would listen very closely to him. I'd observe him closely."
Sharmila remembers being on two outdoor locations with Soumitrada."One was for Satyajit Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri and the other for Goutam Ghose's Abar Aranye. Almost everyone connecting with these films is gone. After our shooting, we had our adda, gupshup and there was a connection with him that I can't explain. His success made me happy and vice versa. He got along very well with Tiger. When he won the Padma Bhushan and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, we met and celebrated. Every time I felt I hadn't spoken to him for too long, I would guiltily call him and we would chat. We recited poetry together on stage several times. That was a learning curve for me. We also did a poetry-reading play called Ke Tume. It was well appreciated. We also performed in Bangladesh together. We vibed well. He was a wonderful friend. I feel I have lost a part of me. But I also know his legacy is ineradicable. He never strove to be a star. He was Satyajit Ray's muse. Their 14 films together stand testimony to a historic collaboration like Martin Scorsese and Robert di Niro."
Shabana Azmi had the rare privilege of playing both wife and daughter to Soumitra Chatterjee. “But then he had the rarest privilege of doing fourteen films with Satyajit Ray. I was in a film group that was honoured at the prestigious George Pompidou Centre in Paris sometime in the 1980s and it was so incredible to watch the adulation showered on him by French fans. In Paris they called out to him as Apu (from Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar) and Amal (from Ray’s Charulata) and rushed to get photographed with him. Soumitrada seemed to take it all in his stride and said modestly, ‘It’s because Ray made these characters so memorable that I’m reaping the benefits.’ I was amazed at how lightly he wore his fame. I see the same modesty in Lata Mangeshkar and Steven Spielberg.”
Recalling her own experiences of collaborating with Soumitrada as a co-actor Shabana says, “I had the honour of working with him as his wife in Nicholas Klotz’s film La Nuit Bengali co-starring distinguished British actors Hugh Grant and John Hurt. Much later I played his daughter in Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue. He was charming and great company to be around because he was well-read and could speak on many subjects.”
On this great actor’s birth anniversary, we can only wonder how he managed to be such a natural on camera during an era when every major actor seduced the lenses with aggressive histrionics.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at SubhashK_Jha.
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