Soumitra Chatterjee passes away: Redoutable thespian's stage career underscored why he was true renaissance man
Mr Chatterjee’s meditation on his own mortality unsettled audiences, but he assuaged them, “Death is inevitable, but we need to know that it is possible to at least enjoy life while we have it.”
The passing of Soumitra Chatterjee, actor par excellence, has dimmed the lights on a distinguished career that magnificently played itself out not just on screen, but also on the stage.
In Bengali theatre, Mr Chatterjee was a multi-faceted persona who brought his unique sensibilities and sensitivity as an artist to the fields of writing, directing and acting, carving out an imprint that was truly his own. It was a long association that began when Mr Chatterjee was but a child: “I started acting in plays when I was about seven or eight years old, when we lived in Krishnanagar. Theatre was certainly my first love,” he said in Amitava Nag’s book, Beyond Apu - Twenty Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee, in which an entire chapter is dedicated to his work on stage. In another interview, Mr Chatterjee remembered portraying characters from Rabindranath Tagore plays like Mukut or Dakghar, and performing playful skits on makeshift stages at his ancestral home.
When his family shifted to Howrah, the allure of the professional stage became much more pronounced in Kolkata’s burgeoning post-Independence arts scene, as he found a place in the city’s frenetic literary circles and its haunts, like College Street’s Coffee House. Circa 1953, in what was his first significant acting assignment, he played social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy in the eponymous play by Narayan Gangopadhyay, and followed that outing with Mukhosh, an adaptation of W W Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, which won him the Best Actor award at a collegiate festival. Around that time Mr Chatterjee became associated with the legendary theatre actor Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, who he counts as one of the most important formative influences of his life. He had watched many of Mr Bhaduri’s stage tour-de-forces including his last hurrah on the professional stage — a performance of Girish Chandra Ghosh’s Prafulla that marked the closure of his group, Srirangam, in 1956.
In Mr Nag’s book, Mr Chatterjee said, “I started going to him in the last three years of his life. His theatre had closed when I met him, so I didn’t get a chance to learn from him directly. Whatever I inherited was by watching him act, and then through our discussions.” He lists Mr Bhaduri’s title performance in Chandragupta as the best stage performance he had ever seen. They did share the stage once — when Prafulla was revived for a special show at the Banga Sanskriti Mancha in 1957. Mr Bhaduri passed away in 1959. That was the same year long-time collaborator Satyajit Ray, which whom Mr Chatterjee shares an internationally renowned hyphenated connection, launched him on to the collective consciousness of the nation with the seminal rites-of-passage film Apur Sansar.
The decades in which Mr Chatterjee’s star shone brightest on celluloid as Mr Ray’s muse, saw only sporadic outings on stage, as he worked with several stage directors on plays solely produced as charity events for the Abhinetri Sangha. In 1972-73, he directed and acted in his own adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts as Bidehi, and Clifford Odet’s The Big Knife as Rajkumar. It was in 1978 that Mr Chatterjee formally joined the professional stage with Namjiban, a commercial production adapted from Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, that demonstrated tremendous legs at the turnstiles. Mr Ray’s influence was self-evident. “I must confess that Bansi Chandragupta's artwork in Ray’s films, his painstaking eye for detail was my source of inspiration. What I imbibed by watching Ray work was to have mastery over all aspects of theatre, and that helped me communicate my overall vision as a director,” he said, in Beyond Apu. In 1983, he revived Rajkumar for the commercial stage, but it did not fare as well at the box-office. Other plays with enduring name recall include Neelkantha and Tiktiki, the latter based on Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, in which Mr Chatterjee delivered a well-regarded performance as detective Satyasindhu Choudhury.
At the Kolkata Literary Meet held at the Victoria Memorial in 2017, Mr Chatterjee and director Suman Mukhopadhyay discussed how William Shakespeare’s plays had been transcreated on the Kolkata stage — a legacy of more than two centuries (the earliest recorded performance being that of Othello at the Calcutta Theatre in the Christmas season of 1780). One of Mr Chatterjee’s unrealised ambitions had been to enact Hamlet, the tragic Prince of Denmark. “No other play brings the agony of the age so vividly alive,” he said. He had at his disposal Jyoti Sen’s impressive translation, but as he explained, performing Hamlet wasn’t simply about expounding on a single character’s perspective, it called for an entire team of collaborators to come together, which proved elusive at the time. Similarly, other attempts to mount plays like Macbeth were stillborn. These losses were as much those of his audiences. The sheer longevity of his career in the performing arts (more than six decades) allowed Mr Chatterjee to observe the slow ebbing of the bard’s influence on Indian theatre, as well as the shift from classical traditions to modern expression, and the smaller cultural niche that theatre from the grand old days was to occupy.
When he finally straddled the stage as the decrepit but gallant King Lear in Raja Lear, Mr Mukhopadhyay’s production of Sunil Chattopadhay’s adaptation, he was just a few years shy of the monarch’s self-described age, “fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less,” and Shakespeare had long stopped being the spine of the theatre world. Influenced in its conciseness by Grigori Kozintsev’s 1971 Soviet film adaptation, Raja Lear debuted in November 2010 at Kolkata’s Minerva Theatre and quickly became one of contemporary Bengali theatre’s most commercially successful plays, substantially buoyed no doubt by its venerated star’s marquee appeal as a film actor. Mr Chatterjee’s performance was likened to that of stalwarts like Shombhu Mitra in Raktakarabi or Utpal Dutt in Tiner Tolowar by filmmaker Suman Ghosh. Mr Mukhopadhyay said of Mr Chatterjee’s preparations, “He would paint, compose poetry, write his own dialogues. Even when he forgot lines on stage, he would never falter. Such is his grasp of Bengali that he could carry on without the audience making out.” Mr Chatterjee has spoken of how he wrote down the entire play a few times, as he does with all his plays, so that he didn’t forget the dialogues.
Unlike its character’s lot, Raja Lear was no swan song for Mr Chatterjee. A national treasure in his 70s, Mr Chatterjee’s prolific career in cinema continued unabated as a dependable character actor, but it was on the ephemeral but immediate stage that characters of the fully-fledged dimensionality worthy of his stature came his way with greater regularity. Plays from this phase included his own Bengali adaptation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Atmakatha, in which he played an ageing novelist dictating his life story to a young researcher. “All the characters in the play have a different perspective on truth and the result is great drama,” he said, as the play run to full houses in 2008 at Kalighat’s Tapan Theatre, an outfit that co-produced the play with the Mukhomukhi group, with whom Mr Chatterjee had first worked on Prantapasya (1998), a play that marked a radical shift for him. He directed himself as an author whose wife has slipped into a coma and who tries desperately to save her life. In Beyond Apu, he says, “[It] was my first step towards acting in modern plays [as opposed to] the classical traditional theatre. I feel I have matured as an actor in this play.” He had thus embraced on stage the understated ‘styleless-ness’ (as his acting was once described by Naseeruddin Shah) cinema audiences had long known him for, a move to realism precipitated in part by Kolkata theatre’s gradual shift from hoary prosceniums to smaller intimate venues with sound acoustics.
Notwithstanding its fictional premise, Atmakatha was one among several plays with a markedly retrospective outlook. In the autobiographical Tritiya Onko Otoeb, all three characters play Mr Chatterjee himself. As Shoma A Chatterji writes, “The events that shaped him as an actor are mapped — the arrival of Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj at Barasat, the Bengal Famine, the Great Calcutta killing and finally, his encounter with Natsamrat Sisir Kumar Bhaduri.” On Mr Chatterjee’s 77th birthday in 2012, the play was staged at Kolkata’s Academy of Fine Arts, and ended with his touching rendition of Rabindranath Tagore’s Prothom Diner Surjo. In Mr Nag’s book, Mr Chatterjee said, “I have said no to writing an autobiography [but in this play] I could talk about myself, and [how I’ve engaged] with life after my cancer was detected.”
Mr Chatterjee’s meditation on his own mortality unsettled audiences, but he assuaged them, “Death is inevitable, but we need to know that it is possible to at least enjoy life while we have it.” That bout of cancer was one that the redoutable thespian spectacularly survived, before this blighted year finally brought the curtains down on the glorious innings of a true renaissance man.