Soumitra Chatterjee’s debut in Satyajit Ray’s Apur sansar as the eponymous, gentle hero won him international fame. The decades-long Ray-Chatterjee collaboration, in fact, ranks right up there with the best-known actor- director duos: Akira kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart, Werner Herzog and Klaus kinski. In the superstar Uttam Kumar era, Chatterjee carved a comfortable niche for himself, a natural favourite of the student intellectuals and the bhadralok. Over time, he emerged as a giant of Indian cinema. Unusually, for a star of his stature, Chatterjee’s vibrant cultural engagement extended beyond the movies, most notably in the theatre, where he wrote and acted in his own plays, and to great critical acclaim. He has also made a fair name for himself as a poet, author, literary editor and painter.
Beyond Apu studies an extraordinary cinematic life through twenty of his most iconic characters, chosen by the actor himself. Within these pages, you will encounter the rakish villain in Jhinder Bandi, the charming roadside Romeo in Teen Bhuvaner Paare, the two-bit thief in Sansar simante, the inspirational coach in kony, the paraplegic neurologist in wheel Chair and others-each character infused with the life that Chatterjee breathed into it. Packed with anecdotes and insights into the actor’s mind and method-how he learnt a new style of writing for Charulata, or how he studied the gait and mannerisms of Brahmins in Bengal villages for his role in Ashani Sanke-this is a reader on the master at work.
Including insightful essays on his theatre and other artistic achievements, this first-ever English-language book on Soumitra Chatterjee not only introduces the reader to an icon of Indian cinema but also offers a unique insight into the mind of a genius.
Amitava Nag is independent film critic and writes extensively on cinema for Outlook, CNN IBNLive, The Statesman, Deep Focus and Dear Cinema, to name some. He has authored a book on Indian cinema, Reading the SiIhouette: Collection of Writings on Selected Indian Films, and edits the film magazine Silhouette (http://siljhouette-magazine.com/). Amitava also writes poems and short fiction, and has two collections of short stories to his credit: Radha (in English) and Atma Abamanana Bishayak Ek-Dui Katha (in Bengali).
‘I have always been in doubt my work. I always thought that the entertainment business was not worthwhile but time and again for more than fifty years I have been accepted, loved and made to feel as one of their own by my countrymen. I love them [viewers] and that is the reason I am doing cinema. I salute them as they have supplied me with energy and dedication of what I think is a good art’.
-Soumitra Chatterjee, Dadasaheb Phalke Award acceptance speech
The have Indian film industry is the biggest in the world. Just the sheer volume of films being churned out annually goes to prove that. India is also a vast country of many languages and sub-cultures where films that reflect this cultural diversity do get made and released. Therefore, though there has been a constant attempt to label Bollywood as ‘Indian cinema’, Indian cinema goes beyond Bollywood to include a wide variety of films.
Bengal was one of the early centres of cinema in India and many of the film-makers who moved to Bombay were influenced by the early studios of Bengal. However, ‘Indian cinema’ as whole came into the limelight only in 1956 with Satyajit Ray and his epic Pather Panchali, though films like Neecha Nagar and Do Bigha Zameen had won international accolades earlier. Ray went on to become an international celebrity and he in turn inspired many other followers of his craft. Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha and a few other contemporaries made different genres of films, which them began to represent Indian cinema to the world. In the 1970s, film makers like Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishan and Buddhadeb Dasgupta gained wide national and international fame.
One of the actors seen most often in the critically acclaimed films of Bengal in the 1960s and ‘70s was Soumitra Chatterjee.
Soumitra debuted in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar, the third film of the Apu Trilogy, and went on to become, arguably, India’s greatest actors, although being a Bengali, and therefore never attempting to breach Bollywood, meant that Soumitra’s name was known only within festival circuits or perhaps to those who were interested in critically acclaimed films no matter what the language. It is a moot point that a substantial number of non-Bengali would have known of Soumitra from watching Ray’s films. According to celebrated international film scholar and critic Pauline Kael, Soumitra Chattrjee was Ray’s ‘one-man stock company’. Ray and the actor collaborated in fourteen films with a wide range of subjects. Other than Ray, Soumitra became the first choice for most eminent Bengali directors including Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Goutam Ghosh, Rituparno Ghosh and more recently, Apparna Sen.
Awards of India until as late as Podokkhep (2006). Soumitra has never concealed his distaste for awards conferred by the government, and had turned down the Padma Shri a couple of times. He has however been conferred with two international awards: the Officier des Arts et Metiers, one of the highest award for the arts, given by the French government, and the Lifetime Award at the Naples Film Festival, Italy, in 1999. It may be that his connection with the Left Government of West Bengal went against him the National Awards. However, in 2012 he was awarded the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award (for 2011), the highest award in Indian cinema. In a personal conversation, he told me, ‘I do not have much faith in the awards and the way they are given. Nor do I have much faith in the juries most of the time. Nor do I need an award at this stage of life. However, I did accept this award since I found it more or less free from the taint of politics and nepotism associated with all the other awards. If you see the other recipients of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, you will find that barring one or two, everyone else is very deserves’.
What make Soumitra Chatterjee special? He is a cinema actor of the highest calibre who also went on to become a star. He has had a film career spanning over five decades. And even today he continues to be the first choice of most film-makers when they are looking for special histrionic abilities. Two important aspects are worth mentioning about his cinematic career. One, the professional rivalry between him and Uttam Kumar, and two, the shift in his choice of films across the decades.
When Soumitra started his career in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Uttam Kumar was an established star, bigger than all his contemporaries. The gorgeous Suchitra Sen was a perfect foil for Uttam’s eloquent and romantic personality. Meanwhile, Satyajit Ray was reeling out masterpiece after masterpiece, and for the first time, the audience had a glimpse of realism in Indian films. Uttam Kumar was Kumar was quick to this trend, even if his chance to act in a Ray film came much later, in Nayak (1966).
By the mid-1960s, Soumitra became the thinking man’s hero. He is an intellectual and a poet in real life. Even at the height of his stardom, he never confined himself to acting, but ventured into other streams of art like literature and painting. His association with the literary circles of Calcutta and with the legendary actor Sisir Bhaduri made him a natural favourite of students who frequented the iconic Coffee House College Street, as well as the Bengali ‘bhadralok’, the middle class. They modelled themselves on him rather than on the more popular Uttam Kumar.
Uttam and Soumitra did a number of films together, including Jhinder Bandi (1961), Stree (1972), Aparichita (1969) and Devdas (1979). In Jhinder Bandi, Soumitra plays the sophisticated villain Mayurbahan and enjoys equal importance and screen time with Uttam Kumar. In all the other films except Devdas, Soumitra played second fiddle. Uttam played the confident male, going out and winning the girl and the fight, while Soumitra garnered popularity as the defeated other. It is this image that gave him his identity and which he developed with great sensitivity and understanding.
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