Soumitra Chatterjee, the man who becomes Everyman

Soumitra Chatterjee can effortlessly slip into myriad roles, whether on stage or on screen. | Photo Credit: Shilbhadra Datta
Partha Mukherjee 01 July 2017 16:25 IST
Updated: 04 July 2017 12:28 IST

Actor, poet, painter, Ray’s protégé, the immensely talented Soumitra Chatterjee, who won this year’s Légion d’Honneur

Since June 11, journalists and admirers have been lining up at his residence in Kolkata’s upmarket Golf Green area. The French government’s Légion d’Honneur given this year to Soumitra Chatterjee makes him the second cinema personality from West Bengal to have been selected for the award after Satyajit Ray in 1987.

I decide to meet the actor at his residence on a swelteringly hot afternoon. One of his security staff escorts me to his study. I find myself in a world where everything seems a reflection of Chatterjee’s characteristic simplicity and disregard of trivialities. Piles of books on different subjects, including one on Uttam Kumar—one of his favourite actors—files, easels, rolls of paper still moist from the brush, paintings and photographs speak of a man of varied interests. The framed photograph of a costumed Natyacharya Sisir Bhaduri is a reminder of the bond Chatterjee had shared with the thespian in the early 50s.

As Chatterjee enters the the room in a long white kurta and printed pyjama, I am struck anew by the glow of his personality even though I have known him for more than 40 years. Chatterjee flashes the smile that has launched a thousand films and says, “Let’s begin...”


Insatiably curious. That is what he is. There is nothing under the sun that doesn’t interest Chatterjee. He is not only an actor but also a poet, essayist, elocutionist , social observer and artist-painter, who compulsively doodles between his busy schedules. Poetry is the medium that connects the writer and the actor in him. The portrayal of life on screen and stage, and his analysis of the characters he plays make it apparent that he looks at life as a poet. As an orator, he has flawless diction, which in turn lends gravitas to each word he delivers, and he is able not just to bring characters to life but also to make them relatable.

Nuance over glitter

The nuanced portrayal of human emotions still fascinates him far more than the glitter of stardom, for he always wants to reinvent himself. A jiving young man in a scene from a popular romantic film of the 60s or a confused young man of the 70s, or a tormented idealist—Chatterjee becomes the character he plays with ease. Naseeruddin Shah once said about Chatterjee that it was his ‘lack of acting’ and ‘style-lessness’ that set him apart. Whether on stage or screen, Chatterjee’s understated performances have left many an audience spellbound for more than five decades.

Quite a few factors shaped Chatterjee into the actor he is today. The first of these is time. His childhood years belonged to a phase in history that was not only politically turbulent but also culturally momentous. Poets of the Kallol era had fitted themselves into the intellectual gap left by Rabindranath Tagore’s demise. In their hands, the modern standardised form of the language reached its peak; a new class of Bengali writers and poets like Jibanananda Das, Sukanta Bhattacharya, Bishnu Dey, Premendra Mitra, Buddhadeb Basu came into their own while simultaneously Nazrul Islam became famous as a rebel poet.

Naseeruddin Shah once said about Soumitra that it was his ‘lack of acting’ and ‘style-lessness’ that set him apart

But it was not just poetry that left its mark on Chatterjee. The famine of 1943, the Hindu-Muslim massacre of 1946, and the political chaos of post-Independence period—all these shaped him into the man and actor he would become. His father had courted arrest and taken part in the civil disobedience movement; his grandfather, a believer in radical nationalism, was involved in the Howrah gang case and was jailed during the British regime. “The fire of patriotism has always burnt in our family. Our home has hosted many noted freedom fighters and social reformers like Bagha Jatin (Jatindranath Mukherjee), Annie Besant, Subhas Chandra Bose, Sarojini Naidu, Dr. Rajendraprasad, Kaji Nazrul Islam...,” Chatterjee reminisces.

Born in such a family, where idealism and culture went hand in hand, Chatterjee was steeped in the arts from an early age. Little Pulu (his nickname) would gorge on books, reading Tagore voraciously. His parents would often make the boy sit with a book to stop his pranks. Chatterjee says, “Hours would pass by with me absorbed in the printed words. I would read anything and everything, be it epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata or juvenile fiction, even titles that youngsters my age had never heard of.”

If Ashalata Devi, his mother, kindled an early interest in literature by reading to him, the young lad was also strongly influenced by his father’s fascination with acting and recitation. (His mother had christened him Soumitra after Soumitri Keshori, a mythological hero she had read about in Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Meghnadbadh Kabya.) A desire for acting began to take shape in young Pulu. In many skits, including playful ones on makeshift stages in their ancestral home, or at school in the sleepy hamlet of Krishnanagar in Nadia district of West Bengal, the boy showed a distinct penchant for acting. As a child artiste, Chatterjee would portray characters from popular Tagore plays, such as Mukut or Dakghar, with perfection. “I proved my histrionic talent with The Sleeping Princes, directed by Miss McArthur, the American principal of my school, in what was perhaps my first appearance on stage. In those days, people from the audience would declare medals as a token of appreciation for the performance on stage. Every year I used to get such medals, which naturally encouraged little kids like me.”

Slowly, Soumitra began to bunk classes to watch movies, both Bengali and English, in the local cinema halls of Krishnanagar. In the decade of the 40s, young Soumitra began crisscrossing the then undivided Bengal, following his father, a government servant with a transferable job. Moving from one place to another was an invaluable experience. Short stays in Barasat, Darjeeling and Howrah opened up different facets of life for him. “While in Darjeeling, I saw a Hollywood film which I will never forget—The Yearling (1939), by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I couldn’t sleep for a few nights after watching it. Whether theatre or cinema, my interest was always in acting,” he says. Then came a posting to Howrah and a harsh reality check—the 1946 riots. “It was in Howrah that I experienced the riot—the gory sights, the flag-burning—it left a deep impact on me.”

The massacre he witnessed matured him. In 1951, after he had cleared his matriculation examination from Howrah Zilla School, Soumitra would often spend hours staring at Howrah Bridge. The city sprawled out on the other bank of the Hooghly beckoned to him. “I dreamt of crossing the river and reaching the city of Rabindranath, Vivekananda, Jagadish Chandra Bose. Once I reached there, a new cultural horizon opened up before me,” he says. He got admission in City College on Amherst Street in Kolkata, and settled down permanently in the city. The young man roamed the length and breadth of Kolkata in the company of friends like Gourmohan Mukherjee, Ashoke Palit, Sushanta Banerjee. He later became close to another group comprising writers like Sunil Ganguly, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Amitabha Dasgupta, who would meet at the Coffee House.

It was at this time that he met Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, the doyen of Bengali drama. Bhaduri allowed Soumitra to share the stage with him in Prafulla, which was performed for the Banga Sanskriti Sammelan. The camaraderie between the teacher and his student lasted till Bhaduri passed away in 1959. “My love for acting found shape; at the same time I found an opportunity to use theatre as a tool to express the philosophy of my life. It was a calling from within to be a professional actor. While watching the thespian on stage, the vision of my life fully changed,” Chatterjee says.

After graduating from City College, Soumitra joined Calcutta University as a student of Bengali literature. Here he took part in several acting competitions. He quit before his Masters degree to join All India Radio as a staff artist, chiefly managing announcements.

Shaped by life

As he sipped the best of literature, art and theatre, Chatterjee one day worked his way through a crowd gathered at the Senate Hall of Calcutta University where a reception was being given to Satyajit Ray and his unit after the runaway success of Pather Panchali. Ray’s personality and eloquence floored him. It was inspiration at first sight.

Ray was known to Chatterjee as an illustrator, and he had often stared at Ray’s unique illustrations for Aam Antir Bhenpoo (Mango-seed Whistle) and the cover-jacket designs for poetry anthologies by Bishnu Dey, Jibanananda Das, for Nehru’s Discovery of India, his drawings for ad campaigns like Paludrine, an anti-malaria medicine. He realised that Ray had the gift of sharp observation. Chatterjee’s curiosity was rekindled during an adda at Coffee House on College Street when he came to know that the same artist was about to make a film on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel, Pather Panchali.

When Pather Panchali was released in Calcutta on August 26, 1955, it was beyond anything Chatterjee had expected. Sequences like those of Indir’s death in a bamboo grove, the death of Durga, Apu’s wonderstruck sight of the outside world through a hole in a rag... these scenes impressed him so much that he saw the film countless times. “Pather Panchali changed my approach to cinema,” Chatterjee says.

Then one evening in 1956, Nityananda Dutta, Ray’s assistant director, introduced him to the filmmaker at his residence. Ray was looking for someone to play Apu in Aparajito. Chatterjee was too old for the role, but the bond between master and disciple had been created. Chatterjee’s strikingly handsome appearance, his line delivery, command over language, in addition to his passion for acting, impressed Ray so much that he sent for him in 1958 to play Apu in Apur Sansar, the third movie in the Apu trilogy. Chatterjee effortlessly slipped into the role of the young man in search of his identity, and became Bengal’s most sought-after actor almost overnight.

Ray groomed Chatterjee in many ways and Chatterjee knew it. “Once I forgot to carry the dialogue sheet to the location of Devi. Manik da made me walk back with make-up to the hotel and waited until I returned to the shooting spot armed with those sheets. I might have grumbled at that time, but now I understand that beneath his strict exterior was a man who wanted to discipline me. It was Manik da who lent me his copy of An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavsky. Mere words cannot express how this book helped me hone my skill as an actor,” wrote Soumitra in his memoir, Manikdar Sange (Manik da and I). “I remember moments when he explained several points, like what is cinema acting, how to act, the histrionic ability of Ray Milland, while watching Lost Weekend, a film by Samuel (Billy) Wilder, at Basusree,” Chatterjee says. “While making Charulata, Manik da changed the style of my handwriting to match the style followed in the pre-Tagorean era, when the novel is set. Perhaps that was what grooming is all about.”

Not surprisingly, whenever Ray attempted to make a film on Tagore’s works, be it the romantic Charulata or the politically charged Ghare Baire, he chose Chatterjee in the lead role. Ray started writing detective fiction for young readers and his illustrations of Feluda would bear a striking resemblance to Chatterjee. Some people even described Chatterjee as Ray’s alter ego.

Chatterjee found a mentor in Ray and Ray found a collaborator in Chatterjee. Ray offered him the opportunity to essay a vast array of roles in 14 films and two documentaries. From Amal in Charulata, a replica of Tagore himself, to the adventure-loving young man in Aranyer Dinratri to the smart and characteristically Bangali private investigator, Felu, in Joi Baba Felunath and Sonar Kella to the crafty political ideologist in Ghare Baire to the tenacious swimming coach in Koni, Chatterjee’s repertoire includes an astounding assortment of characters. His performances in Agradanee, Sansar Simante, Ekti Jiban, Dekha, Podokkhep and recently Posto, have been groundbreaking.

Chatterjee shone not just under the light of Ray, but also sparkled under directors such as like Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Mazumder, Ajoy Kar, Raja Mitra, Goutam Ghose, Rituparno Ghosh, Sandip Ray and many filmmakers of the new brigade.

In spite of acting in movies, Chatterjee’s roots in the theatre remained. In 1963, he made his first appearance at Star Theatre in Calcutta as an actor in the commercial production, Tapasi. In 1978, he produced Naam Jiban at Biswarupa Theatre. Its success spurred him to stage more plays. While he gave a fantastic performance in Swapnasandhani’s Tiktiki (1998)—an adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth—other plays like Tritia Anko Atoeb and Atmakatha reaffirmed his status as a stage genius. He has not only adapted and translated plays, often directing them, but has also played central roles. His cherished dream of performing in Shakespeare’s plays was fulfilled when he acted as Raja Lear in the producton directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay.

Chatterjee is also a writer. When young, he would put down his observations, emotions and frustrations in a kheror khata (notebook bound in red cloth). His poems are a treatise on life, just as the characters he has played have at their basis a keen observation of humanity. He has written more than 20 bestsellers, and is the author of a collection of poems (Kabita Samagra), a collection of plays (he has written about 30 plays and staged many of them), and a collection of essays (Probandha Sangraha).

All of Chatterjee’s writings, like his cinema, have one common thread—the observation of life from the closest range.

The author is a freelance writer and filmmaker who made When Memory Comes Alive, a documentary on the experience of working with Satyajit Ray.