The legend Soumitra Chatterjee breathes his last at the age of 85

A cinephile and an alumni from the famed New York Film Academy shares what film lovers across the globe are feeling at the passing away of Soumitro Chatterjee -- experiencing not just the end of an era but a personal loss as well...

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Kolkata: In the late 80s came a Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay novel ‘Nana Ronger Aalo’. Still a school student with a deep desire to make films, the novel caught my attention. It had everything. A young hero, a striking heroine, a vampish sexy ‘boudi’ (sister-in-law), family conflict, suicide attempt, reversals and final victory. And, there was a father, who part narrates the story. For various reasons the novel stayed with me.

The protagonist Jojo had shades of me, a disillusioned Marxist in Calcutta, without a job. The female protagonist a strong character whom I had again tweaked equal to Jojo’s role. In the final draft several other characters were dropped or completely changed. For many years I had been discussing this film and the probable casting with my friends.

At Nandan we went to watch Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ekdin, where he had a small role. His

At Nandan we went to watch Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ekdin, where he had a small role. His first appearance was tentatively walking towards the house. The friend seated next to me whispered, you are damn right in thinking about him. I merely nodded.

Ten years later when I finally started writing ‘Bishanno‘, I had made up my mind whatever happens Soumitra babu will not play the father because by then he had played rich father, poor father, weak father, crying father, even a church father (‘Shyam Saheb’). The decision was simply to give him a challenging role, something he hadn’t done but in a six-decade long career it is difficult to figure out what he hadn’t done.

Now the novel had the character of a hen-pecked neighbour Jhampati babu forever imagining his wife would elope with every other man. Somehow, this character didn’t appeal to me. By the time I completed the script Jhampati babu had turned into a kind of salesman going door to door with agarbattis, homemade cookies and every such product after having lost his job. A struggling man, not a father. Finally I was happy for the then septuagenarian I finally had a dignified character. The cardinal rule for me is to treat the characters with dignity. I knew Bengali films primarily through Satyajit Ray and how could I make my first film without his favourite actor?

For various reasons, the film didn’t happen. Today, Soumitra Chatterjee passed away ending a 41 day battle with Covid and encephalopathy of the nervous system without knowing there was such a character written for him.

Aspiring Bengali filmmakers couldn’t have thought of making Bengali films without him.
He was the institution that took us to the most revered of film persona in Bengal, Satyajit Ray.

In 14 of Ray’s films from the late 50s to late 80s, and in two of his finest films the period drama ‘Charulata’ and the the very contemporary ‘Aranyer Dinratri’ (Days and Nights of the Forest) he played the male lead. There were other films. Ray purists will not agree but I felt he was miscast as Narsingh in ‘Abhijaan’.

Soumitra was essentially the educated, good looking, with an aura of innocence which could be misconstrued as naivete. That person as the angry, rough talking, bearded Hindi speaker… I would say Ray was wrong. That happens to the best.

Ray knew what Soumitra could do and what he couldn’t. He had turned down Soumitra the first time when he came for ‘Aparajito’. But, for ‘Apur Sansar’ he was the only choice. Ray never thought of Soumitra for ‘Nayak’.

In Tapan Sinha’s ‘Jhinder Bandi’ when Uttam Kumar first sees him on horseback, says how beautiful. Indeed Soumitra was beautiful. I haven’t seen any other Bengali male so strikingly goodlooking. Ok, very few.

Uttam Kumar had a charisma that Soumitra was short of. Uttam Kumar had a presence on the screen that was overpowering. Soumitra was possibly inhibited by his striking good looks worried it would overshadow his performance. He was a thinking actor. Somewhere possibly he looked down at the Bengali film situation, which couldn’t offer him roles that would challenge his interpretative skills to present a character.

In an interview he once said Ray had asked whether he was laughing at a particular scene (his back was to the camera) in a Bengali film. Soumitra admitted the truth to his mentor. Ray wasn’t too happy.

The intellectual satisfaction that Bengali cinema in general could not offer, came from theatre, composing poems and editing a magazine. After Ray, if someone in Bengal was carrying his legacy, then it was Soumitra.

One of the biggest controversies involving two of Bengal’s tallest filmmakers, Ray and Mrinal Sen was about ‘Akashkusum’ where Soumitra played the lead. Sen criticised Ray’s ‘Sonar Kella’ for peddling superstition. Again Soumitra was playing the most favoured Bengali fictional detective of my generation Felu da.

Couple of years back, in another interview he spoke about a feud with another great Ritwik Ghatak which could have ended in a full-fledged physical brawl. Then his open endorsement of the mainstream Left led by CPM angered many. But he stayed away from electoral politics. He was political like all artists should be.

He remained where he was unfazed, unapologetic. By then it was I am Soumitra Chatterjee, he had himself turned into an institution. Not that he wasn’t above criticism or everything he did was befitting his stature. Like his endorsing astrological devices. I thought Ray wouldn’t have approved this. But, who am I to judge. He had a family.

I will forever regret not getting to bring Jhampati babu to life on the screen among many other regrets.

Only Sabitri Chatterjee the finest Bengali actress and filmmaker Tarun Majumdar remain. Soon there will be no one left to adulate in Bengal. None to learn from. The Bengali film screen gets a bit more darker.

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