For a lot of us, Soumitra Chatterjee is, before anything else, the perfect onscreen Feluda. That was the first film image many of us saw on our TVs when our parents, or uncle, made us watch Sonar Kella (1971), or Joi Baba Felunath (1979), as kids. He was so synonymous with the character that the lines between Feluda in the books and Feluda on film became blurred (and still are). It’s much later that you came to the more serious works like Apur Sansar (1959), or the other Satyajit Ray films and saw that he was also, a sort of, world cinema figure, central to Ray in the way Marcello Mastroianni was to Federico Fellini, Toshiro Mifune to Akira Kurosawa, or Robert De Niro is to Martin Scorsese. His Barunbabur Bondhu–where he plays a writer and a leftist intellectual–is one of the last films I saw on the big screen, before the lockdown started, now as a critic reviewing films. It says something about the vastness of his filmography. It bookends an entire lifetime. It’s the end of many things. He was one of the last remaining cultural icons in Bengal, the link to Ray, Tagore and everything that was so great about its renaissance past.
You can look at it his career in so many ways. You have a whole range of characters just within the 14 films he did with Ray. When you see him as the wide-eyed idealist in Apur Sansar, it’s impossible to think that the same guy could be the sophisticated, urbane Asheem who has a high-ranking job in Calcutta, in Aranyer Din Ratri (1970), or the pragmatic teacher/priest Gangacharan who senses the impending doom of the Bengal famine in Ashani Sanket (1973), or how he plays Feluda, the ultimate Bengali pop-culture hero. At the same time, Chatterjee was also doing these light romantic-comedies, like Basanta Bilap and Baksho Badal, and playing the romantic lead (opposite Tanuja) in Teen Bhubaner Paare. He was a character actor who was a star.
Then there are the three phases: the young, middle-aged and old Soumitra. (He practically grew old in front of the camera). The middle-aged phase is an interesting one–angry, helpless, like the gruff coach fighting against a rigged system in the sports melodrama Kony, or the retired teacher harassed by political hooligans in his neighbourhood, in Tapan Sinha’s Atanka.
It’s important to remember that he was not just a film actor. He was a published poet and edited a little magazine; he had a parallel life in theatre, where he acted in and directed plays. I had the luck of catching one of his Raja Lear shows, at Madhusudan Mancha; it must’ve been more than 10 years ago, but I remember the impact of watching someone like that on stage, in flowing robes and a grand white beard, delivering weighty solo-hero monologues filled with Shakespearian guilt. There are YouTube videos of him reciting poems. All these influences informed his craftsmanship as an actor. The way he would say his lines was one of his strengths. Sometimes he would almost sing them. Take something as small as the moment, when, as a very worried Feluda, he would tell Topshe, “Bhalo lagchhe na re Topshe, bhalo lagchhe na.”. He would take normal, everyday speech and give it a musicality.
Chatterjee never felt the need to move to Bombay, or work in Hindi films, and yet he remains possibly one of the most internationally viewed actors, thanks to his collaborations with Ray. He considered himself lucky to have worked with the best of the best from the Golden Age of Bengali cinema, having been trained at the hands of Ray and Sinha. He has spoken in interviews about being a snob, who used to look down on movies, till Ray’s Pather Panchali came in 1953 and changed the game. “It was like an eagle swooping down and snatching away the audience’s soul,” he says, in Bengali, in a Criterion interview.
Chatterjee was also working at the same time as Uttam Kumar, although the latter was much senior to him. And everyone was an Uttam Kumar fan, including Chatterjee himself. But Uttam Kumar also became the benchmark in the way the Bengali looked at Chatterjee, in that he was the alternate to Uttam’s mainstream, the cerebral actor to his megastar matinee idol. (Tapan Sinha did a casting coup when he got Chatterjee to play the villain, Mayurvahan, opposite Uttam in Jhinder Bondi, his The Prisoner of Zenda-style epic adventure.)
Chatterjee was also perhaps in terms of acting styles on the opposite side of the spectrum. In his essay on Uttam, while writing about the actor’s instinctive nature, Ray put him in contrast to “the other kind…the one that likes to take a part to pieces and probe into the background, motivations, etc in order to ‘get beneath the skin of the character.” He could be talking about Chatterjee, who has spoken about how he took a Stanislavskian approach while working on Apur Sansar. Chatterjee would write about what Apu would do during the time-lapse portions of the film, in the gap between the shots, “imagining Apu would meet friends, go swimming, etc…” He did it on his own, without telling Ray, unsure about how he would react to it—Ray must’ve been intimidating to a 23-year-old making his film debut—but when he showed it to him, he pushed him further in that direction.
Every great actor does his share of trash and Chatterjee was no exception. He had to keep working partly in order to earn his bread and butter (and jam, as he puts it in this interview, after he was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke, in 2012), and partly to keep his sanity.
He had a different kind of motivation while working on his last project. A few years ago, Chatterjee’s grandson, the young actor Ronodeep Bose, had a near fatal accident and has been in a comatose state. The film he was working on would dramatise events and scenes from his life and career. Before he passed away, through the film, Chatterjee wanted to leave behind something that would tell his grandson everything he would want to know about his grandfather. He went out to work even during the pandemic to finish the film, completed the shooting portions, although the dubbing remains unfinished.
Recently, Feluda was in news for something else. A group of Bengali scientists came up with a ICMR approved paper strip test for Covid 19 and named it after Feluda (abbreviation for FNCAS9 Editor Linked Uniform Detection Assay). It’s strange then that the actor who immortalised the character on screen fell to the virus.