Soumitra Chatterjee would always say that people know him as a cinema star, but he isn't talked about as a theatre personality so much. Most of the obits describe him as a great cinema actor, and not the theatre personality and film personality together—which is not surprising considering the kind of attention theatre has got in the media compared to cinema. But Soumitra da's contribution to theatre was immense. He was doing theatre at the height of his stardom, when he was working with Satyajit Ray and in other big commercial films. He single-handedly resurrected the commercial theatre of North Calcutta, which had become very amateurish in the late 70s-80s—bad stage design, bad acting, disorganised.
It was some kind of a star-show, where film stars would wear costumes, come on stage and say the dialogue. Soumitra da worked as a true stage director. Like an orchestra conductor, he brought all the elements of theatre in unison—scenography, lighting design, costumes, acting style, choreography. He brought a sense of 'total theatre' to the commercial stage. At the beginning, he wasn't part of the so-called 'group theatre', or the experimental and alternative theatre of Calcutta. But, through his innovative theatre work, he attracted the 'snooty and intellectual' theatre audience, confined to the domain of the Rabindra Sadan and Academy centric intellectual theatre ghetto, to the 'Haatibagan theatre para' in the North (in the way Usha Ganguly and Shyamalan Jalan did with Hindi theatre in the city).
With his artistry, Soumitra da brought back quality and respectability to commercial theatre of Calcutta, which the audience had given up on and used to perceive as C-grade comedies or some kind of a sentimental saccharine thing. It's another thing that this mainstream theatre has been completely gone now, as opposed to the Marathi and Gujarati theatre professional stage.
He brought a modern style of acting, along with people like Utpal Dutt, Shambhu Mitra and Ajitesh Banerjee. They were aware of the different theatre movements across the world. Soumitra da was reading European and American plays, and other contemporary language plays from India. He did Mahesh Elkunchwar's Atmakatha on the Bengali stage.
He had this great calibre of adapting plays and Indianising the text. When he did Bidehi, which was based on Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts (set in Norway), or Phera, adapted from Friedrich Durenmatt's The Visit (set in a Swiss town), or Raajkumar, based on Clifford Odets' The Big Knife (set in Beverly Hills, California), it looked like a play written in our country. And that's because he knew his people and society.
My first meeting with him was in a green room when I was a teenager. I had gone to see Naam Jibon—adapted from Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by the Trinidad and Tobago actor and playwright Errol John—with my father, Arun Mukhopadhyay, an eminent theatre personality himself. After the play baba said, 'Let's go and meet Soumitra-babu.' I was a big fan. He was such a star for me. I love his voice, cadence and personality. And there he was, sitting in the greenroom, bare-bodied, wearing a lungi. He was eating some kind of a steamed soup. It was the first time I saw Soumitra Chatterjee not as a hero on stage and in the cinema and it was disappointing, because he seemed like a down-to-earth person, though immensely handsome and awe-inspiring.
I remember the first performance…The make-up is done. He is wearing his golden crown, and sitting in the dark…and he says, 'Suman, Parbo toh?' (Can I do it?)
In the later years, I would meet him in seminars and events, and shared a professional relationship with him. When a theatre group commemorated his 70th birthday, I remember asking him: How would you define your acting style – 'Method' or 'Brechtian'? He replied: 'Cocktail of both'. We developed a personal friendship after Raja Lear. Minerva theatre—which is one of the professional repertory companies in Kolkata with in-house actors—had reached out to him to do a play for them. He told them that he would be interested in doing King Lear, but he would like me to direct it. So he actually chose the director. When Minerva called me up, I said it'll be a great honour for me.
I remember the first performance. We had rehearsed for 3 months from 10 am to 6 pm almost every day. The make-up is done. He is wearing his golden crown, and sitting—he would always arrive 3 hours early, and before 15 minutes of the show, would go to the backstage and sit in the dark—and I went and held his hands, 'All the best, Soumitra da.' And he says that, 'Suman, parbo toh? Hobe toh? (Can I do it, will it be okay?). I still get goosebumps thinking about that because here is an artist who has given house-full performances. He has gone international and has won accolades after accolades, and even after all that he has this sense of uncertainty. This creative vulnerability is what makes a true artist, shedding all vanity.
I never saw him being complacent. He was minutely involved in every step of the process. He used to draw sketches of Lear, work on how he should look. He would write poetry ruminating on the character.
Initially, I was hesitant to call him for the post-rehearsal meetings (where I gave notes to the acting team on where they need to improve). What if he was offended? I told him, 'Soumitra da, you don't have to come for these meetings, I will give you separate notes'. But he wanted to be there. When he'd make mistakes I'd tell him that This is not the way you should do it, this is how I am thinking and he would sit there with young people on the stage and take notes.
We would go every day to the rehearsals together. Minerva is a governmental agency, and they provided us with a white, non-AC ambassador. The car would go to pick him up from his place in Golf Green and then pick me up from Beck Bagan. As soon as the car would reach Minto Park, he would call me, 'Suman, I am here, come down'. Since we would travel during office hours, it would take us one-and-a-half hours to travel from Central Kolkata to Minerva, which is in North Kolkata. It would take us another hour-and-a-half in the evening on our way back from the rehearsals. Those three hours are a treasure for me. His memory was so sharp and he would tell me these personal stories from cinema and theatre, about his guru Shishir Bhaduri, his experiences with Ray, his experiences with Ritwik Ghatak (who he once got into a physical fight with), Uttam Kumar, and other co-actors.
Sometimes we would drink together—he had quit smoking by then, after his heart attack—and I asked him once if he doesn't feel the urge to smoke while drinking. He said he never did that. 'Two good things can't be done together'.
I think he was hankering to do Shakespeare for a long time. He could have been a great Hamlet in his youth but that didn't happen, but I think he was mentally prepared for Lear; he identified with the character. This was never spelt out, and these are subliminal things for an actor, but he was great as Lear.
I think there were some 50 shows of Lear and he grew with every performance. There was a gap, because it started in the CPI(M) era and then the Mamata Banerjee government came to power, so it stopped in between and was revived. It became so popular that we would be sold-out in no time. We had to take it out of Minerva, because it had a small capacity of 350-400, to bigger auditoriums like Rabindra Sadan, Girish Mancha and Madhusudan Mancha. Lear got a kind of iconic status as a production. I think we set a record for the ticket pricing in Bengal, which was Rs 500 in 2010-2011. We performed at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav in Delhi, and a lot of people had to go back because they didn't get seats. We were invited by a Bengali club in Bombay.
Sometimes he would muddle some lines on stage but his control and grasp over the language was so deep that he would make up his own while retaining the flavour of the Shakesperean verse—which was so flamboyant, so classical, and he would do that with ease. After Lear I wanted to do Brecht's Galileo with him. He almost agreed and finally we couldn't stage it, but I remember him asking me, 'Do you think I can do it? So much dialogue'. He had a problem memorising lines in the fag end of his career. His main concern was not physicality, but that he may forget his lines on stage.
Lear had a multi-layered stage and he had to climb up climb down, move around, run, when the king turned mad. There was a scene in Lear when he is angry. The second daughter has thrown him out of the house and he would trip on the stage out of giddiness and frustration. He would do that with such authentic physicality that every time that scene would play out, the audience would gasp together—imagine a thousand people gasping together. And I think he enjoyed that moment. With every performance, he would make it look a little more precarious. He would say, 'Isn't it fun? People are huffing like I am going to die right now.'
We used to start at 6 pm—which is quite early for Bengalis to come and watch theatre—and end at 9 pm. After the show, we would do a post-performance kind of a thing, where we would introduce each other. That took 10-15 minutes, and nobody in the audience walked out. We got a standing ovation after every performance. I have been born and brought up in a theatre family. I have seen performances of Shambhu Mitra and Utpal Dutt when they were doing their best stuff, and I felt that spirit of response from the applause.
As told to Sankhayan Ghosh