Soumitra Chatterjee’s Tryst With Death  

In an excerpt from his book on the legendary actor, filmmaker Suman Ghosh recalls a film that was never made.  
Soumitra Chatterjee’s Tryst With Death  

In the last years of his life, legendary actor Soumitra Chatterjee formed a kind of friendship with filmmaker Suman Ghosh – part hero, part father-figure, and part intellectual companion. Now with more than a year after his passing, Ghosh has chronicled his experiences into a book, titled "Soumitra Chatterjee: A Filmmaker Remembers". The book, published by Om Books International, is a recollection of their interactions and exchanges, much of which took place over glasses of scotch at the Calcutta club and adda sessions at his Lake Gardens residence.

Drawing upon anecdotes from Ghosh's film shoots with the actor, it's also a glimpse into Chatterjee's creative process, his technical mastery of the medium, his attention to detail, and his sensitivity towards his co-actors. Ghosh comments at the very outset how it took him a while to process that he was indeed working with, and getting close to, a figure of the stature of Chatterjee, who has a special place in the Bengali consciousness ever since he made his film debut in Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar (1959); when he wrote the book after Chatterjee's death, it felt like a "catharsis".

Ghosh and Chatterjee did a number of films together (Podokkhep, Nobel Chor, Peace Haven), but their most bizarre, and ambitious, project was the one that never got made – one that blurs the lines between reel and real, life and death, while pivoting on the actor-filmmaker dynamic. Ghosh talks about it in the following excerpt.   

Read on: 

It was probably around twelve years back. I do not remember the exact year. There was a small report in the Anandabazar Patrika that Soumitra Chatterjee had been admitted to the hospital for some heart issues, that he was well now and was supposed to be discharged the next day. I had read the article while in Miami and was relieved that it was only a minor health scare. Since I would be travelling to Kolkata next month, I did not feel it was necessary to call him.

The following month when I went to Kolkata and met him at his residence, I casually asked him about the incident. What I heard from him was rather shocking.

"Oh," he said, "I was almost going to die. You won't believe what happened."

His response piqued my curiosity.

He narrated the incident to me. He was alone in the house. Kolkata had witnessed torrential rain earlier that evening. Suddenly he experienced pain in the chest. He did not take it seriously but it kept getting worse. He realized that he was having a heart attack. All the usual signs were there. He started looking for Sorbitrate. In that state he climbed to his bedroom on the second floor. However, the medicine was not there in its usual place. By then he had called the hospital and asked for an ambulance. It was on its way but stuck in the waterlogged streets because of the rain. He kept on calling but there was little they could do at that point. Then he started looking for Sorbitrate everywhere. The situation was quite grave. Losing all hope and having severe breathing problems and chest pain he somehow decided to check the kitchen. Never in his wildest imagination would he have searched the kitchen for Sorbitrate, but it was perhaps his last desperate attempt. To his utmost surprise he saw the bottle lying there. Next to the gas oven. He immediately took the medicine and after a while his condition improved.

The ambulance arrived after almost an hour. He was taken to the nursing home and was kept under observation. The next day all the newspapers carried this news, albeit in a small column. The world did not know what had actually happened.

He laughed at the prospect of how Sorbitrate in the kitchen saved his life. Honestly, I was a bit shaken. The outside world had no idea that it had literally been touch and go for him – and that he owed his life to the fortunate discovery of 'Sorbitrate in the kitchen'.

I asked him, "What did you think of during that period? When you were almost sure that this is indeed the end?"

He replied, laughing, "Nothing but the Sorbitrate really. I remember thinking about your Kakima, Mithil and Bubu … that they would not know what exactly happened."

After that we had our usual adda and I came back.

Ever since, I kept pondering about the many discussions Soumitra-kaku and I had about 'death'. He used to tell me often that he could now see 'death' approaching. This was primarily after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010. His only wish was that it should come quickly, whenever it had to. He shuddered to think of himself as a burden to his family, suffering a slow and agonizing end. We would also talk about 'death' in literature and how authors have written about this phenomena – from Tagore to Tolstoy to Simone De Beauvoir. I always felt that Soumitra-kaku was quite cavalier about death. It was the ultimate truth and one should gracefully accept it – that was his viewpoint. It is interesting that later, in my film Peace Haven, I explored 'death' head-on, with Soumitrakaku performing one of his most poignant acts on facing death.

Suman Ghosh and Soumitra Chatterjee first worked together in Podokkhep (2006)
Suman Ghosh and Soumitra Chatterjee first worked together in Podokkhep (2006)

After I returned from India, the incident kept haunting me. Such an icon, such a career, such a life and it was almost all over in a second – but for him chancing upon Sorbitrate in the most unusual of places. That led me to the question: "What if?" What exactly would have gone through his mind in those moments? In cinematic flashes maybe? His childhood in Krishnanagar, his theatre days, coming to Kolkata, Satyajit Ray, his family … what exactly would he have felt just before the final adieu to life? That chain of thought led me to wonder whether he could act out his death.

In his seminal work, An Actor Prepares, Constantin Stanislavsky had dwelled on questions of truth in acting. Wasn't this the ultimate truth? Thinking along these lines led me to an experimental cinematic idea. What if he had not found the Sorbitrate? What would it be like to have him act out his 'death' and I shoot his 'acting' of death? Whatever he thought in cinematic flashes I could shoot later, whether it was his family, or Krishnanagar, or whatever. Those montages would be interspersed with his acting of death and succumbing to the heart attack. So, basically, we would re-enact that entire evening, with the only difference being that he would die.

We can imagine the impact of the death of an icon and the subsequent drama surrounding his death. News channels competing to make the best capsule of his life, newspapers rushing to get obituaries from people close to him. BBC and New York Times coming out with obituaries. The world of cinema paying its respects to one of its finest ever. I would try to stage all this, as much as possible. I would shoot that and keep it for later use.

What came to my mind next was a bit controversial and rather morbid. What if we shoot his actual death? It wouldn't be possible if he passed away suddenly. In that case, we would have to shoot after his death. But if he was in the hospital, breathing his last, I could shoot him. Of course, I would need permission from his family. The real-life incidents that would happen after his demise would be shot as documentary footage. The final film would be an edited rendering of the two versions – Soumitra-kaku 'acting' his death and his actual dying. Wouldn't it be the greatest 'act' of an actor? How much closer to truth could one get? He would not even be alive to see whether his act was good or not. Is that even important? So many questions could be explored through this experiment.

I shared the idea with some close friends and family. The reactions were quite diverse. Only a few appreciated the bizarre experiment, but the majority was uncomfortable to the point of getting angry with me. "How can you think of exploiting the death of such an icon?" "How can you be so cruel to even think of such an idea?" Not that I did not expect such extreme reactions. That in turn left me wondering – were they right about that? Was I thinking of exploiting the death of my beloved Soumitra-kaku? Many such confusing questions hovered in my mind. Even if I knew that my intention was novel and purely artistic, would the world believe it? I grappled with such issues.

After a few years, I decided to tell Soumitra-kaku about my idea and the ethical concerns I was having. After all he was my closest friend, my philosopher and guide in life. Who else could I go to? Though this very sensitive issue concerned him, he was the only person who could analyse the situation with objectivity. With a lot of apprehension, I decided to broach the topic with him. I told him that I was going to say something to him which might have a permanent repercussion on our friendship. I could sense his curiosity. I told him about my idea and what made me think about it. The title of the film, if he agreed, would be An Actor Prepares. A take on perhaps the greatest book on acting written by Stanislavski.

I waited with bated breath. After patiently hearing what I had in mind, his first reaction was, "What a brilliant idea!"

Ever since we often talked about this bizarre project of ours. I got busy with my other films and so did he. But this was a secret project we very much wanted to do. Somehow it did not materialize.

During his last days in hospital, I was in constant touch with his daughter Poulomi. She sent me a photo of Kaku lying senseless. He seemed to be in a different world altogether. I wish he was acting, and I could tell him after the shot, "Brilliant, Kaku." He would turn back and ask, "Theek chhilo?" (Was it fine?)

Would it be too sentimental to admit that I have tears in my eyes even while writing this? Soumitra-kaku was life personified. That is how I will remember him – forever.

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