It would be a crime to question the versatility of the filmography of Soumitra Chatterjee. He could fit into any role, from the innocent, youthful, loving neighbourhood boy in Teen Bhubaner Pare to the strict coach in Koni. Chatterjee had explored a range of genres and characters and several other forms of art. However, it is sad reality that most of Chatterjee’s work remain popular within the boundaries of Bengal. His association with Satyajit Ray is celebrated in Bengal or, to stretch it, maybe in India.
It is a well known idea that Chatterjee was offered roles in Bollywood, of which worth mentioning is the role of Babumoshai (played by Amitabh Bachchan) in Anand, which he refused. However, it is still sad that apart from the golden age in Bengali cinema, where Chatterjee’s most notable works fall, the actor was hardly explored beyond Bengali cinema. His roles in the later phase of his career remain victim to mediocre or basic story telling (apart from a few notable exceptions, of course). While watching several Indian films or films of other languages, I have often thought how Chatterjee would have been a great fit for quite a few parts. With all due respect to the actors who played these roles, here are 10 roles from Indian and world cinema alike that I feel Soumitra Chatterjee would have been a perfect fit for.
1. The Professor in La Casa De Papel/Money Heist
When the Spanish heist drama became a rage on the internet, several names ranging from Shah Rukh Khan to Ayushmann Khurrana came up as potential actors who could play the role of the Professor in an Indian adaptation of the series. In a utopian cinema-verse, however, I believe Soumitra Chatterjee in his youth would be a perfect fit for the role. Chatterjee’s performances had a touch of sharp intelligence in them, which perhaps urged Ray to choose him to portray the beloved sleuth Feluda on screen. The Professor is calm, an occasional romantic and a man of razor-sharp intelligence. This particular scene from Joy Baba Felunath comes back to me as I think of him in the same shoes: young Ruku, a curious child fond of detective stories very innocently asks Feluda what weapon he carries. Feluda talks of the revolver, after which he says he has another weapon, one which cannot be seen. He points to his brain, which he calls “Mogojastro”. Chatterjee as the Professor, with those spectacles, being the mastermind behind such a crime would have been a wild watch indeed.
2. Kabir Khan in Chak De! India
If you’ve watched Koni, where Chatterjee plays Khitish Singha, a swimming coach, regarded as one of his most iconic performances, you would know what I am talking about. Being a die-hard SRK fan personally, I am of the firm opinion that Khan delivered a brilliant performance. However, it is just to say that such a script, with a layered character written so well, would definitely be Soumitra Chatterjee’s cup of tea and he would fit the part very well. In Koni, Chatterjee’s character was fighting more for Koni than for himself, but with the strong dejection of being thrown out of the swimming club he worked as a coach for. Kabir Khan shares similar emotions but on a much larger ground and a higher scale. A script an actor like Chatterjee deserved.
3. Debraj Sahai in Black
Inspired by Helen Keller’s story, Black depicts the story of Michelle, a deaf-blind girl and her relationship with her teacher, played by Amitabh Bachchan in one of his most notable performances. Sahai was a flawed yet determined teacher, having several layers and quite a few grey shades to his character. Chatterjee’s finesse would definitely be a great suit for the Bhansali film, a dark and serious one. Chatterjee had played the role of a teacher in Atanka, and though that was a film with a completely different outlook, I feel Sahai’s character would have been a good fit for an actor of such brilliance. For Tapan Sinha’s Wheelchair, Chatterjee learnt to use a wheelchair. To change, break and build himself for a part is what he could commit to and continued to do so till the end. Only such an actor could understand the problems of the different, of something not so relatable, and would be able to fit a part with such requirements.
4. John Keating in Dead Poets Society
In Apur Sansar, there is this particular scene where Chatterjee’s Apu, full of life, hope and youthful radiance says “Shey bnachte chaichhe, shey bolchhe bnachar modhyei sarthokota, tar modhyei anando, he wants to live!” (He is trying to live, he feels being able to live is his victory, it is his happiness, he wants to live.) It is a long monologue, and he inspires. The other time I have felt such heartfelt inspiration is undoubtedly through Robin William’s iconic performance in Dead Poets Society. Beyond all the dark and deep roles played by Chatterjee, his innocence, subtlety and charm is what makes him a winner of hearts. A role so charming, inspiring, loving and hopeful would no doubt be one Chatterjee could well fit into. The character is also in a way a symbol of non-conformity, of creativity and the spirit to build a better world. Quite similar to Chatterjee’s Udayan Pandit in Hirak Rajar Deshe, a fighter and a rebel, a symbol of breaking through the chains hoping for a new and better world. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world” – it almost seems like such lines were written for Chatterjee.
5. Akash Malhotra in Dil Chahta Hai
It is probably a personal soft spot for Soumitra Chatterjee’s works such as Aranyer Din Ratri and Basanta Bilap that makes me include a film about three friends in the list. Akash, played by Aamir Khan in Dil Chahta Hai, is a carefree, easy-going and irresponsible youth, a character just like Chatterjee had played in several of his Bengali films. He is flawed and creates trouble for his friends. The film is about the journey of these three friends and their dynamics, along with a lot of romance. Chatterjee would be a perfect fit for the carefree Akash in such a coming-of-age film. Soumitra Chatterjee’s romantic avatar would only compliment such a performance along with some crisp comedy.
6. Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
If there is anything Soumitra Chatterjee nailed on screen, it has to be romance. Teen Bhubaner Pare, Apur Sansar, Kapurush, Samapti, Basanta Bilap, Baksha Badal… all of these films had some romance in them, even if romance was not the main theme in some of them. When you think romance in terms of world cinema, two very significant films come to mind, Notting Hill and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Joel Barish’s character in ESSM is that of a quiet, reserved introvert who falls in love with Kate Winslet’s Clementine. Jim Carrey was charming and breezy as Joel in the film. Chatterjee as a romantic has been my personal favourite to watch. Hence, in a film with so many different themes and viewpoints, exploring human psychology, memories, nature and love, Soumitra Chatterjee would have been a perfect fit with his romantic gazes, subtle smiles and eye-locks.
7. Bhuvan in Lagaan
When I first watched Lagaan, Bhuvan, played by Aamir Khan, reminded me strongly of Soumitra Chatterjee. I cannot pinpoint one particular performance of his, though. It bears some resemblance to the anti-government ambitions of Udayan Pandit, but not too much to be used in comparison. However, if such a film was ever to be made in Bengali, I could think of no-one but a young Soumitra Chatterjee essaying Bhuvan’s role. The rebellious nature of Bhuvan, his determination and his confidence need an actor of Chatterjee’s stature, which is rare to see in today’s Bengal. I can visually picturize the young, ravishingly handsome Soumitra Chatterjee with a turban-like white scarf tied across his forehead, looking eye to eye to the British with courage and challenging them to fight him. It would be perfection.
8. Aakash Saraf in Andhadhun
In Sriram Raghavan’s 2018 film Andhadhun, Ayushmann Khuranna delivered arguably his career’s best performance as a blind pianist. The piano has a long association with Chatterjee via one of the most iconic scenes in his career, the one in Ray’s Charulata where he plays the piano and sings along while bantering with his sister-in-law. Charulata and Andhadhun have almost no similarity in terms of genre or character or theme. But how finely Chatterjee mastered playing the piano simply for that one film and one scene! Ayushmann’s role in Andhadhun is fun, sharp, clever and strong. It is written and characterised in a very interesting way, being a character with twists and turns. A young, stylish Soumitra would be able to fit the requirements of such a unique role very well.
9. Sarkar in the Sarkar series
It is sad that nobody cast Soumitra Chatterjee in a role such as that of Sarkar, a political figure set in political crime drama series. It was a struggle to choose between the Gangs of Wasseypur series and the Sarkar series, but since Bachchan’s role as Sarkar is one of his later phase, Chatterjee in his later avatar also seemed a good match for the role. It would have been quite a different and interesting take to imagine Chatterjee in the role of Sarkar. But knowing his talent, it is not difficult to imagine how well he would have performed in such a script with a completely different setting than his usual celebrated work.
10. Sanjay in Rajnigandha
Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha belongs to the middle cinema movement, which was the celebration of the common middle-class lifestyle of the urban middle-class people. The film was remade in Bengali, but much later. When Rajnigandha was released, Chatterjee was at the peak of his career, starring in films such as Sonar Kella and Hirak Rajar Deshe. It would have been a fantastic idea to cast him as Amol Palekar’s Sanjay. Chatterjee had played the role of a common man in several Bengali films, being the perfect neighbourhood lad. He would be a great match for that kind of easy-going, good-at-heart but flawed character. In fact, Chatterjee would be a phenomenon in the genre of middle cinema of the 70s, had he entered Bollywood, judging from the kind of work he excelled in.
Badal Gupta in Badla: A dark character but one with a motive. A lawyer with a cause, a role in which it would be interesting to watch Chatterjee. Badal Gupta is a strong, sharp and intelligently written character. Chatterjee could have been a great choice for the role.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.