It takes some gumption for a non-Bengali to write an article on Soumitra Chatterjee, but I am sticking my neck out here only because I am an honorary Bengali, having lived in Calcutta for the first 20 years of my life.
So here I am, sitting in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, some 2000-odd kilometres away from Kolkata, watching a WhatsApp forward of Soumitra’s last journey from Rabindra Sadan, where his body was kept, to the Keorotala crematorium. My friend Chaitali filmed it as the procession passed by her home. She told me her mother, 84-year-old Bani Ghosh, is inconsolable. Her uncle taught art to the actor, she tells me.
There is an outpouring of Bangla grief and my childhood friends are heartbroken. There are hundreds of posts on favourite songs, scenes from films, photographs of the actor, etc. And then, memories of personal encounters with the man himself. I get Soumitra’s reading of a verse, which he perhaps wrote himself, where he invites death for a game of teen patti!
But before the Bengali inputs, I must start with my non-Bengali, nearly-90-year-old aunt Malathi Narayan, who now lives in Bengaluru, but lived for nearly 30 years in West Bengal, including in Calcutta. She and my uncle were Bengali movie- and theatre-buffs. One of their windows faced the rear balcony of Soumitra’s home. “He would often step out and yell at someone downstairs, and when I heard his voice, I would drop whatever I was doing and go and stand at the window and stare shamelessly at him,” she chuckled. There is a mix of pride and affection in my aunt’s voice as she shares how Soumitra’s brother Sambit worked with my uncle in Burmah Shell and they often travelled together to office. Soumitra’s son, Bubu, and my cousin played together. She also remembered that Soumitra’s daughter learnt Bharatanatyam and his wife Deepa was a badminton champion!
In the midst of the gloom, my all-Bengali friend Dr. Sutapa Chaterjee, who lives in Haldia, shares a hilarious childhood memory. “Soumitra Chatterjee attended the wedding as the bride was his wife’s close friend. When they walked in, EVERYONE, including the bor jatri (the groom’s side of the family), the entire household of the bride and all the guests rushed away to gape at the star abandoning the bridegroom and the purohit to their own devices! My Mama never forgave Soumitra for stealing his thunder on his important day,” Sutapa laughs, in the midst of her great sadness. “Soumitra resides in my heart,” she sighs.
Of course, for all Bengalis worth their weight in maacher jhol, an offering that combines Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray and Soumitra is nothing short of sacred. Sutapa declares Soumitra was the best kind of Tagore hero. “In Teen Kanya, an anthology of three short stories by Tagore, he acted in the one called Samapti. This was Aparna Sen’s first movie too. Charulata (based on Tagore’s Noshto Neer) and Ghare Baire were the others. In Ghare Baire, his character Sandip Mukherjee has shades of grey. But I think Victor Banerjee stole a march on him,” admits Sutapa, albeit reluctantly.
For 81-year-old Sonali Das who lives in Bhubhaneswar, Sonar Kella is clearly her favourite: Soumitra played the heartthrob detective Feluda. For her daughter Shubra Dey, her first love is Teen Bhuboner Paar. Both she and Sutapa remember the song ‘Jeebone Ki Paabo Na’ sung by Manna Dey to which Soumitra did the twist! His co-star was the lovely Tanuja. (Amitabh Bachchan dances to the same song in Piku.)
My editor/publisher friend Mahua Mitra sounds desolate, but cheers up as she recalls the connection of Soumitra had with her family. Mahua’s dad and Soumitra hung out together as they both came from Krishnanagar, Nadia district in West Bengal. Her father told her how they played truant from school, stole green chana from the fields and coaxed the boatmen to ferry them across the Jalangi river. Mahua’s mother-in-law and Soumitra did their MA Bengali together in Calcutta University.
Mahua has spent the last month watching Soumitra’s films. “I anticipated he wouldn’t pull through and was following his hospital bulletins closely, as I watched his films,” she said. “I re-watched my old favourites. Now all I have to look forward to is Barnali by Ajoy Kar, highly recommended by a friend and a film I haven’t seen. I also heard Sharmila Tagore mention it as one of their nice films together. Bengali cinema will never be the same again without him,” she mourns. More than anything else, she said, she treasures the brilliant performance by Soumitra on stage in 2010 in Raja Lear directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay. And a theatre performance of the play Bidehi, a Bengali adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghost. “It was a rare occasion where Soumitra’s co-actors were his daughter Paulomi Bose and grandson Ronodeep Bose, a unique experience, watching the three generations of fine thespians.”
What made Soumitra the go-to actor for Satyajit Ray? The Oscar-winning director picked him for 14 of the 29 films he made, including the iconic Apur Sansar. When asked why the reigning star Uttam Kumar was not his obvious choice, Satyajit Ray is supposed to have said in an interview, that no matter what role Uttam Kumar essayed, there was always a bit of ‘Uttam Kumar’ in the character he played. But with Soumitra, he just slipped into the skin of any character. My friends of course balk at the thought when I ask them whom they preferred. They won’t say!
Soumitra acted opposite Suchitra Sen in Saat Paake Bandha and even hard core Uttam Kumar fans agree that this film is unforgettable (Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen were the golden couple of Bengali movies). Asadharon (extraordinary) is the word they use to describe it, and also when they speak of Jhinder Bandi, where Soumitra is the villain to Uttam Kumar’s hero.
Soumitra worked with almost all masters of Bengali Cinema including Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Aparna Sen, Goutam Ghosh and Rituporno Ghosh. I watch Bela Seshe, a film about a man who decides to divorce his wife of 50 years, only because he feels there is no romance left in the marriage anymore. It is a thought-provoking movie.
I receive messages from Bangladeshi friends too. Md Shazed Ul Haq Khan, a teacher, received the news from his wife when he was holding online classes. His wife was distraught as she had to break the news to her mother who was a big ‘bhakto’ of Soumitra, and who first thing every morning heard the actor’s elocution without fail before she got on with her chores. Shazed says so many people he knew have changed their Facebook profile picture to the actor’s. He says for his countrymen and women Soumitra represented the quintessential bhadralok, who upheld culture, traditions and erudition, without bringing religion into the equation. “The borders and barricades between the two Bengals won’t stop the emotions that bind us,” says Shazed.
As I scroll through the favourite songs, film clips and anecdotes of Soumitra, my husband sends me a clipping of the last scene from Tapan Sinha’s Atanka where Soumitra Chatterjee plays a school master who witnesses a murder by his student. As the credits roll, I spot my name in them.
It is 1986. I am in my hostel in Mumbai. My roomie Dorothy Saldanha who works for NFDC is beside herself with excitement when she learns I speak, read and write Bengali. She hands me a bound script, a cassette with the audio recording of a movie and asks me to help her out. I subtitled Atanka for her, and that remains my connection to the great actor.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.