A friend called me up on Sunday afternoon and offered his condolences at the passing of Soumitra Chatterjee, a legend in
Bengali Indian Cinema whom I had no personal connect to but of whose work I have been a great admirer. As someone at the receiving end of my countless raves on Soumitra and his acting capabilities, my friend's call was not a token gesture. He knew that some losses do feel personal.
Soumitra Chatterjee was initiated into the world cinema, from his self-admitted snobbery of theatre, by the great Satyajit Ray. What followed was some of the best cinema created out of India, 14 films to be exact. That itself is a filmography that could make any actor in world cinema envious. Yet there was much more to Soumitra beyond Ray. With Ray he primarily played the urban Bengali youth to perfection, but there was also a Abhijaan (1962), with Soumitra playing an uncharacteristic rustic taxi driver. His Narsingh was allegedly the prototype for the Scorsese classic Taxi Driver, which came out in the next decade. Talk about leaving your footprints on history. Soumitra played vulnerability (as the older Apu in Apur Sansar) with as much ease as flamboyance (in Tapan Sinha's Jhinder Bondi) and he also nailed the middle-class educated urban youth (Teen Bhubaner Pare, Akash Kusum and many more). His collaborations with Ray were so impactful that Ray would go on to create the iconic character of Feluda based on Soumitra's physicality and mannerisms. If the Bengali industry has not found a suitable replacement to play Feluda it is for good reason. Soumitra was Feluda.
My favourite Soumitra movie has always been Aranyer Din Ratri. The role was tailor-made for him and it's difficult to separate Soumitra from Asim (the character he played). Asim was as complex a character as any. Outwardly he was the de facto leader of the group of friends, on an 'ascending curve' in his career and suave to the point of envy. The movie then looks closer as his carefully created façade gives away to reveal his fragile ego, his growing disillusionment with his social circle at work, his longing for love (which he dismisses early on in the movie). He comes out a different man by the end of the movie.
Even at 85, Soumitra was not the actor retired to his living room narrating tales of his heyday. He was active, working in movies and theatre (which he never abandoned) and writing his poetry. The Bengali new wave that began around 2010 had Soumitra as an integral part of it. He had key roles in the family comedy Machh Mishti and More, a towering cameo in Hemlock Society and the main role in the Sujoy Ghosh short Ahalya . His best performance in recent times was in Mayurakshi where he played a former history teacher grappling with dementia: his intermittent stretches of sanity made for compelling scenes. His countless regional and national awards, and the civilian awards from Indian and French governments, will be footnotes in his biography but Soumitra's everlasting legacy will be his connect with three generations of cinephiles. Winning an Aranyer Din Ratri-style memory game of Soumitra's greatest characters would need the sharpest mind: Apu, Mayurbahan, Narsingh, Amal, Asim, Pradosh, Sandip, Sushovan…and the list goes on!