Dhaka Courier

Soumitra Chatterjee: Adios, to the jovial companion of Bengali cinema

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The evolution and further success of cinema in the greater Indian subcontinent are highly indebted to the Oscar-winning director Satyajit Ray. Certainly, he was a genius, however - chances are that the journey would not be possible or this much success if he did not find his companions. There are many available analogies to call someone as 'friend' - and according to the Bengali thesaurus, the name 'Soumitra' redirects to someone who is a good friend, a reliable companion. Fortunately, the Indian arts and culture sphere found a Soumitra through Satyajit, and that good old friend continued mesmerizing billions of the audiences and admirers over the years till his last active moments in front of the screen. He was rooted from Bangladesh as his ancestral village was Kyaa, Harirampur Thana in Kushtia, and he was a grandson (Paternal) of revolutionary leader Bagha Jatin during the British era. At the age of 13, he left Kushtia towards West Bengal and continued storytelling at its best through his majestic acting performances for the next 62 years. The world of cinema lost its ‘Soumitra’ - that last good old companion named Soumitra Chattopadhyay on November 15, Sunday.

An impeccable and irreplaceable loss without the shadow of a doubt, the Indian-Bengali actor, director, playwright, writer and poet who did utter justice to his name, finally lost his battle with the ongoing havoc of COVID-19 on the day of his departure - and gave billions of people another reason to remember 2020 with great sorrow. Prior to that, he tirelessly worked to cement his legacy and achieved all the glory as of the jovial companion to Satyajit and other filmmakers, as well as one of the legendary figures in the vast realm of Indian cinema who later became a father figure and role model for generations ahead in his beloved Tallywood film industry in Kolkata, India.

Before falling severely ill since October and eventually failing to live some more productive years which would surely add some more masterpieces, Soumitra Chatterjee has been a busy actor. Going through the word ‘busy’, people often get the wrong impression that a person might be choosing quantity over quality - however, in Soumitra’s case, that was unthinkable. The octogenarian thespian became one of Bengal’s most celebrated superstars and went on receiving many prestigious awards and remarkable achievements in India including the Padma Bhushan, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, National Awards, Bengal Film Journalists' Association Awards, several Filmfare Awards and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards, to name a few - because he wisely chose his projects and act accordingly, throughout his whole life and entire career.

That all started when he got discovered by Satyajit Ray, with whom he starred in 14 out of the total of 29 films that the maestro has made in his glorious career as a creator. With the unbelievable success of his debut film “Apur Sansar” (The World of Apu) in 1958, the last of the “Panther Panchali” trilogy which is till date is considered as one of the greatest film trilogies ever made - Soumitra made his mark in Indian cinema. The account of their first meeting is a pretty interesting, well-known story in Bengal. When Ray was looking for his adult Apu for his film Apur Sansar, a mutual friend introduced Soumitra to the film maestro who promptly declared Soumitra ‘unfit’ for the character, as the actor looked too old to be portrayed as Apu, a college student - according to the script of the film. Eventually, Soumitra got the role opposite legendary actress Sharmila Tagore in the end - and the force went stronger on the friendship between Ray and Chatterjee. Their journey of togetherness continued and eventually explored more spheres as he portrayed iconic characters including Feluda, and also acted on two of the documentaries out of the five that Ray made in his career. Soumitra's entire career graph features his precious collaborations with Satyajit Ray films including "Devi" (1960), "Teen Kanya" (1961), "Abhijan" (1962), "Charulata" (1964), "Kapurush O Mahapurush" (1965), "Aranyer Din Ratri" (1969), "Ashani Sanket" (1973), "Sonar Kella" (1974), "Joy Baba Felunath" (1978), "Hirak Rajar Deshe" (1980), "Ghare Baire" (1984), "Ganashatru" (1989) and "Shakha Proshakha" (1990). A never-ending friendship, that brought a class in storytelling.

How beloved Soumitra actually was among his admirers, and what were the reasons? The primary reason has always been a particular one - Soumitra has always been the ideal imagery and portrayal of a truly classy ‘gentleman’ by all means, and almost all of his co-artists have echoed this particular statement. Many have also brought comparison between him with the ‘Mahanayak Uttam Kumar, known as the shining luminary and the brand icon in Indian Bengali cinema. The comparison, that never harmed their film industry even for a tiny bit.

Another reason that must need to get a mention is undoubtedly his dedication to his characters that he projected in front of his audiences. He, as a gifted actor, portrayed Satyajit Ray’s iconic detective spy Feluda - a monumental character among Ray’s literary creations and people often stated that every time they went on reading or imagining Feluda after going through the films that had Soumitra as the classy spy, each and every time they imagined Soumitra. He became a role model in his other characters as well, establishing his nature of putting attention to the detail that he followed the rest of his 62 years of a glorious career.

Certainly, the cinema of Bengal during his prime has other notable directors including Mrinal Sen, who directed Soumitra for the first time in "Punascha" (1961) and then again in "Pratinidhi" (1964), "Akash Kusum" (1965), and "Mahaprithibi" (1991). Tapan Sinha, another iconic filmmaker directed him in "Khudhita Pashan" (1960), "Atanka" (1984) and "Antardhan" (1992). Other mainstream titans of his era also showed their love working along with Soumitra as well, which is seen in Asit Sen directed "Swayambara" (1961) and Swaralipi (1961); Ajoy Kar made "Otol Joler Ahoban" (1962), "Saat Pake Baandha" (1963), "Barnali" (1963), "Kaanch Kata Heere" (1965) and "Parineeta" (1969); Tarun Mazumdar directed the actor over the years in "Ektuku Baasha" (1965), "Sansar Simante" (1975), "Ganadevata" (1978), "Agomon" (1988) and "Path O Prasad" (1991) and also with the new-age Bengali filmmakers including Atanu Ghosh in "Mayurakshi", Suman Ghosh’s "Podokkhep", "Peace Haven", "Dwando" and "Basu Paribar", Partha Chakraborty directed "Samantaral", Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee’s "Posto" and most notably in their 2015 venture “Bela Sheshe”. He did move outside Bengal into Bollywood twice, as he acted opposite Roopa Ganguly in the 1986 Hindi short film "Nirupama", based on Tagore's story "Dena Paona" and also had a role in the 2002 release, "Hindustani Sipahi", based on Utpal Dutt's renowned Bangla play "Ferari Fauj".

Being one of the greatest superstars in Bengal, Soumitra Chatterjee was unusually unconcerned by the glitz and sparkles of the showbiz world; he kept himself aware as well as away from the thrill of public adulation. Admired by many for his simplistic lifestyle, he lived in a house on a government housing estate for over three decades. Despite being the shining star of his galaxy, he was accessible and clearly never opted to protect his stardom from the public at large, as he did not have any muscular bodyguard inside a lavish mansion. He genuinely offered his friendship as a real person to the world, something that has always been a rare quality among the superstars comparable to his popularity status - and the departure of the great friend is being mourned by billions, including his beloved colleagues and admirers. One thing is sure, that the world of cinema will forever remember the icon with the deepest respect that Soumitra Chatterjee rightfully deserves.

  • Bengali films
  • Soumitra Chatterjee
  • Bengali Cinema

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