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Beyond Ray: Soumitra Chatterjee and Bengal’s Aesthetic Cinema

Soumitra Chatterjee, the film actor, was much more than Ray. His journey in Bengal’s aesthetic cinema, beyond Ray, was a significant aspect of his oeuvre
Soumitra Chatterjee portrait by Syamantak Chattopadhyay
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Soumitra Chatterjee’s renown as an actor has been attached to Satyajit Ray’s towering global reputation. While Chatterjee’s international profile was built entirely upon his Ray filmography, at home too he remained Apu or Feluda for generations of cinema lovers. Soumitra Chatterjee’s deep connection with Ray was inevitable: Ray picked Chatterjee as protagonist for 14 of his 28 films. Soumitra Chatterjee, on his part, remained devoted to his Manikda lifelong. For as long as he lived, he never stopped acknowledging Ray’s contributions to his life—not just the gift of that dazzling break, but shaping him and his career and teaching him nearly everything he knew about good cinema. Yet, it goes without saying that Soumitra Chatterjee, the film actor, was much more than Ray. His journey in Bengal’s aesthetic cinema, beyond Ray, was a significant aspect of his oeuvre that we must acknowledge as we celebrate his 88th birth anniversary.

Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), created a whole new space within Bengali cinema in one sweep. Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema mirrored the social and political complexities of their time with enormous artistic flair. Theirs was realist cinema at its best. This eventually inspired what was called the middle-of-the-road film–commercially viable artistic cinema. On the whole these films tended to be more realistic than the mainstream romance or social drama. They often explored serious themes—such as urban alienation, unemployment and changing ethical norms—but the treatment was by and large kept light. Stories drawn from Bengal’s rich and diverse literary field were adapted to film by the directors with a certain degree of sensitivity. They also blended in commercial elements of romance and music, with an eye to the box office. Produced in the 1960s and 70s, these films not only drew in large audiences in Bengal, some of them even travelled to Bombay to be remade in Hindi and reach a wider public (Asit Sen’s films, for example).

Soumitra Chatterjee portrait by Syamantak Chattopadhyay
Soumitra Chatterjee was their chosen man. Portrait by Syamantak Chattopadhyay.

A number of directors who came to be identified with this kind of cinema worked with Soumitra Chatterjee as protagonist. Among them were Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen (early avatar), Ajoy Kar, Tarun Majumdar, Dinen Gupta and Saroj De. Some of them had worked as studio hands in Tollygunge and were well trained in the technical aspects of filmmaking – they were now eager to tell stories of their own. Stories that would move audiences and entertain them.  

It was not surprising that Soumitra Chatterjee was their chosen man – he was ideally poised to headline these films. With Apur Sansar and Devi, he had emerged as a counterpoint to Uttam Kumar, Bengal’s top star, who had been blazing a trail in mainstream Bengali cinema. The tall and handsome Soumitra became the thinking person’s hero very quickly— his natural personality was a fine blend of sensitivity, integrity and refinement. He was the quintessential educated Bengali, with a weakness for Tagore, modern poetry and beautiful, mysterious women. Moreover, his sharp intellect and flair for Bengali helped him craft memorable roles, relying on these assets. 

Soumitra Chatterjee actor
His sharp intellect and flair for Bengali helped him craft memorable roles.

Films such as Kshudita Pashan (Tapan Sinha, 1960), Saat Pake Bandha (Ajay Kar, 1963), Baksho Bodol (Nityananda Dutta, 1965) and Malyadaan (Ajay Kar, 1971) come to mind in this context. He could slip easily into the role of a dreamer, poet and romantic combining spontaneity with the right degree of restraint. 

His work in Kshudita Pashan (1960) is a fine example of a Tagore-era protagonist—a rational, modern tax collector by day, drawn by the unbidden attraction of an old mansion in a faraway land, where he is posted. The mansion has apparently witnessed many a lustful tragedy and is haunted by the doomed spirits— well-wishers ask him to stay away from it. He does not relent and soon he is captivated by the beauty of a slave woman, who mysteriously appears night after the night. By day he decides he must wrench himself out of the palace of hungry stones, but at night he is drawn to the place like a man possessed. A young Soumitra convincingly essayed the agony of a man torn between these forces. This role placed him firmly as a choice for all non-Ray aesthetic films. 

 With Apur Sansar and Devi, he had emerged as a counterpoint to Uttam Kumar, Bengal’s top star, who had been blazing a trail in mainstream Bengali cinema. The tall and handsome Soumitra became the thinking person’s hero very quickly— his natural personality was a fine blend of sensitivity, integrity and refinement. He was the quintessential educated Bengali, with a weakness for Tagore, modern poetry and beautiful, mysterious women.

The proud, plain-speaking young professor Sukhendu Dutta of Saat Pake Bandha (1963) has remained etched in the memories of all those who have watched Soumitra Chatterjee hold his own against Suchitra Sen, the leading heroine of the time. Chatterjee, in fact, was a natural fit as a modern, educated man. He particularly suited the role of serious scholar/academic (Ekti Jibon, Atanka and the second half of Teen Bhubaner Pare) given his excellent university education, cultural moorings and that he was already something of a poet. 

still from Baksa Badal
He convincingly captured the angst & frustration of the post-colonial youth.

Soumitra also played the ethical doctor (Wheelchair, Uttaran) with flair. What is more, he would inevitably back up his performance with the necessary research for these roles. He is particularly fetching, in Baksa Badal (1965) as Dr Pratul Bhattacharjee, a psychologist. Even though the film was meant to be a frothy romantic comedy, where he played a young man locked in a battle of wits with his love interest (Aparna Sen). Satyajit Ray’s involvement in the script, the shooting of this film (director Nityanada Dutta was Ray’s assistant)and Soumitra’s performance brought the kind of sharpness to this film that was rare in Bengali cinema. 

When it came to purely romantic roles, many cinema fans argued Soumitra Chatterjee could not pull them off as well as Uttam Kumar did. In fact, Bengali audiences at the time were sharply divided over who was the ultimate hero— Uttam or Soumitra. Uttam Kumar had a huge following and enormous power over the box office. However, Soumitra’s appeal lay elsewhere– he was the cerebral hero with the ability to charm intelligent women off their feet. Soumitra became a star, with major box office success, but he always wanted to remain an actor. And so Soumitra Chatterjee was a hero with a difference, loved and admired by a smaller but more discerning audience. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8B023OLB5ew

This is not to say that he was not cast in romantic roles. We see him in a number of them through the 60s and 70s. Particularly noteworthy are films by director Ajay Kar like Atal Jaler Aowbhan (1962) Barnali (1963), Kaanch Kata Hire (1966) and Parineeta (1969). Soumitra had the looks of a romantic hero— though he was still working on his voice in the early years. But with his kind of charm, fans would ignore his minor flaws. 

Also read: Javed Saab: Beyond Scripts & Poetry

In Teen Bhubaner Pare (Ashutosh Bandyopadhyay, 1969) he played the role of Subir, a street-side “loafer”, who gets involved with the highly educated Sarasi (Tanjua). This unlikely alliance triumphs against all odds, with the second half of the film focussing on the reform of Subir. Soumitra Chatterjee clearly had fun with the role, as he danced to the tune of “Jibone ki pabo na”, before he turned into a serious scholar. In Basanta Bilap (Dinen Gupta, 1973), a romantic comedy set in a women’s hostel, Soumitra excels with his comic timing paired against Aparna Sen. With these roles Soumitra Chatterjee broke the mould of the serious Bengali ‘Bhadralok’, a box that he had worked himself into somehow. 

But every single time Soumitra Chatterjee was cast in an off-beat role, he stepped up and cracked it. Benarasi (Arup Guhathakurta, 1962) is an example. In this sensitively made film, Chatterjee played the role of an educated young man who tries to help his childhood love interest (Ruma Guhathakurta) to escape the life of a nautch girl (baiji). He marries her and they attempt to start over, away from the city. But after a blissful start, their life is thrown into a turmoil. This role came early in Soumitra’s career but he pulled off a genuine victory with it. 

Portrait by Syamantak Chattopadhyay
His role in Jhinder Bandi stunned audiences. Portrait by Syamantak Chattopadhyay.

Soumitra portrayed with assurance weak or morally ambiguous young men often seen in Bengali cinema of the time. He convincingly captured the angst and frustration of the floundering post-colonial youth. In Akash Kusum (Mrinal Sen, 1965), for example, he plays Ajay, a young man who is trying to pull himself out of financial distress. He meets a young woman (Aparna Sen) from a privileged background and decides to bluff his way into her heart. Soumitra portrays the young man’s vulnerability and his brazen falsehood with great finesse and almost wins over the audience to his side. In Baghini (Bijoy Basu, 1968) too his character is one that is ethically compromised under distress. Taking on these roles would have been a bit risky, had Soumitra Chatterjee cared for the box office as much as many other mainstream actors did. But he always leaned in when it came to complex, layered characters and was rewarded quite often. 

every single time Soumitra Chatterjee was cast in an off-beat role, he stepped up and cracked it. Benarasi (Arup Guhathakurta, 1962) is an example. In this sensitively made film, Chatterjee played the role of an educated young man who tries to help his childhood love interest (Ruma Guhathakurta) to escape the life of a nautch girl (baiji). He marries her and they attempt to start over, away from the city. But after a blissful start, their life is thrown into a turmoil.

Early in his career in 1961, Soumitra Chatterjee had stunned audiences by accepting a negative role in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bondi. In the seventh film of his acting life he played Mayurvahan, the wily villain, in an adaptation of Anthony Hope’s famous novel The Prisoner of Zenda. While Uttam Kumar played the lead, Soumitra matched him step for step.  And this, Bengali audiences never quite forgot. Aparichito (Salil Dutta, 1969) an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, was a film where Soumitra played Myshkin, the idiot—against Uttam Kumar’s Rogozhin. This role was not without its pitfalls, but Soumitra had nailed it.  

His role in Sansar Simante (Tarun Majumdar, 1975) was also far from being that of a conventional hero—he played a petty thief, Aghor. Based on a short story by Premendra Mitra, the film explores the lives of those living on the margins of society. The screenplay was written by Rajen Tarfadar and it was initially rumoured to be directed by Ritwik Ghatak with Soumitra in the lead. Soumitra had grabbed the opportunity to play this challenging role. He was convinced that it would allow him to break the mould of the refined, cerebral and middle-class man—once again. For Aghor’s role he worked extremely hard, doing hours of reading and research to get under the skin of the character, and despite apprehensions by some that this handsome, cultured man may find it hard to pull off the role of a crude thief, Soumitra Chatterjee came up with a winning performance.

Still from Belasheshe
Soumitra in a still from Posto (2017).

Ray was to disclose to Chatterjee later that he liked the film very much and that Aghor was his favourite role essayed by Soumitra outside of his films. Though the print of Sansar Simante is not available currently, it remains among the most highly acclaimed of Chatterjee’s performances. Tarun Majumdar’s Ganadevata (1979) is another film where Soumitra Chatterjee was memorable as Debu Pandit, the protagonist. However, with it he was on familiar ground– he played a man of reason and conscience standing up against injustice. For many, therefore, Aghor trumps Debu Pandit.

Soumitra Chatterjee’s big triumph in the 80s was Koni (Saroj De, 1984), where he played Khitish Sinha (Khidda), a swimming coach. Written by Moti Nandi, the film follows the career arc of Koni, a young underprivileged girl who must break through several social barriers to become a champion. Khidda is a humiliated and ousted coach, who decides to train Koni for free to regain his honour. Once again, breaking away from his urbane image, Soumitra played this role with power and intensity. “Fight, Koni fight,” became a sort of anthem at the time, as Khidda’s role made a tremendous impact on audiences. Dr Mitra in Wheelchair (Tapan Sinha, 1994) is another role where Chatterjee plays a mentor with power and conviction.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nu8eKed-zto

In fact, from the 90s through to the new millennium, Soumitra Chatterjee acted in a number of films playing mature, older men coming to terms with a changing world. He displayed exceptional talent and power in some of them. Ekti Jibon (Raja Mitra, 1990), Uttaran (Sandip Ray, 1994), Asukh (Rituparno Ghosh, 1999), Paromitar Ek Din (Aparna Sen, 2000 ) and Dekha (Goutam Ghosh, 2001) were among the finest performances in his career. By now he had spent more than four decades as an actor, and was on top of his game. But most of his directors and co-actors still testified to his hard work, discipline and his desire to push the envelope.  

There came a time, in the last decades of his life, when directors such as Suman Ghosh (Podokkhep), Atanu Ghosh (Mayurakshi) and Anik Dutta (Barun Babur Bandhu) worked on projects created specifically around Soumitra Chatterjee as the central character. The veteran artist received his first National Award in 2007 for Suman Ghosh’s film Podokkhep— well after he had delivered some of his most powerful performances in the previous decades. That he agreed to accept it, suggests that he was truly the refined Bengali gentleman that he was always seen to be.

Images courtesy: Portraits of Soumitra Chatterjee are by Syamantak Chattopadhyay. Photographs are from the Public Domain.

Sanghamitra Chakraborty is an editor and senior journalist based in Delhi. She is working on a biography of Soumitra Chatterjee currently.

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