Soumitra Chatterjee – His Life In Cinema And Beyond: A Biography

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Biography of Soumitra Chatterjee

Amitava Nag  is an independent film critic, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. He has already authored several books on cinema both in Bengali, his mother tongue and in English. Amitava is also the editor of an online magazine on cinema called The Silhouette and has published titles on poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English. His latest work is a biography of Soumitra Chatterjee based on his long interviews with the multi-faceted genius. Nag and Chatterjee shared a relationship that reached far beyond the ‘mentor-admirer’ equation. In a chat with the author he opens up on this long relationship with one of the greatest talents West Bengal has produced in the 20th century.  

Shoma: You have already done a lot of work on Soumitra Chatterjee. Two books, one translation of his book of poetry and one which includes him in Ray’s Heroes and Heroines. Are you obsessed with this great man? If not, what spurred you on to write ‘Soumitra Chatterjee – His Life In Cinema And Beyond?’ 

Amitava: My first book on Soumitra Chatterjee is essentially the first book on him in English – ‘Beyond Apu’. It picked up 20 of his favourite roles and explored each of them to showcase his range as an actor. My second book on him was titled ‘Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee’ published in 2021 by Blue Pencil Publishers after he passed away. This is basically a very different sort of book which reflects the artist as a common man, his frailties, and insecurities. It was based on my decade long discussions with him almost like a friend. The new one ‘Soumitra Chatterjee: His Life in Cinema and Beyond’ is a biography. So, in essence the three books are different.

Frankly, after writing ‘Murmurs’ I was drained out and did not plan a biography. My friend and editor of ‘Beyond Apu’, Mr Santanu Ray Chaudhuri called me up in December 2020, a month after Soumitra Babu passed away and requested me to write this book. When I wrote ‘Beyond Apu’, my goal was to portray him as an actor who was more than just an actor of Satyajit Ray’s films. With ‘Soumitra Chatterjee: His Life in Cinema and Beyond’ I aspired to project him as an artist beyond the scope of cinema.

Also read: Five Poems by Soumitra Chatterjee

Shoma: Your association with Soumitra Babu turned from inquisitive inquiry to friendship. How did this happen?

Amitava: I think two things worked in my favour. First, I was far removed from the world of cinema in terms of its practicality. Secondly, I never shied away from the fact that I have a mind of my own and have my own opinions. After the initial years he would call me often and enquire if I was busy and whether I could come over to his place for an ‘adda’. Generally, it used to be on evenings when he was the loneliest, I felt. We discussed world cinema, poetry and what not. The best part of such exchanges was that we agreed to disagree on several things. I guess that fostered the friendship.

Soumitra Chatterjee and Amitava Nag his biographer
Soumitra Chatterjee and Amitava Nag, his biographer

Shoma: In the beginning, you have mentioned the phrase “structured reading”. Can you please explain what this means in the context of Soumitra’s reading?

Amitava: I not only spent substantial time with him discussing his life and art, kept him company in some of his lonely times, but also read his prose writings and his plays with critically analytical precision. In parallel, I have the necessary understanding of the history and psyche of the Bengali film industry to draw correlations and connect the dots about his choices and his decisions. I hope the reader will agree once he/she reads the book.

Shoma: What was your aim? Did you wish to open up to an English-reading readership of Soumitra they have a very limited view of, linking him only as an actor in Ray’s films? Or, did you wish to record for posterity, your own learning and absorbing the multi-layered persona of this great man which you wish to share with the world beyond the narrow confines of the Bengali identity? Or both? 

Amitava: Actually, both. The first is my philosophy in writing about cinema. I generally write on Bengali film personalities in English and on foreign films and personalities in Bengali. As a writer who writes in both languages, I want to tell the world about my culture in the globally accepted language vis-à-vis discuss the glorious international cinema in my vernacular language for my native reader. When I began reading Soumitra’s own writing, I formed my own ideas about this creative thought process which may help any future researcher.

Shoma: Did you plan and structure the entire book before getting down to writing it? Or, did you allow yourself to be guided organically by referring to the notes you took while having those long talks with him? Or, did you structure it to begin with and then, later, allow your thoughts and experience to flow naturally? 

Amitava: Generally, I plan a book in advance and structure it. It helps me in getting on with writing like a project with dates. I approach book writing based on the corporate training that I have. This book is no exception. I thought of two-three approaches, then decided to traverse the decades almost in chronological sequence and then created the Table of Contents. I did make some changes while writing, like everyone else, but on a whole the basic structure was followed. However, for a book like ‘Murmurs’, which is a deeply intimate book, nothing was planned. It flowed with me, and I just obeyed the torrent of emotions.

Shoma: His experience with the stage in Bengal is elaborated perhaps for the first time ever? 

Amitava: I am not sure if it is the first time, but I argued, in this book, that his venture into professional theatre as a serious endeavour from the late 70s was a conscious choice. It was the time when he was no longer the automatic choice as a hero, nor was he old enough to mature into a different character profile, which he did later. Younger characters began moving to newer actors. This is when he took to the theatre in a calculated way. There, he could be the hero of his own plays and essay characters he wanted to portray what cinema was not offering him in general. Though he was never removed from theatre in the ‘60s, this was a smart move to keep himself creatively relevant. Because he had this theatre, along with his poetry and his magazine ‘Ekshan’ he did not have to look outside to sustain himself.

Soumitra Chatterjee and Amitava Nag at a book launch
Soumitra Chatterjee and Amitava Nag at a book launch

Shoma: What is your biggest take-away from (a)the book (b) the personality you have written about, (c) the intensive and extensive research that went into it, (d) a combination of both? Please elaborate.

Amitava: My biggest disadvantage when I write about the Bengali cinema of the ‘60s and the ‘70s is that I have not lived in the time. Experiencing something as a contemporary and reading about it decades later is not the same. For this book, I re-read all his plays, his published essays and that opened up some new paths to him, so far undiscovered. I regretted that I had not read them earlier with such passion when he was alive. I could have validated a few theories of mine, dispelled a few confusions – not only about him but about the golden period of Bengali cinema in general.

Shoma: Among his countless talents which he mastered with his incredible commitment to whatever he laid his hands on, how would you personally rank him in terms of each of these talents and why?

Amitava: I think his primary identity was that of an actor – both on screen and on stage. He was a subtle playwright and a very competent theatre director as well. Also, not to forget his role as a magazine editor, the way he and the late Nirmalya Acharya could publish writings of contemporary artists and also republish old archival material. I found this aspect of his being an archivist equally fascinating. For someone who is a romantic hero in films, projection of the Self is all but natural. While the role of a magazine editor is that of projecting new writings, new voices by staying in the background. I guess it is not easy to perform both these roles in life with similar finesse. 

Shoma: How long did the research into the book take covering the personality apart from the interpersonal talks you had with him?

Amitava: This book was envisioned only after he passed away. It took me a year or so to put all my thoughts, collect all the materials that I used. 

Generally, I plan a book in advance and structure it. It helps me in getting on with writing like a project with dates. I approach book writing based on the corporate training that I have. This book is no exception. I thought of two-three approaches, then decided to traverse the decades almost in chronological sequence and then created the Table of Contents. I did make some changes while writing, like everyone else, but on a whole the basic structure was followed.

Shoma: In what way has the actual process of planning, organizing, drafting and writing of this book turned into a learning experience for you? 

Amitava: I think every individual is driven by a few basic decisions in life based on their character traits. It is important to try to understand and look for those traits and then pursue them to paint the picture of the artist as a common man. In the world of cinema the most popular style revolves around anecdotes and gossip or hiding behind the proverbial ‘academic’ curtain. For me, neither of these two is the primary role of a biographer. A biography, to me, will show where an otherwise ordinary person transcends his or her own limits, conquers the demons that eat the soul and become extraordinary. A biography in the end should give the reader that hope to take the leap himself.

Shoma: Any last words for our readers?

Amitava: Soumitra Chatterjee is a legend of Indian cinema. He acted in more than 300 films over six decades, he was the constant hero of the extraordinary Satyajit Ray, he was a theatre director and actor himself, a playwright with three volumes of plays, a poet with twenty anthologies of poems, a painter and a doodler. Yet, despite the worldly successes, awards and accolades, deep down, he had the curiosity of a child. He could keep the candle of renaissance of wonder within him, still burning. Probably, this singular trait of being humble and curious even after all the accomplishments intrigued me enough to write this biography.

Images courtesy: Silhouette Magazine

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