Anil Chatterjee is considered as one of the best actors to have emerged in the Bengali cinema during the early fifties. Mostly remembered as a character artiste par excellence, he also gave strong performances in leading roles within the limited opportunities he got.
Anil Chatterjee was born on 25th October, 1929. After completing his school studies in Delhi, he came to Kolkata and got admitted in the famous St Xavier’s College, where he came in touch with Utpal Dutt, an alumnus of the institution. Soon he joined Dutt’s theatre troupe and performed in some Shakespearean dramas produced and directed by Dutt. These early forays into stage would leave a deep impression on Anil and his screen presence had a theatrical quality that was brilliantly exploited in many films which are now considered as classics.
Passing out of college, Anil joined his relative the successful producer-director of the period, Ardhendu Mukherjee’s unit as an assistant. Ardhendu Mukherjee would later direct one of Anil’s major films as a hero – Bandhan (1962) – opposite Sandhya Roy. Though Anil planned to be a film director he made several cameo appearances in films made by his friends. He had a small part in Ritwik Ghatak’s Nagarik (1952) but the film got commercially released only in 1977 after the death of its director. His first substantial role was in Jog Biyog (1953) directed by Pinaki Mukherjee, a close friend. Dhuli (1954), another film by Pinaki Mukherjee was also another important film at the onset of his career as an actor. Ulka (1957), a film directed by Naresh Mitra, saw him receive much acclaim in the role of its romantic hero Sudhir.
After Nagarik, Anil had a substantial role in Ghatak’s second film Ajantrik (1958), a film which was released in the theatres but unfortunately did not have much commercial success. His next film with Ghatak was Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), where he was outstanding as Shankar, the older brother of the film’s protagonist Neeta – Supriya Devi in her greatest screen performance and possibly of the greatest performances in the history of Indian Cinema. He was brilliant in capturing the nuances of the character selfishly single-minded in his quest for excellence as a singer and cock-sure about achieving a great career, yet sensitive enough to empathise and respect Neeta’s struggle and sacrifice for the family’s sake. The scene where Shankar and Neeta sing the Tagore song Je Rate Mor Duarguli is now ranked as one of the landmarks in Bengali cinema. Anil also had another great performance as the theatre worker Rishi opposite Supriya Devi in Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar (1961).
Anil Chatterjee’s association with Satyajit Ray began with Devi (1960) where he had a small role. In the Post-Master segment of Teen Kanya (1961) – 3 woman-centric short stories by Rabindranath Tagore adapted for the screen by Ray – Anil portrayed Nandalal, a music lover, who gets the job of the post-master in a remote village. In Ray’s Kanchanjungha (1962), Anil had a colourful cameo as the fun-loving, bumbling womaniser son of the disciplinarian pukka sahib industrialist Indranath Choudhury – played by the iconic Chhabi Biswas. Mahanagar (1963) by the same director saw Anil Chatterjee earn much kudos for his finely nuanced performance as Subrata Mazumdar, a typical middle-class Bengali husband forced by circumstances to accept his wife Arati’s (Madhabi Mukherjee) going out of the confines of domesticity and joining a consumer product company as a salesperson. He was felicitated at the Berlin Film Festival (1964) and also at the Acapulco Film Festival, Mexico in the same year for his work in Mahanagar. That Anil was able to subdue the innate theatricality of his acting and give restrained yet powerful performances in the films by Ray speak volumes about his flexibility as a thespian.
Anil Chatterjee was also a favourite of Tapan Sinha and he had significant roles especially in Sinha’s early films. These include Louhakapat (1957), Nirjan Saikate (1963) and Jotugriha (1964). In Nirjan Saikate, Anil was excellent as the sensitive writer Shankar who develops a bond with a young woman (Sharmila Tagore) who has lost faith in human relationship after being jilted by her beloved. Nirjan Saikate ranks among the most popular films in which Anil played the male lead. Sagina Mahato (1970) saw Anil in the memorable role of Aniruddha, an agent sent by the management of to break up the solidarity of the tea-garden workers under the leadership of Sagina (Dilip Kumar). In the final phase of his career he had major character roles in Sinha’s Atanka (1986) – where he played a supportive lawyer – and Aaj Ka Robinhood (1987).
Although Anil Chatterjee’s reputation as an actor rests primarily on his performances in films by Ray, Ghatak and Sinh,a he also acted with aplomb in many artistically competent popular films. Marutirtha Hinglaj (1959) – Bikash Roy’s epic film about a group of pilgrims on an arduous trek to the holy Hinglaj temple in Baluchistan – saw him doing a great job as one of the younger pilgrims. In the same year he also gave a convincing performance as a patient in a mental asylum in Asit Sen’s smash-hit Deep Jele Jai (1959). In Ahobaan (1961), Anil was cast as a romantic hero opposite Sandhya Roy and the film was one of the biggest hits of the year. He was also excellent as the patriotic Captain Aftab in Sandhya Dweeper Sikha (1964), a film on a group of soldiers in the backdrop of the Indo-Chinese War. In Pinaki Mukherjee’s thriller Faraar (1965), Anil essayed the role of Shankar Choudhury, a rich and flamboyant naval officer who becomes a prime suspect in a complicated murder case. This film made in Hindi had Balraj Sahni, Leela Chitnis and Helen in the leading roles. Notun Jibon (1966), an off-beat commercial film directed by Aurobindo Mukherjee was another popular film starring Anil Chatterjee and Sandhya Roy as the leading pair.
From the late 1960s Anil settled down into playing key character roles in the commercial Bengali cinema. The more important of these include Panchashar (1968), Khunjey Berai (1971), Bon Palashir Padabali (1973), Chhanda Patan (1974) and Amanush (1974) – the Shakti Samanta super-hit starring Uttam Kumar, where Anil gave a strong performance as the cop Bhuwan Roy.
In the 1980s, bogged down by his health problems and various social and political engagements Anil Chatterjee reduced his screen appearances opting only to act in meaningful roles in films made by the talented crop of young Bengali filmmakers. In Utpalendu Chakraborty’s National Award winner Chokh (1983), Anil was perfect as the conscientious physician Dr. Mukherjee while he also did competent jobs in Aparna Sen’s Paroma (1984) and Gautam Ghosh’s Paar (1984). He also was excellent in Amol Palekar’s Hindi film Ankahee (1985) and gave a memorable performance in Naqab, a television serial directed by Palekar. He acted for the first time in a Mrinal Sen film in Ek Din Achanak (1989) where he played the role of the helpful neighbour Arunbabu.
Anil Chatterjee was a jovial, exuberant person whose interests extended beyond cinema. A fantastic raconteur, he was also a very competent painter who created some wonderful oil-paintings in his spare time. A life-long believer in Marxist ideals, he held the post of the President of Federation of Film Technicians & Workers of Eastern India and Shilpi Sansad, Kolkata. He was a Member of the Govt. of India’s Cine Workers Welfare Fund. Anil also served as a member of the Governing Body of Nandan, the art-film theatre complex established by the Govt. of West Bengal. He also was the Vice-President of the West Bengal branch of the Indo-Soviet Friendship Society. In 1991, he made history by becoming the first non-Congress candidate to represent Kolkata’s Chowringhee Assembly constituency in the West Bengal Bidhan Sabha when he won a by-election as an Independent candidate supported by the Left Front defeating the Congress stalwart, the famous barrister Bholanath Sen.
Anil Chatterjee died on 17th March, 1996. With his death Bengali cinema lost one of its best actors and one of its most loved and respected human beings.