The greatest ever Director-Actor collaberations in world cinema have included Akira Kurosawa-Toshiro Mifune, Federico Fellini-Marcello Mastroianni, Martin Scorcese-Robert De Niro and closer home, Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee. In fact, in spite of being a major star alongside Uttam Kumar in the Bengali Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, Chatterjee’s work is so closely associated with Satyajit Ray that well-known film critic Pauline Kael described him as Ray’s ‘one-man stock company’. Back home, critic Chidananda Dasgupta suggested that Ray cast him ever so often because of a distinct resemblance to the young Tagore.
Chatterjee was born in Krishnanagar 100 km from Calcutta on 19 January, 1935. He studied at the University of Calcutta graduating with honours in English Literature and training as an actor under Ahindra Choudhury while still a student. He then became a radio announcer before making his film debut with Apur Sansar (1959), the last of the Apu trilogy films. In fact Chatterjee had met Ray earlier for a role in Aparajito (1956). In Ray’s own words, “I particularly wanted new faces for Apu, his wife Aparna, his five-year-old-son Kajal and his friend Pulu… When I was looking for a character to play the adolescent Apu in Aparajito among the young men who came to see me was Soumitra Chatterjee. Soumitra had the right look, but was too old for adolescent Apu. This time I sent for him and offered him the lead role.”
In a fitting finale to the Apu trilogy, Chatterjee plays the adult Apu who has finished schooling but hazy bureaucracy keeps him from getting a decent job. In a visit to his cousin’s wedding he is talked into marrying the girl (a 14 year old Sharmila Tagore) himself when the bridegroom has a fit during the ceremony. The film then deals with the tender love that grows between the newlyweds, the wife’s tragic death in childbirth, the husband’s anguish and wanderings and refusal to see his son, and finally his determination to win the boy over after some years. It was a brilliant debut for Chatterjee who lived the role of Apu.
Soumitra became a star thanks to Apur Sansar but not in the conventional way that Uttam Kumar was. His intelligent looks and multilayered acting style made him out to be a ‘thinking man’s actor’. While Uttam Kumar was a star who acted, Soumitra was an actor-star, making himself a favourite – both of Bengal’s art-house directors and the mainstream filmmakers.
The 1960s saw Soumitra reach his peak. He did some of his best work with Ray in the 1960s –Devi (1960), reuniting him with Sharmila Tagore and also starring ther great Chhabi Biswas,Abhijan (1962), the unforgettable Charulata (1964), Kapurush (1965) and Aranyer Din Ratri (1969). Charulata is without doubt one of the greatest films of Indian Cinema and Satyajit Ray’s most flawless film. The film is crafted beautifully and thought to be his best work, the Apu trilogy notwithstanding. Not just Ray, it is perhaps the finest work of all those associated with the film, in particular its lead pair, Madhabi Mukherjee (who is absolutely stunning) and Chatterjee. Kapurush and Aranyer Din Ratri, though both fine performances in their own right, see him repeat aspects of his Charulata role as a lietmotiv of the brash but coward-at-heart hero.
Besides his work with Ray, he also worked with the best of Bengali directors like Mrinal Sen(Akash Kusum (1965)), Tapan Sinha (Kshudista Pashan (1960), Jhinder Bandi (1961)), Asit Sen (Swaralipi (1961)), Ajoy Kar (Saat Pake Bandha (1963), Parineeta (1969)) and Tarun Majumdar (Sansar Simantey (1975), Ganadevata (1978)). Of these special menton must be made of Jhinder Bandi and Saat Pake Bandha.
Jhinder Bandi was the first film to star Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee together. In this historical romance based on The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), a Hollywood film starring Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carol and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Chatterjee played a swashbuckling villain expertly riding horses and fencing with aplomb and was in no way overwhelmed by the star presence of Uttam Kumar. In fact, Chatterjee had his share of admirers who felt he had stolen the mahanayak’s thunder in the film.
Saat Pake Bandha sees Suchitra Sen try to overcome her domineering and snobbish mother (powerfully played by veteran Chhaya Devi) by marrying u a serious University Lecturer played by Chatterjee. However the mother continues to interfere in the marriage. Suffering from divided loyalties, her problems are aggravated when Chatterjee insists she sever all ties with her mother. The two separate and she stays independently completing her studies. When she finally accepts her wifely duties and returns home, it is too late as he has resigned and gone abroad. Suchitra Sen’s sensitively etched and finely nuanced performance won her the Best Actress Award at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1963 and the film itself was the basis for Kora Kaagaz (1974) starring Jaya Bhadhuri in the Suchitra Sen role. Though the film is an out and out Sen vehicle, Chatterjee more than holds his own, playing the perfect foil to her.
Soumitra continued to be a major star right through the 1970s. While on the one side his fruitful association with Ray continued with films like Ashani Sanket (1973), Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1978), on the other side he also did films like Sansar Simantey, Ganadevata and Devdas (1979). As age caught up, he shifted effortlessly to characher roles memorable among these being Kony (1984), a sporting melodrama about a wayward but determined coach (Chatterjee) and his star pupil, the female street urchin, Sreeparna Banerjee, Wheelchair (1994) and Sopan (1994). While continuing with the established brigade, Chatterjee moved on to acting in a newer generation of Bengali Directors of the 1980sand 1990s – Goutam Ghosh, Aparna Sen, Anjan Das and Rituparno Ghosh among others while doing work on Television as well.
The death of Satyajit Ray in 1992 brought this great partnership to an end, their last film being the comparitively disappointing Shakha Proshaka (1990) looking at a joint Bengali family gathering together when the patriarch has a heart attack on his 70th birthday. Ray was quite ill during its making and so the film looks more like a static TV film.
Chatterjee was greatly appreciated in the role of an ageing poet slowly losing his eyesight in Goutam Ghosh’s Dekha (2001). He also did a reprisal of his character, Ashim, from Aranyer Din Ratri in Goutam Ghosh’s Aabar Aranaye (2003) – a film which attempts to examine the characters more than 30 years after the events in Ray’s masterpiece. He was also brilliant in Anjan Das’s Saanjhbatir Roopkathara (2002) as well and continued acting in a prolific number of films right through the 2000s and 2010s.
Since Ghare Baire (1984), apart from the silver screen, Chatterjee has spent a considerable time on the stage. Actually he made a return to the stage in 1978 and produced Naam Jiban at Biswarupa Theatre. Its success led him to stage other plays like Rajkumar (1982), Phera (1987), Nilkantha (1988), Ghatak Biday(1990) and Nyaymurti (1996). Nilkantha still runs to full houses whenever staged. Special mention must also be made of Tiktiki (1995), an adaptation of Sleuth and Homapakhi (2006),which deals with highs and lows of mental illness.
Besides films and theatre, Chatterjee is also busy with poetry readings, with various books of his on poetry being published as have several plays that he has written and translated. He has also published Swagato (1996), an anthology of essays on cinema, theatre and acting.
In an award-filled career, Chatterjee has received the Officier des Arts et Metiers, one of the highest award for arts given by the French government. He also got the Lifetime Award from the organizers of the Naples Film Festival, Italy in 1999. He turned down the honorary Padma Shri award from the Indian government in the 1970s though later he was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the President of India. He has also been the subject of a full-length documentary by French director Catherine Berge. And in 2012, he was awarded the prestigious Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the highest Cinematic achievement in India.
Chatterjee passed away on November 15, 2020. After testing positive for the Corona Virus on October 6th, he fought off the virus successfully but finally succumbed to other post covid related health issues. With his death, it is truly an end of an era not just for Bengali filmdom, but Indian cinema as well.