The first Soumitra Chatterjee film I saw was Charulata (1964). I had known of Soumitra Chatterjee before, had known even of his stature in Bengali cinema; but this film was my introduction to him. And what an introduction it proved to be.
Even now, several years down the line, I cannot claim to have done justice to Soumitra Chatterjee’s filmography, not even to his most famous phase of the fourteen films he did with Satyajit Ray. I have seen some films, of course, including Aranyer Din Ratri, Samapti (the third part of the Teen Kanya trilogy of short films), Kapurush and Sonar Kella from among Ray’s works, and a few by other directors, such as Barnali (which I watched a few weeks back, when Chatterjee passed away). My relative lack of familiarity with Chatterjee’s work made me a little nervous about reading his biography: I wondered if I would be able to understand all the nuances, whether it would not be too much for a Chatterjee-ignoramus like me.
Thankfully, as it turned out, no. Arjun Sengupta and Partha Mukherjee’s Soumitra Chatterjee: A Life in Cinema, Theatre, Poetry & Painting is by no means a daunting book. At just 188 pages long (and that includes a number of photographs), it’s not a deep and exhaustive study of Chatterjee’s career or his life. Instead, it is a look at some of the highlights of Chatterjee’s cinematic career, as well as a brief glimpse of areas of interest outside of cinema—especially theatre, and to some extent poetry and art—in which Chatterjee excelled.
The focus, however, is on cinema.
The book begins by tracing Chatterjee’s childhood in Krishnanagar, where it seems to have been an idyllic world for an active young boy (whose daak naam, by the way, was Pulu): roaming about the countryside with friends, playing truant, and yet also being introduced to the world he would inhabit and grow increasingly familiar with as an adult. There were the books he would devour when he visited bibliophilic relatives; the stories of the legendary revolutionary leader Bagha Jatin, that he was told by his grandfather (who, along with Chatterjee’s father, served prison sentences during the freedom movement).
… and Chatterjee would see, at the age of about eight, the catastrophic result of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Sengupta and Mukherjee discuss how this experience helped mould Chatterjee’s outlook and his Marxist politics later in life, and connect the Bengal Famine also to one of its most vivid depictions onscreen, in the form of the IPTA production Dharti ke Laal (1946).
While discussing Dharti ke Laal, the authors also go on to discuss related aspects of cinematic trends, of how the theatricality that had ruled early Hindi cinema was giving way to greater realism, and how, over time, while the Bombay-centric Hindi film industry would veer away towards a distinctly commercial, escapist formula, the film industry in Bengal retained its more real flavour. This analysis of trends, of what was happening in cinema (regional and national) at a given point in time, and how that affected Soumitra Chatterjee’s career, the roles he got, and his style of acting, forms an important part of this book.
The bulk of Soumitra Chatterjee is devoted to the collaboration between Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray, an association of director and actor as important (if not more) as that of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. It was Satyajit Ray who discovered Chatterjee, then acting in theatre, and gave the young man the title role in his debut film, Apur Sansar. How Chatterjee adapted to the world of cinema, how Ray helped him learn the ropes, how he mentored the young actor and helped him hone his talent, is discussed extensively in the discussion of Apur Sansar (and several other Ray films which the book talks about).
Not all of Ray’s films with Chatterjee find a mention here; Kapurush, for instance, is just mentioned in passing, not discussed at all. On the other hand, certain roles and certain films find a much greater space devoted to them: these tend to be the ones for which Chatterjee is especially loved (Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath, starring him as the iconic detective Feluda) or which are especially stellar examples of Ray’s genius as a director (Apur Sansar, Charulata, Aranyer Din Ratri among them).
In most of the discussions around these films (and not just Ray’s films, but also the major films Chatterjee made with other directors), the plot is only briefly touched upon; usually, it’s not more than a sentence or two to provide a very basic gist of what the film is about. The focus invariably is upon the character Chatterjee played, and how.
The how of it, how Chatterjee made himself the actor he was—always dependable, always believable, always so very watchable—is what comes across most forcefully in this book. The amount of effort he put into studying a character and getting under the skin of that character; the time and energy expended; the way it shows in roles as diverse as Apu and Mayurvahan (in Jhinder Bondi) or Ashim (in Aranyer Din Ratri): all of these are illustrated with examples. The discussions of Chatterjee’s films stretch from his debut in Apur Sansar to much more recent films, punctuated with insights into how changing norms of film-making, as well as Chatterjee’s own ageing, have necessitated changes in his acting and the roles he gets.
The last two chapters of the book are devoted to Chatterjee’s career in his first love, theatre; and his two other major pastimes, poetry and painting. Translations of some of his poems are reproduced here, as well as photos of some of his paintings. There is an interesting account too, of the Western plays he’s translated into Bengali and helped stage (in some cases, directed and acted in as well). Right at the end of the book is an appendix, an English translation of a lecture Chatterjee once gave in which he talks about the books that have influenced him.
Soumitra Chatterjee: A Life in Cinema, Theatre, Poetry & Painting is not for you if you are looking for an exhaustive exploration of the actor’s work. It is not for you if you like gossip and want to know all about his personal life. Instead, this book offers a glimpse into an intriguing and dynamic personality: a Renaissance man, almost, who seems to have straddled several disciplines with ease. An actor, a writer and poet; a theatre personality, a sportsman (he was an avid cricketer and reluctantly gave it up only when he was advised to choose one area to focus on).
A man whom I now know much better, and feel much more admiration for, after reading this book. Yes, perhaps it is a little too full of adulation (I can’t see any real criticism of Chatterjee in it), but a good introduction to an iconic actor. Worth a read.