Book Review: Amitava Nag’s ‘Soumitra Chatterjee: His Life in Cinema and Beyond’

For someone who didn’t know of Soumitra Chatterjee till fairly late in life, I fell under the actor’s spell pretty fast. Initially (as I mentioned in this review of another Soumitra Chatterjee biography) seeing him in Charulata, I liked him well enough to want to explore more of his work. I watched him then in various other films, and always, so far, with admiration. His versatility, the way he manages to mould himself to believably depict such different characters: exemplary acting.

So when another Soumitra Chatterjee biography—Amitava Nag’s Soumitra Chatterjee: His Life in Cinema and Beyond (Speaking Tiger Books, 2023)—came to me to read, I wasn’t averse to the idea. Perhaps Nag would have something different to say about the subject?

Well, obviously not so much more, given the subject. There’s only so much one might say about a personality.

The initial chapters of this book are, unsurprisingly, about Soumitra’s childhood and youth, and the formative influences  of this period: his ancestor, the freedom fighter ‘Bagha Jatin’; Soumitra’s mother’s love for poetry—instead of lullabies, she would recite Rabindranath Tagore’s poems to her children to put them to sleep—; the famine of Bengal, etc. All of these, and more, helping mould the young Soumitra as a lover of poetry; a man sensitized to suffering, imbued with a compassion for the poor. Definitely leftist.

Soumitra’s foray into theatre, his early acquaintance and mentoring by theatre great Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, and some of how he came to work with Satyajit Ray, I already knew. I also knew some of how his career in cinema progressed, as he moved from playing the debonair young leading man, through nuanced middle-aged characters, into the older characters of more recent years. I knew, too, of the other hobbies and pursuits that Soumitra occupied himself with alongside cinema: writing (especially poetry); art; theatre.

What Amitava Nag does is to go deeper into Soumitra Chatterjee’s persona than I’d read of before. For instance, instead of exploring each film of Soumitra’s (especially those he made with Ray, given that most people tend to think of that famous association first), Nag examines the evolution of Soumitra in cinema: how he learnt acting, how he tried to bring to life the characters he played. There are some interesting behind-the-scenes glimpses here of how Soumitra perfected the ‘walk’ of the urbane, educated man; how he learnt to play a blind man, and so forth: the homework that went into his characters. Even to his changing his handwriting to stay in character for Charulata.

There are insights into the directors he worked with, in particular those (like Tapan Sinha) who gave him some of his most interesting roles. There is, as one might expect, some level of comparison with Uttam Kumar. No, not derogatory, I hasten to add; Nag, while obviously very much in the Soumitra camp, is respectful and accommodating of differences. One of the more interesting aspects of this difference between the two stars is in their forays—or not—into the lucrative and glittering world of Hindi cinema. Using the examples, too, of two other Bengali stars who ventured into Bollywood (Biswajit and Sharmila Tagore), Nag conjectures, logically, about why Soumitra (who might have, if he wished, got the role of Anand’s Dr Bhaskar Banerjee, which was eventually played by Amitabh Bachchan), preferred to stay within the cinema he knew best.

There are also, and this I especially appreciated, glimpses into the workings of politics in cinema. Nag describes how politics caused problems in Bengali cinema, and in theatre as well, often wrecking work. That politics also lay behind Soumitra’s declining of various awards (the Padma Shri for one) reflects not just on the dirtiness of politics, but also on Soumitra’s sense of ethics. Incidentally, I liked one little but touching aspect of this business of awards and prizes, as Soumitra put it: how much of a difference the words of praise from his fans meant to him. There are some moving episodes here, including one of a letter sent by the daughter of a prostitute, which I could imagine would deeply affect a man as sensitive as Soumitra Chatterjee comes across.

Another aspect about this book that I liked was the depth to which Nag examines Soumitra Chatterjee’s theatre. While I had known something of the theatre work Soumitra had done, I hadn’t known much; this book is an eye-opener on that front. What plays he wrote, directed and acted in; where he drew inspiration from; how he elevated Bengali theatre from the depths it had sunk to; the production values he brought to his plays. This particular section made for interesting reading, even prompting me to go search on YouTube for Soumitra’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s legendary king in Raja Lear. Sadly, there was nothing there, but Nag’s descriptions, coupled with the photos of Soumitra as Lear, really made me wish I could have seen this. Even if, my Bangla being abysmally rudimentary, I would not understand much.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book. It is not a primer on Soumitra Chatterjee’s films (though there’s a list of them, along with lists of his plays, his published works, his television series, etc, at the end of the book): this is not where you can find a detailed dissection of every role he played. It is not a gossipy look at his personal—or even, for that matter, professional—life. It is, instead, a close look into the personality that he was, all the varied subjects that interested him, what he believed in, what he stood for.

Nag does write, near the end of the book, that it is not a ‘hagiography’; I wonder about that, because to me it comes across as quite unstinted in its praise of Soumitra Chatterjee. Yes, Nag is dignified about his obvious admiration for his idol and doesn’t come across as sycophantic, but there is nothing here that doesn’t, in some way or the other, show Soumitra Chatterjee in a good light. I don’t know whether that’s because the author is looking at the subject of his work through rose-tinted glasses, or whether Chatterjee really was one of those people with not a single flaw (are there any like that?)

Despite that, a good book. Much recommended.


8 thoughts on “Book Review: Amitava Nag’s ‘Soumitra Chatterjee: His Life in Cinema and Beyond’

  1. Interesting. :) Because I have another book on Soumitra Chatterjee by Nag that I have very mixed feelings about.

    I too wonder at the ‘not hagiography’ disclaimer? Because what constitutes hagiography? Just praising the subject to the skies? Or, as here (as per your review – I haven’t read the book), being subtle about the praise?

    And your question about whether a person so perfect exists – so valid a query, Madhu. Because even saints have faults, no?

    Your review makes me curious about the book – it would be nice to know more about his theatre forays, for instance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Because even saints have faults, no?

      Exactly. For me, the best bios are the ones that don’t gloss over the faults of their subjects. It’s human, after all, to have at least something that isn’t perfect.

      I really liked the section about Soumitra’s forays into theatre. I knew a bit of this from the other bio I’d read, but Nag goes deep into it and really shines the light on the many interesting things he did in theatre – from writing to directing, producing, acting… as also the politics he ran up against!


  2. Madhu,
    Excellent review of a book on an actor I admire. About the inevitable comparison with Uttam Kumar, I think the latter is regarded as a greater star, but my favourite is Soumitra. I believe both acted in some films together. They are in my next watchlist. I guess it must be a very good book. “Not a hagiography” disclaimer is unnecessary. The author should have left it for the readers to judge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have actually watched one of the films in which Soumitra Chatterjee and Uttam Kumar acted together – Jinder Bondi, which I also reviewed on this blog. A very interesting outing for Chatterjee, since it’s the rare film from his earlier years when he acted the villain rather than the more conventional hero.


      • Dear Madhu,

        At the outset, I must admit, that what I am about to write about, is most certainly ‘off-topic”!

        I happened to come upon a listing of the book: “The Pledge: Adventures to Sada” (authors:Madhulika Liddle and Kannan Iyer; pub. by Speaking Tiger)

        in the Magaazine Section of “The Hindu” on Sunday, March 5, 2023.

        On looking further, I saw this on SCROLL

        “The Pledge: Adventures to Sada”
        Madhulika Liddle and Kannan Iyer”

        In an imaginary time, in the mythical, scenic but deeply troubled land of Mandala, the ailing old magician Jaadum expresses his dying wish: to have his son Raibhu immerse his and his wife Asi’s last remains in the Sada river. But under that simple human wish lies buried the secret at the heart of the Mandala purana – the legend of the Mandalan civilisation. A powerful secret that reveals itself in one intriguing layer after another to Raibhu and his companions: his best friend Afhash and the mysterious, strikingly beautiful Inosa. Together they must protect this purana at all costs from the evil warlord Umur Naash. As Raibhu, Afhash and Inosa embark on a journey through perilous terrain to fulfil Jaadum’s wish, they will be tested to their limits. The future of Mandala lies in the hands of Raibhu and his companions.

        I am so completely in awe of how you conjure up, as it were, so many books, and that too, on varied subjects, as also your writings on travel, even as you post with such prolificacy on “Dustedoff”

        Way to go, Madhu!

        I did say, ” off-topic” at the beginning…

        (I do hope to eventually get down to writing about the little that I have heard about Soumitra Chatterjee and his life beyond cinema and theatre, in part, due to his long and close association with Mrinal Sen).

        best wishes to you, always,

        Praba Mahajan

        Liked by 1 person

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