I admire Satyajit Ray immensely. Not only for his keen understanding of human nature and his ability to interpret that in a meaningful, restrained and memorable way, but also for so much more: his intelligence, his eye for detail, his artistic ability. And, up there with all the rest of these qualities, his versatility. Several people have called him a ‘Renaissance Man’, and I agree completely: this man was a fine director, as well as a great writer, artist, costume designer, font designer- and so much else.
And he was versatile even in the world of cinema itself. For those who equate Ray only with ‘art’ films, works like Chiriakhana, Shonar Kella, Joy Baba Felunath and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne may come as a surprise: but to me, at least, they constitute a happy surprise. Different from Jalsaghar or Charulata (or so many other films of Ray’s) but in their own way, manifestations of Ray’s genius. Comedy, whodunnit, adventure: Ray could do it all, and do it well.
Or romantic comedy. While Ray did not direct Baksa Badal (his assistant Nityanand Datta did), he wrote the screenplay for this delightfully romantic comedy about two people whose identical suitcases get switched, and what that switch leads to. (Ray also composed the music for Baksa Badal).
Note: The original story of Baksa Badal was a short story by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. You can read an English translation of it here.
In one important scene in Aranyer Din Raatri, a successful business executive named Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee) tells Aparna, a poised young woman he’s met in the jungles of Palamau, that life in the city is all about rules. If you have to work, you have to abide by the rules.
Rules, the implication is, suffocate. And every now and then, to survive and to give yourself a break from those oppressive rules, you rebel. You go away, you flee. You find yourself again, you refresh yourself, regain your energy and then come back to start conforming all over again.
This seems to be the premise with which this film, one of Satyajit Ray’s best-known works, begins. Ashim, along with three other friends, is driving down from Kolkata to Palamau for a holiday. The men are a mixed bag. Sanjay (Shubhendu Chatterjee) works in the jute industry and, as they’re driving along, is sitting in the back of the car and reading a book about Palamau from which he reads out excerpts now and then.
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.
When I read the news of Soumitra Chatterjee’s passing away, my first thought was: I need to write a tribute, talk about how much I liked this actor. Then, reality crept in. It’s not as if I’ve seen too many films that starred Soumitra Chatterjee. Charulata, Kapurush, Jhinder Bondi, Aranyer Din Raatri, Sonar Kella, one of the three episodes of Teen Kanya… and that was it. I didn’t recall having seen any of his other films.
Which might sound odd; how could one like an actor so much based on only such a handful of films? But I suppose when you’re looking at quality rather than quantity, it can work. And Soumitra Chatterjee, even in the few films of his that I’ve seen, proved himself a memorable actor. Not just handsome, not just superficially charismatic, but also so very talented. His ‘coward’ of Kapurush is so very real, so flawed and believable a protagonist; his Mayurvahan in Jhinder Bondi is a deliciously evil portrayal of the flamboyant, boyishly attractive yet very wicked Rupert of Hentzau. It’s easy to see why a bored and neglected housewife would fall in love with this young man in Charulata, and he is Feluda. Sharp, intelligent, well-read (and intelligent and well-read are apt descriptions of the man in real life too, from what I gather).
But a full-fledged tribute, a run-down of all his best films: no, that was not something I thought I would be capable of. Instead, I decided to commemorate the life and career of Soumitra Chatterjee by watching one film I’d only heard of in passing, never really got down to seeing.
Considering I’ve recently reviewed two Hindi swashbucklers (Baadal and Baadal), both obviously—in one case even with credit accorded—inspired by European sources, I thought it appropriate to continue in the genre for another film. Also a swashbuckler, also inspired by a work from European literature. The Bengali film Jhinder Bondi (‘The Prisoner of Jhind’), based on Anthony Hope’s classic The Prisoner of Zenda (and the novel which Saradindu Bandyopadhyay—of Byomkesh Bakshi fame—based on The Prisoner of Zenda).
Kapurush O Mahapurush (The Coward and The Holy Man) isn’t one film, even though these two short films—each just over an hour long—were released together, as a sort of ‘combined pack’. Unlike Satyajit Ray’s other well-known set of short stories-clubbed-together film, Teen Kanya, the two component stories of KapurushOMahapurush have barely anything in common (except possibly a central male character who drives—or does not drive—the story). I watched these two short films one after the other and thought of writing separate reviews for each—then decided that they’re best reviewed the way I saw them. Together, one after the other.
This Satyajit Ray film had been lying in my to-watch pile for a long time. Then, I learnt a few days back that the Indian government had finally decided to award a Dadasaheb Phalke to Soumitra Chatterjee for his contribution to Indian cinema. Better late than never, I guess (even though a number of people have said that it’s too late). The announcement, however, did give me a solid reason to watch Charulata (aka The Lonely Wife). And I ended up wanting to hit myself for not having seen this masterpiece earlier.