A young Apu, Apurba Kumar Roy, wants to write a marvellous novel. “The protagonist, a village boy, is lost in a cruel city. There is poverty and struggle… but that is not all, that is not the tragedy. The boy is not an escapist, he does not run away from all these,” he tells his friend Pulu. The scene is from Satyajit Ray’s 1959 film Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). Soumitra Chatterjee was then a young actor, debuting on silver screen after sharing the stage with legendary thespian Sisir Bhaduri. Cut to 1974 — Pradosh Mitter, a brilliant private detective, answers the idiosyncratic questions of his writer friend Lalmohan Ganguly in Rajasthan. Chatterjee, who played Mitter in the movie Sonar Kella (Golden Fortress), had by then collaborated with Ray in eight movies. He was already a star.
With Apu, Chatterjee started his film career that would span over six decades. After Uttam Kumar, whose stardom was intriguing, the audience found in Chatterjee the next-door young man whose realistic portrayal of quintessential Bengali characters brought him close to their hearts. Arjun Sengupta and Partha Mukherjee trace the journey of the actor in the book, Soumitra Chatterjee: A Life in Cinema, Theatre, Poetry & Painting and unravel his other facets.
Chatterjee was born and brought up in Krishnanagar and came to erstwhile Calcutta to pursue higher studies. It was there that he met Bhaduri and became his pupil. It was Bhaduri’s training that helped Chatterjee grow on stage. But it was Ray who helped the young talent bloom on screen.
After declaring to his professor his inability to continue studies owing to poverty, Apu walks out of the door and into an uncertain life as “Inquilab zindabad” reverberates in the background. It was a turbulent Bengal and many unemployed youths then found a reflection of them in Apu. “Soumitra’s own youthful idealism and artistic ambitions may have informed the character too, and lent that crucial bit of aurhenticity that made Apu such a believable figure,” the authors write in the book.
But Chatterjee will always be remembered as Pradosh Mitter, alias Feluda, the Bengali detective created by Ray. The actor’s handsomely intelligent face, his sharp eyes and quick-witted comments made him an instant favourite among the younger generation. According to the authors, even Chatterjee was aware of the popularity of the character which, he felt, was Ray’s alter ego.
Chatterjee, who had also worked with greats like Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen, would never shy away from experimenting and taking up roles which were against type. The character of Narsingh in Abhijaan, the book says, is probably his most successful attempt in doing so.
But Chatterjee is more than an actor on silver screen. His devotion to theatre remained strong throughout his life despite his stardom in the film industry. He was a poet and painter too. “He lived a great number of lives through his performances, but his most personal self has found expression in poetry and art.”
Chatterjee died last November and with him ended an era of Bengali movie and culture. With him also died the image of the intellectual bhadralok. The book, though written before his death, is a tribute to the legend. There is a collection of rare photographs of him with Ray. There are anecdotes from his life and time, both on and off the set, and translations of Chatterjee’s poems.
Beyond that, the book encapsulates the changing times in Bengal and in Bengali film industry as it follows Chatterjee’s journey. This makes it interesting and invaluable.
Book: Soumitra Chatterjee: A Life in Cinema, Theatre, Poetry & Painting; Authors: Arjun Sengupta and Partha Mukherjee; Publisher: Niyogi Books; Pages: 186;
Price: Rs 1,250