Films of Soumitra Chatterjee – A Retrospective

This 15th November of 2020 has been a day of great loss to the world of cinema. Veteran actor, Soumitra Chatterjee / Chattopadhyay (1935), breathed his last at a renowned nursing home in Kolkata. He was 85 and was detected COVID positive last month. Even though he recovered from the infection, his condition deteriorated as he started suffering from multiple ailments. His worth is even beyond his list of awards.

Soumitra Chatterjee is an internationally acclaimed legendary actor with immense versatility. His work was mostly pivotal around Bengali Cinemas. He was a popular thespian – playwright, director and an actor on stage. He was an admired elocutionist and also an amateur painter. His contributions in the world of literature as a writer, poet, editor and bibliophile is impeccable. Satyajit Ray, the world-famous, filmmaker, brought him on screen. Their collaborations (14 movies) have yielded some of the best-made films in the world. He has also worked with famous directors like Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and many more. Soumitra Chatterjee has been a pillar of Bengal cinema; the last of the renaissance actor, epitomizing an era himself.

Awards and Accolades of Soumitra Chatterjee

In 2004 Soumitra Chatterjee was awarded ‘Padma Bhushan’, a civilian award of one of the highest orders in India. He is the first Indian film personality conferred with ‘Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’, France’s highest civilian award for artists. The actor has bagged 3 National Awards and 7 Filmfare Awards. He won ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi’ Award in 1998, given by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama. In 2012, he was recognized by the government of India with ‘Dadasaheb Phalke’ Award for lifetime achievement.

All of his movies are remarkable. However, I have tried listing some of my favourites. It definitely is a mammoth task. He is a lodestar to the world of Indian cinema with more than 350 movies in his 62 years of career in the world of theatre and films.

Let’s start with some of his collaborations with Satyajit Ray.

Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959)

Soumitra Chatterjee’s first on screen appearance happens with this movie. Apur Sansar is the third and last part of Apu’s triology, directed by the great Satyajit Ray. The three parts ‘Pather Panchali’, ‘Aparajito’ and ‘Apur Sansar’ are based on a Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. Apur Sansar is story of adult Apu’s life. Soumitra Chatterjee is brilliant as Apu, portraying all the facades of the character intensely.

Apu is an unemployed graduate, aspiring to be a novelist. He happens to visit his friend’s cousin’s marriage. On the very day of marriage, it is found out that the groom is a half-wit. This marriage is cancelled but Apu is forced to marry the lady, Aparna. The bride, Aparna is the beautiful and talented actress Sharmila Tagore. Slowly a romantic relationship blooms between Apu and Aparna, but the movie takes a turn with Aparna’s demise during her delivery. Apu holds the birth of his son, Kajal, responsible for the death of his loving wife.

The calm and romantic Apu turns violent and clueless at the same time. He renounces all worldly ties. He even throws away the manuscripts of his novel which he had written down over the years. The sheets fly like birds about to rest during sundown. This scene marks the end of Apu’s aspirations and has been internationally recognized. Apu becomes suicidal and leads the life of a vagabond.  After a few years, his friend finds him and tries to bring him back to normal life.

Apu’s first meeting with his son, Kajal, breathes realizations into him. He remembers his orphaned and unattended days. Kajal initially doesn’t accept Apu as his father. They slowly develop friendly bonding. The last scene shows Kajal seated on his father’s shoulders, depicting the responsible Apu and Kajal’s new vast world. The movie is all about space and dependency in relationships. Pandit Ravi Shankar’s background scores perfectly blend with the flow with the movie. This is one of the best-made movies in the world.

Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964)

Satyajit Ray made this movie based on the Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore’s novel ‘Nashtanirh’ meaning ‘the broken nest’. The story is based in Imperial during the Renaissance period. The film revolves around Charulata (Charu), the intelligent and beautiful wife of Bhupati who owns and publishes a political newspaper. Bhupati is an upper-class Bengali intellectual with a keen interest in politics and the freedom movement. He loves his wife but hardly has time to attend to her. Sensing her boredom Bhupati invites Charu’s brother and sister-in-law to live with them.

Bhupati’s cousin Amal, played by Soumitra Chatterjee, visits them. Amal is young, well-groomed, learned, handsome, and intelligent. He shares his interest in art and literature with Charu. Soumitra Chatterjee has played the role of Amal with immense charm. Charu starts expecting more out of her and Amal’s friendship while Amal steps backfilled with remorse. He feels all the more guilty when Bhupati places all his trust on Amal after being exploited by Charu’s brother.

Soumitra Chatterjee is expressive- he is charming, he is friendly, he is intelligent, he is jealous and he is guilty and even at times insensitive to Charu’s feelings. The movie is internationally acclaimed and the first and the last scenes are still spoken of. The first scene shows Charu’s loneliness as she looks through her binoculars at the outside world. The last scene shows Charu and her husband come close to hold hands when the screen freezes keeping it more modern and open-ended.

Hirok Rajar Deshe (In the Land of the Diamond King, 1969)

This is a story of two friends Goopy Gayen, a singer and Bagha Bayen, a drummer. They are invited by the king of Hirok Rajya (Land of diamonds) at a festival. The king is a dictator, exploiting and oppressing the poor villagers- laborers and farmers with taxation. The outside world doesn’t know of this. They are allured by the warm welcome and the apparently glorious state of affairs. The scientist at the King’s court has also formulated ‘magajdhalai’, a means of hypnotizing anyone who speaks against the ruler.

The King tries to stop education but the teacher, Udayan Pandit, revolts. Soumitra Chatterjee’s character of the teacher in this movie has been reflective of his own strong political or social values. Udayan Pandit happens to meet Gupi Gayen and Bagha Bayen and plans out a revolution. With their help and the children he taught, he could finally bring down the king and his autocracy. All the characters in the movie have rhyming dialogues except the teacher implying that he is a free thinker. Soumitra Chatterjee has done justice to the epic role.

Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970)

The New York Times described the film as a ‘rare, wistful movie that somehow proves it’s good to be alive.’ Yes, the apparently simple movie stirs up the most complex issues we face in our urban life style. Soumitra Chatterjee is the protagonist who visits Palamau Forest with three of his friends.  They try their best to live close to nature. They meet the tribal people. However, when they happen to meet another family from the city, they give up. They try to impress them. There is something which is an impediment to their way of trying to be simple. The city dwellers system is imbibed with the complications. They are used to the visages and masks they wear to hide their vulnerabilities and darkness of the mind.

Detective Felu Da Series

Felu da Series of Satyajit Ray is something that kids of Bengal grow up watching or reading. Feluda, Pradosh Mitra, is a Bengali private investigator. Ray has written numerous stories of Feluda and turned two of them into movies. Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1971) and Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979) are extremely well made. The actors surpassed the beauty of the characters in the books. Pradosh Mitra was popular for his ‘magajastra’ which means he used his brain as a weapon. Yes, Soumitra Chatterjee personified ‘magajastra’. The sharpness of the character, his attention to details and the undeniable charisma is what made Soumitra Chatterjee and Felu da inseparable. 

Sonar Kella was set across Rajasthan and involved rescuing of an eight-year old boy who was kidnapped. The story also involves a parapsychologist, past life regression of the child and fraudulence. Joy Baba Felunath is set across Benaras and is about how a smuggler of antiques is finally exposed and arrested. Both the movies are crisp and gripping till the very end.

A Memorable Journey of Soumitra Chatterjee…

Soumitra Chatterjee was critically appreciated and also a handsome heartthrob in his youth. He has been great in light-hearted rom-com too, for example, in ‘Tin Bhubaner Pare, 1969’ and ‘Basanta Bilap, 1973’. Some of his movies are appreciated for his crude and antagonistic roles too.  He plays the role of a rough and cynical Rajput taxi driver in Ray’s movie, ‘Abhijan (Expedition, 1962)’. His performance is compared to Robert De Niro’s character in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’. 

In Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984), Satyajit Ray had selected a role for Soumitra Chatterjee where he was cunning, taking advantage of his friend financially and his friend’s wife emotionally. His eyes portrayed the perfect greedy and fraudulent nature of the character. Similarly, he was brilliant in an evil character in director Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi (Prisoner of Jhind, 1961). He acted as a traitor and was equally appreciated for his skills together with the then prevailing best actor, Uttam Kumar.

We have seen him in some of the best roles possible as he starts ageing. The role of a determined swimming coach enabling a slum girl to fight all bottlenecks in fulfilling her goal of winning National Championship in the movie ‘Koni, 1984’, has bagged a National Award. Ray’s ‘Ganashatru’ and ‘Shakha Prashakha’ in 1990 are noteworthy.In Gautam Ghosh’s ‘Dekha, 2001’, he acts as an ageing poet affected by glaucoma turning almost blind. He is remarkable in ‘Roopkotha Noy, 2013’ and ‘Bela Seshe, 2015’. Do not miss director Sujoy Ghosh’s short film, ‘Ahalya, 2015’

Soumitra Chatterjee has never failed us; from the age of twenty-four to the age of eighty-five. From severe roles to light-hearted twists; he has won hearts over and over again. 

Author

Dipannita

A versatile writer and travel freak, discovering the world in her own casual way. Loves to immerse into the core of Mother Nature and extract her inherent beauty.

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