Interview Bengali

When I failed my first screen test, I was really happy, recalls Soumitra Chatterjee: 85th birthday special


Actor Soumitra Chatterjee, star of many a masterpiece by Satyajit Ray, reminisces about his early days in cinema, his love for theatre and why he believes there are no rules in acting, in this compilation interview.

Shoma A Chatterji

It is next to impossible to compare the erudition and many talents visited upon a single actor who has been in the film industry for around six decades now. He is not just an actor in films, though that is how people mostly know him. He is a very gifted poet in Bengali literature, he is a theatre actor, playwright and translator, and he has edited a very prestigious literary Bengali magazine called Ekhhon. He is also a much-in-demand recitation artiste.

Even at age 85 (he was born on 19 January 1935), Soumitra Chatterjee’s name is right up there in the credits of every other Bengali film today, from National award-winning director Suman Ghosh’s Bosu Paribar (2019) to first-time director Anumita Dasgupta’s Bohomaan (2019), playing the title role, as in Anik Dutta’s Borunbabur Bondhu (2019), or doing a one-scene cameo in some film whose name also he cannot recall, so forgettable it is.

Recently back from hospital after an attack of pneumonia, Soumitra Chatterjee is reluctant these days to sit down for an interview. So, one has put together what one has gathered from a series of interviews in the recent past as the great artiste celebrates his 85th birthday. Excerpts:

Few people are aware how your film career began.

Rather, I would have you ask how it did not begin. I was asked to report for an audition for a role in Neelachaley Mahaprabhu (1957), which portrayed the life of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, one of the greatest spiritual leaders in Bengal. But the director did not approve of me and I was quite content, because I was a loathe to shave my head had I landed that role. Besides, I had a very derogatory attitude towards Indian cinema, even Bengali cinema. This happened because I had a major attitude problem as cinema at that time for me meant films like Bicycle Thieves (1948), The Fall Of Berlin (1950), Miracle In Milan (1951), etc.

I failed the screen test and was really happy. The film, which subsequently featured Ashim Kumar, turned out to be a big box-office hit.

Did you ever meet that filmmaker again?

Yes, yes, I did some years later. I was travelling with Manik-da [Satyajit Ray] to Delhi to pick up the President’s award and we met this producer who boasted that he was the one who 'discovered' me. By then, I was already a known face courtesy Satyajit Ray. But having heard the story already from me, Ray point-blank pointed out that he had rejected me. He had no words to counter this.

But you were initially rejected by Ray too, right?

I was doing theatre at that point and had no celluloid dreams. In fact, I had reservations about Indian cinema. To us, theatre was high art while cinema was for mass consumption. Young people in theatre often suffer from this misconception and I was no different.

But when I watched Pather Panchali (1955), it totally blew my mind. I never imagined that cinema could rise to that level and was convinced that this was how the future of acting and movies would be.

Even then, I had no intention to act in films. Natyasamrat Sisir Kumar Bhaduri was my guru, my mentor. I just wanted to be in his footsteps. But on the advice of a friend who was a member of Ray’s team, I decided to audition for Apu in the Pather Panchali sequel Aparajito (1956). Ray told me I didn’t fit the role of a college-going Apu. He needed someone much younger and also felt that I was too tall for the role. So, I left that day. [But] his Pather Panchali had changed my entire perspective about Indian cinema.

Then how did Apur Sansar (1959) happen?

After Aparajito was released and won many national and international awards, Ray called me for some camera tests and voice tests. Later, I understood that it was to rid me of camera consciousness. One day, when I dropped in on the sets of Jalsaghar (1958), Ray introduced me to Chhabi Biswas, the protagonist in the film. He introduced me as "my Apu for the third part of the trilogy". I was speechless. That is how I came to know that I was to play Apu in Apur Sansar.

In Apur Sansar (1959), his debut film

What was your reaction when you found yourself acting in Apur Sansar?

Initially, I was dumbstruck. But my work in the film opened a new window I did not know existed. Satyajit Ray was an institution unto himself. He changed my entire way of looking at acting on the one hand and cinema on the other.

I was already deep into theatre and was enjoying myself thoroughly. Over the years, Ray and I became quite close even on personal terms. I have not ever tried to analyse the nature of our friendship, if I can call it that. I had tremendous respect for him and I trusted him unconditionally. He was an absolute genius.

Tell us about your experience in theatre.

It was my passion for acting that pulled me to theatre. I was also deeply influenced by films. The home environment was supportive. Theatre was there in the family. My grandfather was president of an amateur dramatic club. We grew up hearing his anecdotes. My father acted in plays produced by another group. He was brilliant in reciting poetry.

As children, we would often put up our own ‘plays’ at home, based on small booklets that could be bought from the market. I recall having ‘staged’ Tagore’s Mukut at home, using bedsheets for curtains, the bed for the stage, and getting help for props and costumes from my parents.

We got a lot of encouragement from our parents. I loved the very feeling of acting. I found it fascinating.

We would like to know more about your other plays.

I hardly remember all my plays. Among the ones I do recall are Bidehi, adapted from [Henrik] Ibsen’s Ghost. Fame arrived with Naamjibon. Neelkantha, which I wrote and directed, besides acting in the lead role, was first staged in 1988. When we revived the play several years later, it drew a full house every time.

Other successful plays are Rajkumar, Tiktiki (Sleuth), Atmakatha (the Bengali adaptation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s famous Marathi play) and Raja Lear, adapted from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Tiktiki had more than 125 shows, each performed to a full house.

We also staged an autobiographical play Tritiyo Onko Otoeb, which roughly translates as The Third Act, Therefore. I was suffering from a [serious] disease at the time and instead of writing about it, I chose to write a play that, in the process, turned into my life story narrated by three different actors, including me, each a dimension of the same character, me. It was a self-reflexive commentary produced by Prachya. The disease is never named in the play, but it is implied and understood.

How do you define acting?

Acting is perhaps the only form of creative artistic expression that does not follow any rules and does not have any fixed formula. Music is based on the sargam, which one can, of course, toy around with, explore and experiment with. Dance has abhinaya and rhythm. Magic, too, has certain rules. But acting is something the actor has to create temporarily at that given point of time in the play or the film, which only a good director is able to control. Actors can benefit under some directors only, not any and every director. Institutional training is also a construct and rules are created; they do not exist from the beginning of time.

Is there a difference between acting in theatre and acting in cinema?

Acting in theatre is acting in real time. It is continuous, sequential and chronological. The rehearsals for a play take care of the actor’s preparation for his role. The response, too, is immediate. You can keep working on the finer nuances of a character somewhat determined by audience response to a given scene. So, for every performance, your acting will not be exactly the same as your earlier ones. Besides, audience response is immediate.

Cinema is not acting in real time. It is discontinuous, not sequential and not chronological. There are no rehearsals for cinema. So, an actor prepares through discussions with the director, by reading and re-reading the script. In cinema, once a take is 'okay' or 'good' and has been canned, there is nothing you can do to change it, never mind if you want to change it slightly. Of course, the digital age makes room for improvisations which not all actors have the time or inclination to do.

Uttam Kumar

How was your chemistry with Uttam Kumar, then the only idol ruling over Bengali cinema, who came to be your closest rival?

I am tired of answering this again and again. Our times were different and we worked in an ambience of happy camaraderie. He was older than me and much senior in the industry. Our roles in Bengali cinema never clashed because we had two very different screen images and our fans had accepted these two different images.

Uttam Kumar gave me a tremendous sense of competition. I had to deal with it on my own terms, without either imitating him or being influenced by him. We were more like the East Bengal and Mohun Bagan football teams. Calcutta would always be divided into two warring groups when it came to choosing between the two of us.

We acted together in quite a few films. I did have my box-office potential as hero. I would not have lasted this long if this had not been so. I admired him for his commitment, his dedication and his industry.

Why have you never made any difference between art films and crassly commercial films?

I am an actor, period. Besides, acting is my bread and butter. I have a lot of dependents whom I consider my responsibility. How can an actor become judgemental about a film that is being shot when he does not know what the final product will look like?

The quality of an average Bengali film has gone down. My work in these films is a reflection of that quality. Sometimes, you feel this film is not going to be good and it turns out to be a pleasant surprise. Cinema is full of uncertainties and elements beyond anyone’s control and an actor is just a small keg in that giant wheel.

Talking of wheel, you count your role in Tapan Sinha’s Wheel Chair (1994) among your notable performances.

Acting is a training ground for any actor who needs to learn other skills and art forms to enact a given role. This is a challenge every actor needs to take on. Tapan Sinha’s Wheel Chair was, perhaps, the most challenging. I practised moving about on a wheelchair because the physical details of how a man does minor things while seated on a wheelchair is important. But when it finally went on the floors, I could not practise all over again.

I love the challenge of learning something for a specific role. For Kshudita Pashan (1960), I had to learn horse riding. I discovered that riding a horse or moving about on a wheelchair helps form an insight into a given character.

I played an old man caught in different degrees of Alzheimer’s disease in Atanu Ghosh’s Mayurakshi (2017), which won the National award. This demanded a change in the character’s behaviour, vision and philosophy. These get reflected in his performance.

The physical approach to a character is very important. Once this is achieved, then a trip to the mental world of the character becomes seamless.

Can you pick your favourite roles from films not directed by Ray?

Tarun Majumdar’s Sansar Simantey (1975), in which I played a thief living in a brothel, Saroj Dey’s Kony (1984), where I played a swimming coach training a very very poor but talented swimmer, helping her to championship, and Raja Mitra’s Ekti Jibon (1990) that portrayed the life of Bengal’s first dictionary compiler.

Among mainstream films, my memorable films are Agradani (1983), Babu Moshai (1977), Baghini (1968), Chhutir Phande (1974), Jadi Jantem (1974) and Sudur Niharika (1975), in which I did three different roles. Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum (1965), Ajoy Kar’s Malyadaan (1971), Khunje Berai (1971), Stree (1972) and Tarun Majumdar’s Ganadevata (1979) are other milestones. I also liked Podokkhep (2006), Angshumaner Chhobi (2009), Dwando (2009) and Mayurakshi.

You refused the National award for Best Actor for Goutam Ghose's Dekha (2001). But you were thrilled when the Dadasaheb Phalke award was bestowed upon you [in 2012]. How do you explain this?

I rejected the Best Actor award because at that time I believed that awards often went to people who did not deserve them when other better and more powerful performances were ignored. I felt that stars were awarded over genuine actors and I did not wish to be part of that scenario.

The Dadasaheb Phalke award came some years later. I was happy because my faith in the public that has sustained me for so many years was vindicated.

But theatre remains my first love. I recently played an important role in Phera, directed by my daughter Poulomi, which was an adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit. It is an old play that I used to do long back. Now, Poulomi has shortened and contemporized it. The play was presented as part of the National School of Drama’s eighth Theatre Olympics in Mumbai.

 

Soumitra Chatterjee was bestowed with the Padma Bhushan in 2004. He won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for his rich contribution to theatre in Bengal in 2012. French director Catherine Berge made a documentary on him called Gaach (1998). He has received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettre, the highest award for the arts in France, and a Lifetime Achievement award from Italy.

The Films Division made another documentary on the multi-faceted artiste under the title Soumitra Revisited. Krantik Prakashan and Seagull Foundation for the Arts released a book by Anasuya Roy Chowdhury on the actor called Aaj Kaal Porshur Prantey: An Interview with Soumitra Chatterjee. Amitava Nag has penned a book analysing, exploring and critiquing 25 selected films of Soumitra Chatterjee; the actor collaborated in the choice.

When the Dadasaheb Phalke award was bestowed upon Chatterjee in 2012, he had already put in 53 long years in cinema. On 9 June 2017, Soumitra Chatterjee was bestowed the Legion d’Honneur by France for his rich contribution to cinema. The title is Commandeur. He is the first Indian actor to be so honoured. Sivaji Ganesan had earlier been honoured with the rank of Chevalier in 1995.

Correction, 22 January 2020: An earlier version of the interview mentioned that Soumitra Chatterjee had turned down the National award for Best Actor for Podokkhep (2006). Chatterjee had not rejected that award but an earlier one for Goutam Ghose's Dekha (2001).