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10 memorable roles of Soumitra Chatterjee – Anniversary special

Soumitra Chatterjee, among India's greatest actors, was one of the many film personalities claimed by the pandemic. The legend died of complications from COVID-19 on this day last year.

Photo: Courtesy of Movie Geeks on Facebook

Roushni Sarkar

Before embarking on his long cinematic journey, Soumitra Chatterjee was a theatre actor and an announcer with All India Radio and had little time for film artistes. However, when he got the chance to work with Satyajit Ray, who had already achieved international glory with his ground-breaking film Pather Panchali (1955), Chatterjee discovered a school of realistic acting and humanist cinema that was closely aligned with his own artistic and cerebral bent.

A consistent stage actor, playwright, painter and author, Soumitra Chatterjee gathered acclaim worldwide throughout his career spanning six decades. He was conferred with, among others, the Padma Bhushan (2004), the Dadasaheb Phalke award (2012), the Sangeet Natak Akademi award (2012) and France’s highest civilian award, Commander of the Legion of Honour (2017).

Chatterjee was among the few actors who have great roles written with them in mind. In his case it was mostly by Ray but also by the likes of Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, Tarun Majumder and Ajay Kar, all legends from the golden age of Bengali cinema.

Soumitra Chatterjee's life was defined by his work and even during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite his advanced age and frail health, he continued to work, saying he did not have the luxury of sitting at home. And it was in the line of duty that he contracted COVID-19 and died on 15 November 2020 after battling for life for more than a month.

On the first anniversary of his passing, we remember Soumitra Chatterjee by revisiting 10 of his roles that enriched Indian cinema.

Apur Sansar (1959)

The last film in Ray’s Apu trilogy, Apur Sansar marked the beginning of the careers of two giants of Indian cinema — Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore. The amateur Chatterjee’s innocence, the romantic and idealistic look in his eyes, and his ability at recitation with a background in theatre made him the perfect choice for the youthful Apu who breaks away from all domestic attachment after his mother’s death in Aparajito (1956).

Chatterjee breathed life into the layered character that was conceived in sharp contrast to the time the story was set in. A creation of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay in his novel Aparajito, Apu is overqualified for the positions he can apply for. Yet, in a time fraught with joblessness and poverty, he is content with the meagre earnings from giving private tuition, playing the flute to himself in his rented abode and conceptualizing a novel. The memorable sequence in which, after a treat by his friend Pulu, a satiated Apu loudly announces that he has no higher aspiration than living life to the brim, established Chatterjee as a class act.

Apu's spontaneous transformations are seamlessly enacted by Chatterjee throughout the film, even when, in a dramatic turn, he marries Aparna (Tagore) and endows himself with marital bliss and responsibilities. However, her tragic death puts him back in the mode of an explorer of the deeper meaning of life after he overcomes the frustration of losing his beloved and reunites with their son Kajol.

Jhinder Bandi (1961)

From destiny’s child to sly antagonist in a historical drama, Chatterjee made the transformation playing Mayurbahon in Tapan Sinha’s film look effortless, leaving a mark opposite Uttam Kumar, already a star. Knowing for his charming demeanour, Chatterjee made a striking shift in his body language as the youthful and audacious conspirator who plots with Udit Singh, the younger prince from Jhind, against his elder brother and likely king Shankar Singh, played by Uttam Kumar.

Mayurbahon refuses to bow to power and unapologetically expresses his manipulative strength and desire to usurp the throne of Jhind some day. Chatterjee was perfect for the skilled warrior with a sharp mind brought up in a royal atmosphere, who expresses his aversion to the Bengali impostor posing as Shankar Singh with playfulness, an evil grin, and the repeated use of the phrase 'Bandar Bachcha' with a scoff, as if turning the tables of royal politics is just a matter of play for him. Chatterjee carried the character of Mayurbahon with an undaunted countenance as he fights with valour and pride till the last after being cornered by Uttam Kumar's character.

Abhijaan (1962)

The actor's versatility was exploited once again by Ray who cast him as Narasingha Singh, a proud Rajput who has to earn a living as a taxi driver, in Abhijaan. The serious and hot-tempered Narasingha does not mingle with his fellow drivers and often goes overboard to show his pride and indomitable nature. However, such behaviour doesn’t go down well with people of his economic class. No matter how brave he is, his angst at his misfortune makes Narasingha yearn for opportunities that could help him reclaim his pride.

The conflicting shades of strength and weakness in Narasingha were subtly brought alive by the actor. Initially, Narasingha hates women as much as he loathes gentle feelings and emotions. Here again Chatterjee played with his body language, refraining from conveying too much with his expressions. Mili (Ruma Guha Thakurta), his friend's sister, rekindles Narasingha's softer side. Not only does he look beyond racial pride, but he also begins to regard Mili, from a converted Christian family, as his sister and friend. He takes English lessons from her and doesn’t think twice before fighting for her honour.

The way Chatterjee brought out Narasingha’s gradual transformation with a touch of femininity was remarkable. At a weak moment of losing his friend, Narasingha even develops feelings for Gulabi (Waheeda Rehman), from whom he has stayed away for long. As his ambition for higher social status costs him his friendships and results in his downfall, Narasingha realizes the treasures of life. Chatterjee successfully made the character face his vulnerabilities.

Charulata (1964)

Though a Madhabi Mukherjee film through and through, Charulata also boasts of one of the most striking performances by Chatterjee as Amal, her brother-in-law. Ignored by her busy husband Bhupati, the well-read, creative and sensitive Charulata, a modern woman from an aristocratic background in the pre-Independence era, is spending her days in ennui when Amal, Bhupati’s cousin, storms into her life. The graceful Amal, with all the attributes of an educated and privileged young man, stokes Charulata’s creative fire and inspires her to be a writer.

With spontaneity, youthful vigour and innocence, Chatterjee did justice to the character who fills a void in Charu’s life without realizing that not only is she drawn to him, but he is also beginning to epitomize her desires, sense of belonging and possession. However, when Charu’s emotions are bared to him, Amal is in a dilemma. He doesn't want to hurt his 'bouthan' but neither does he want to betray Bhupati’s faith. Chatterjee beautifully expressed Amal’s vulnerability at being threatened by the revelation of Charualata’s unapologetic emotions and his own sense of responsibility towards his cousin’s marital life.

Akash Kusum (1965)

Soumitra Chatterjee aced the character of Ajay Sarkar in Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum. A middle-class executive aspiring for higher social acceptability, Ajay falls for Aparna Sen’s character and doesn’t hesitate to fabricate stories to impress her. Chatterjee skilfully highlighted the superficial traits of his character, as Ajay nonchalantly bluffs about his home and his social and economic background, and gets into comical situations while continuing with the façade. His portrayal of the flawed man is on point. The character doesn’t undergo any great transformation. Chatterjee brought alive the constant tussle between Ajay's dreams and the reality with finesse, highlighting the crisis of the socio-temporal context of the film. Eventually, all of Ajay's lies are exposed, which also draws the curtain on his relationship with his beloved.

Ashani Sanket (1973)

Soumitra Chatterjee shaped the character arc of Gangacharan in Ray’s Ashani Sanket, fitting himself into the role of the Brahmin priest who arrives in a village in Nadia district with the intention of opening a school and helping people with his basic medical knowledge. The film is set in the backdrop of the Bengal famine of 1943. Gangacharan is aware of the impending crisis. Chatterjee skilfully infused a subtle vanity and opportunist bent in Gangacharan, who initially takes his privilege for granted and feels safe at his position. The actor’s performance also spoke of the effort he invested to learn the mannerisms and dialect of the locals.

However, soon Gangacharan's bubble bursts as hunger robs the villagers of dignity and values, and they get into brutal fights over food. Not only does Gangacharan become one with the plight of the villagers, but he eventually turns into a symbol of resistance for the peasant class.

Feluda in Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979)

After Ray stopped making Feluda films, there have been numerous adaptations of the character on both the big and small screens with different actors, but none has been able to match up to the memories etched by Chatterjee’s performance as the sharp-witted Bengali detective of Ray's imagination.

Though most of the credit for the success of both films should go to the director himself, Chatterjee made Feluda readers’ imagination come alive on the screen with the perfect blend of attributes in the sleuth, who is quintessentially Bengali but a global figure in terms of his knowledge of various subjects, power of observation, and moral force. While Feluda was primarily written for teenagers, Chatterjee’s portrayal and Ray’s brilliant cinematic adaptation of his own literary creation made Feluda a favourite across age groups.

Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980)

Chatterjee instilled quiet dignity as well as unwavering resistance in the character of the wise teacher Udayan Pandit, who refuses to comply with the brainwashing agenda of the Hirak raja, or king of diamonds, played by Utpal Dutt, who destroys the school because education makes minds curious and alert against oppression. No wonder the actor, who was learned in real life, was the perfect choice for the powerful character against an autocratic ruler and his corrupt system. In a sequence after his school is demolished by the raja’s forces, Udayan Pandit goes on a run, stumbles upon Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne, and pledges to reopen the school one day. With minimal facial expressions of grit and alertness, Chatterjee made the voice of rebellion heard. While all of the raja’s subjects speak in rhymes, the language of the ruler, Udayan’s free speech stands for freedom and spontaneity.

Ghare Baire (1984)

Chatterjee was brilliant as the manipulative and deceitful Sandip Mukherjee in Ray’s adaptation of Tagore’s novel of the same name. Posing as a revolutionary and delivering impassioned speeches against Lord Curzon’s order to partition Bengal in 1905, Sandip calls for a boycott of imported goods as part of the swadeshi movement but secretly enjoys his stay at the mansion of the illustrious Nikhilesh (Victor Banerjee) and charms Nikhilesh’s wife Bimala (Swatilekha Sengupta) who, encouraged by her modernist husband, has just begun to emerge from her cocoon.

As Sandip carries on with the deceit, falsely promoting his higher ideals, his eyes speak of the gratification he gets from the game of manipulation. Entrapping Bimala with his mind games and articulation, he represents the profiteers who emerged at the cost of the poor in the name of rebelling against British rule. Chatterjee's act was a sharp contrast to that of Banerjee as Nikhilesh, a man of clear thought and honest ideals, and made the evil force at work in The Home And The World come out distinctively.

Kony (1984)

Chatterjee embodied the mannerisms of a middle-aged swimming coach with ease, shading his romantic and urbane image, in this film by Saroj Dey, delivering a memorable performance as Khit-da. He reportedly made the character sketch himself, deciding on the tanned look and costumes to get in tune with the coach who guides Kony, hailing from a poor background, to rise above adversity and compete at the national-level swimming competition. As a dedicated coach, Khit-da inspires perseverance and triumph over pain and every other obstacle that prevents the journey towards excellence.

There were many shades to the character that the actor brought forth, from perfecting the comical moments to projecting restraint, calmness and will power. The line, “Fight Kony, fight”, is one of his most inspiring and reminds us, in a way, of Chatterjee’s own career with relentless achievements on multiple fronts and meaningful creative pursuits despite health isues and other personal crises in his later years.