Book review: Amitava Nag's Murmurs showcases Soumitra Chatterjee's sensitive and cerebral nature

The conversation-based work of non-fiction, which is divided into short theme-based chapters, is a delight.

Roushni Sarkar

The demise of actor, director, playwright, writer, singer and poet Soumitra Chatterjee in 2020 came as a rude shock as none had expected the icon to depart in such a painful fashion.

The artiste, however, left behind a rich legacy in the performing arts and culture that will be savoured and dissected for years to come.

Amitava Nag’s deeply reflective and personal book on Bengal's last Renaissance man, Murmurs, is an intriguing literary work. It makes us wonder whether while celebrating the actor, we have overlooked the cerebral and deeply sensitive artiste who was constantly evolving and asking himself if he had given back as much as he had received over the course of his long and illustrious career.

Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020): Icon who enriched Bengal's culture and Indian cinema

Murmurs is an interactive work of non-fiction that is replete with both uttered and silent dialogues between the artiste and the author. Divided into short theme-based chapters, the easy-to-understand volume, which is loaded with profound observations, captivates the reader even when Chatterjee is not quoted.

The book assumes a semi-autobiographical tone when it sheds light on the different moments in the author’s professional life during which he had attempted to speak to Chatterjee and could not muster the courage until the moment arrived in 2009. Interestingly, every attempt marked a significant phase in the author’s life and also prepares the reader for an intimate introduction to Chatterjee.

The themes with which each chapter has been headlined are highlighted in the interactions, which are sometimes interspersed with vivid descriptions of Chatterjee’s contemplative pauses, gestures and looks, and the author’s own responses to the actor. Thanks to the pauses, we get to see the performer in a different light.

Though the book is structured on the basis of themes that connect Nag and Chatterjee personally, their lucid conversations cover a vast range of topics. Murmurs clearly details the way acting, music, poetry, painting and make-up shaped Chatterjee’s life. It also informs the reader about how he was inspired in each of these fields by his own idols and legends. There is also a discussion about cricket and the sporting spirit the actor imbibed with tenacity and grace over the years.

The conversation frequently shifts from one subject to another, such as nicotine addiction, voice training and poetry, often leaving the author vulnerable in the face of some searching questions raised by Chatterjee or startling revelations made by him.

The subject's honesty makes it hard to put the book down. Chatterjee and Nag's discussions on death and old age, which touch upon nostalgia and memory, and the bits when the artiste gets candid about facing rejection in his career and the moments where he was compelled to play down his artistic abilities are engrossing.

An introvert often ruminates about various matters but may not articulate them out loud. In an introductory chapter, ‘Letters and Interviews’, Nag speaks of how he often wrote letters that were never meant to be posted or wrote questions for interviews that were never held. Similarly, in the book, the interactions reveal how Chatterjee transcended mundane notions of success and failure, among other things. But like the introvert, the book also holds back a lot, as not everything is laid bare, but this lends it a certain charm and makes the reader come back multiple times.

Murmurs is not a scholarly work on Chatterjee's cinematic oeuvre. It is a documentation of his lived experiences. The contemporaneity of the writing — along with the choice of poetic and meaningful words — makes the book one to take away a lot from, in terms of both its content and literary value.

Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee is published by Blue Pencil. Click here to order your copy.

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