Obituary: Bengal's finest actor, Soumitra Chatterjee, passes away in Kolkata
Veteran actor and Dadasaheb Phalke awardee Soumitra Chatterjee, one of the finest actors Bengal has ever produced, died on Sunday a few minutes after midday defeating a valiant fight of 40 days by a team of more than a dozen doctors in Kolkata’s Belle Vue Clinic.
He was admitted to the hospital on October 6 with COVID 19 symptoms but later succumbed to a host of ailments and infections that culminated in multi-organ failure. Hospital authorities said the end came at 12:15 pm.
In many respects, Chatterjee was a man of exceptional qualities. At a time when actors and directors less than half his 85 years were afraid of stepping out of their homes, Soumitra Chatterjee was busy shooting till he was admitted to Belle Vue Clinic.
Over the past few weeks, the doctors tried out all the tricks in their sleeves to revive him including music therapy and plasma therapy.
To stretch an overworked cliché, age was not even a number to Chatterjee. A man of diverse interests and talent like the two men he admired most in his life – Tagore and Ray – Chatterjee was perhaps the last man in whom the last vestiges of that golden era of Bengal – Bengal Renaissance – provided an occasional glimpse.
He was an avid theatre actor, wrote poetry and also edited a magazine and designed covers.
Continuously active and creative, Chatterjee’s zeal for acting did not diminish even after he reached 80. He kept himself remarkably fit by exercising and working on film sets for hours even during his last months, rarely wasting time in what could have been a richly deserved leisure.
Again like Tagore and Ray, Chatterjee was unlike most Bengalis, though he would certainly be highlighted to showcase the talent of Bengalis.
He was tall, fair and handsome with sharp looks. A superstar was the only thing Chatterjee was not. He was a brilliant actor who acted with his heart and brains. Generations of Bengalis have hotly debated the acting skills of Uttam Kumar and Chatterjee, the former certainly scoring over the lanky junior in star value. Had he been born in some other era, Chatterjee could have been a superstar as well.
However, Soumitra Chatterjee who shot into the limelight with the final part of Ray’s trilogy Apur Sansar (1959), became quickly typecast as the intellectual’s actor – a fact that was underscored by him starring in as many as 14 films of Ray – a tag that never left him in his career that spanned more than six decades.
If Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune, and Fellini had Mastroianni, Ray had Chatterjee.
Be it Apu as in Apur Sansar (1959), Feluda in Sonar Kella (1974) and Jay Baba Felunath (1978), Asim as the leader of the pack in Aranyer Din Ratri or Gangacharan Chakraborty in Asani Sanket (1973), Narsingh in Abhijan (1962), Amal in Charulata (1964) Soumitra Chatterjee looked equally convincing in all the characters Ray pitched him.
However, Chatterjee was certainly not one director’s actor.
In Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi (1961), he posed a tough challenge to Uttam Kumar on the screen. Mrinal Sen depicted him in Akash Kusum (1965) in a memorable role. The way he shook his legs in Teen Bhubaner Parey (1969) proved that if he wanted he could also reposition himself as a romantic star.
The role of a struggling swimming coach Khit-da that he essayed in Saroj De’s film Koni (1986) will remain forever etched in the memory of Bengali film audiences. “Fight Kony fight” that he used to egg on the poor swimmer girl became a catchphrase for motivation among Bengalis.
Chatterjee perhaps consciously chose to be different than a star. A student of Bengali literature of City College and Calcutta University who had a fancy of recitation and writing poetry, Chatterjee was keen to leave his mark as an actor. He was noticed by Ray when he was making Aparajito but Chatterjee was not suited for Apu’s character in that part of the trilogy. Ray cast him in the final part unleashing a remarkable career.
And recognition came rushing during Chatterjee’s lifetime. Though the national establishment ignored him during his long career, it had to relent in 2012 when it awarded him the Dadasaheb Phalke award as recognition for his lifetime contribution to films. Chatterjee was strangely never considered fit for the national best actors award during the sixties and the seventies when he essayed the roles that gave him fame and critical acclaim anong the discerning audiences in the country and Europe.
France gave him the Legion of Honor and also the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest award for artists in that country.
Chatterjee also appeared in a couple of Hindi films in 1986 (Nirupama) and 2002 (Hindustani Sipahi). The former was a film where he went behind the camera too.
Since 1959, he appeared in well over 200 films.
The stage was a world of an abiding love for Chatterjee. Though he first appeared on stage before he appeared on the sets of Apur Sansar, he could not devote time to the stage due to the constant string of films in the sixties and seventies. In 1978, he staged a theatre Naam Jiban in Kolkata to be followed by other plays such as Rajkumar, Phera, Nilkantha, Ghatak Biday, Tiktiki and Homapakhi. He also played the protagonist’s role in Raja Lear, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
A man who never forgot to acknowledge gratefulness, Chatterjee used to say how he was indebted to Sisir Bhaduri, a giant on the Bengali stage. Bhaduri was to Chatterjee what De Sica was to Ray. By watching Bhaduri at the end of his career, Chatterjee, who was still then a college student, made up his mind to become an actor.
He was in touch with the veteran and retired actor and learnt fine points of acting from him. Before Bhaduri, Chatterjee also came in touch with famous stage actor Ahindra Chowdhury, who also left an indelible impression on him.