Today marks the 86th birth anniversary of the doyen of Bangla cinema, Soumitra Chatterjee who passed away on November, 15, 2020.
The actor's 61 year old journey in movies and plays were influenced by Bengal's history, creation of Bangladesh, the Emergency and rise of Marxism and the works of immortal writers.
The legendary actor acted in 14 Satyajit Ray films and showcased his presence in 300 movies in both monochrome and colour for his audience.
Most of the great actors with whom Chatterjee shared screen space - Chhabi Biswas, Uttam Kumar, Utpal Dutta and Subhendu Chatterjee to name just a few - passed away over the decades. Chatterjee was the last male face of what the veterans often referred to as the golden age.
Soumitra Chatterjee's birth and passion for acting
Soumitra Chatterjee was born in Kolkata in 1935 and completed his schooling in Krishnanagar in Nadia district.
He was introduced to acting through family stage plays by his grandfather and lawyer father, both amateur theatre actors. Chatterjee did his masters in Bengali literature from Calcutta University.
Interested in the arts from a young age, he saw a play by Bengali theatre doyen Sisir Bhaduri. It was a turning point, making him realise he wanted to be an actor. However, it was only when he reached the sets of "Apur Sansar" on August 9, 1958 for his first day of shooting that he knew he had found his calling.
Soumitra Chatterjee's debut film 'Apur Sansar'
The camera slowly zooms into a letter- The letter describes Apu as "a "sensitive, conscientious and diligent" person. Soon the camera reflects on Apu's face.
A young, handsome man with an earnest smile who beams in black and white frame. And thus Satyajit Ray beautifully introduces the debutant Soumitra Chatterjee to the world of movies.
Soumitra made his debut at the age of 23 with Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar (1959). He was considered for Apu's role in Aparajito (1954) but had looked older than the part.
He would later learn that Ray had already started planning the third film because he had found his adult Apu.
Thus began the Ray-Chatterjee collaboration of world classics such as Teen Kanya (1961), Abhijan (1962), Charulata (1964), Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) Asani Sanket (1973) and Ghare Baire (1984).
Soumitra Chatterjee as Pheluda
Soumitra Chatterjee became a house-hold name with his famous portrayal of Pheluda, Ray's fictional detective.
The diligent actor acted in Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Phelunath (1978).
One day, Chatterjee walked into Ray's house to find that the filmmaker was making an illustration of Pheluda. Curious to know who would play the part, and perhaps hoping against hope, Chatterjee remarked that Pheluda resembled Ray who replied,
"Oh, I thought he looks like you." Chatterjee maintained that Pheluda — quick, intelligent and encyclopedic in knowledge — was Ray's secret self.
Satyajit Ray and Soumitra's partnership came to an end with Ray's second last movie, Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree), released in 1990.
Soumitra's return to theatre
Soumitra Chatterjee returned to theatre with his production 'Naam Jiban' in 1978 after a journey of 20 years in Tollywood.
Since 2010, he has been playing the lead role in 'Raja Lear', a popular play based on King Lear by William Shakespeare. Soumitra also received widespread critical and popular accolades for his acting in the play. Not only acting, he has written and directed several plays and even translated a few.
Satyajit Ray named Soumitra Chatterjee's magazine
Soumitra Chatterjee once approached Satyajit Ray to suggest a name for a little magazine founded by Soumitra and Nirmalya Acharya in 1961. Ray not only named the magazine 'Ekkhon' (Now), he even designed the inaugural cover page and used to illustrate the cover pages regularly even after Soumitra stopped editing the magazine. Several of Ray's scripts were published in the magazine.
Soumitra Chatterjee's idea on death
Chatterjee often reflected on the idea of death as the only inevitability of life.
He spoke of the gradual debilitation of the body and the existential wonder that was death.
Someone had asked him, what would you do in another life? His first instinct was to choose this life again. But then he decided that he would choose what he could not do in this life.
During an interview, Chatterjee recounted this conversation and concluded: "I will be happy to just play with water, earth and air." Those of us whose lives were enriched by living under the same sky as him, will no doubt feel the presence of Soumitra Chatterjee around us — in water, earth and air.