An icon of Bengali cinema and one of the most venerated actors, Soumitra Chatterjee had immortalised a plethora of characters over the period of a career spanning around six decades.
Almost six decades ago, in the summer of 1962, Soumitra Chatterjee was shooting for Satyajit Ray's "Abhijan" in the scorching 45-degree-celsius heat of Birbhum in West Bengal. The young actor was visibly struggling with exhaustion, fatigue, and the heavy makeup that he had to wear to play Narsingh, the lead. The production manager Anil Chowdhury told the director, "Soumitra is struggling, can we pack up?" Ray responded to this with a softly voiced, "Well, you cannot become a good actor without struggle". A few days after, during the shooting of a crucial indoor scene, a sudden dizziness made Soumitra fumble. Ray noticed this, and asked him with a straight face, "What happened, are you feeling unwell?" Out of pride, Soumitra replied with a curt "No." After staring at him for a few seconds, Ray said, "Pack up".
An icon of Bengali cinema and one of the most venerated actors, Soumitra Chatterjee recalled this story in his book 'The Master and I' and he explained how this incident will make him crave for becoming a good actor till the end of his life.
Lovers of Bengali cinema need no introduction to Soumitra Chatterjee. Born on January 19, 1935 in Calcutta, Bengal Presidency, British India, Soumitra Chatterjee was a recipient of the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 2004 and Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2012. He turned down the honorary Padma Shri award from the Indian government in the 1970s. Soumitra Chatterjee is also the first Indian film personality to be conferred with the Commandeur de l' Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France's highest award for artists. Though he had given a number of stellar performances over the years, it was in the fifth decade of his career that the veteran actor won his maiden National Film Award for Best Actor; for his performance in the 2006 film Podokkhep. Besides this, he has also won multiple Bengal Film Journalists` Association Awards for his work in movies like Baghini (1968), Agni Sanket (1988) and Krantikaal (2005). In 2013, IBN LIVE named him as one of "The men who changed the face of the Indian Cinema". In 2014, he received the introductory Filmfare Awards East for Best Male Actor (Critics) for his role in Rupkatha Noy.
Since his debut in the titular role in the 1959 classic Apur Sansar directed by Satyajit Ray, Soumitra has appeared in over 250 movies: an illustrious filmography that encompasses some of the greatest titles in Bengali cinema. Some of his best works includes Ray films like Charulata (1964), Ashani Sanket (1973), Joi Baba Felunath (1979) and Ghare Baire (1984); Mrinal Sen`s Akash Kusum (1965); and Tapan Sinha`s Kshudhita Pashan (1960).
Other significant acting credits in more recent times include Angshumaner Chhobi (2009), Hemlock Society (2012), the family drama Posto (2017), Sesh Chithi (2017), Basu Paribar (2018), Flat No 609 (2018) and Abak Kando (2018).
Actress Farida Akhtar Babita had the rear opportunity to work on Ashani Sanket the legendary duo Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee.
"I must say Soumitra Chatterjee was a personality full of energy and spirit. On the other hand, I was young and naïve and used to ask a lot of unnecessary questions," Babita remembered.
"I remember the train journey when we were returning back after shooting the film. The crew members were playing cards and I did not know how to play cards. Dada taught me to play cards" Babita farther recalls.
Actress Rumana Rashid Eshita had the privilege to work with Soumitra Chatterjee in a telefilm "Kathpencil."
Recalling the memories of Soumitra Chatterjee Eshita said to The Business Standard, "I was surprised to see that even at this age he prioritizes the script and memorized it. He was an optimist and it was indeed a great experience for me to get to work with an artist like him."
Actor Tarik Anam Khan is in shock by hearing the demise of Veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee. "I remember, once he performed at stage a drama – titled Tiktiki. I was mesmerized by his performance. After that show, I got lucky to have a conversation with him and there I asked how and why he is acting for so long years. He replied that he is working as his grandson has cancer and he has to bear all the medical expenses. His answer made me realise that since the beginning he had always been honest to his work," Tarik Anam Khan recalls.
Actor Mamunor Rashid met Soumitra Chatterjee while working on stage drama named Iblish. "Many people would share their memory with Soumitra and his virtues. But what I liked about him was his immense enthusiasm for literature. I would say that Soumitra carried some extraordinary liveliness and whole heartedly entertained us with that spirit," Rashid said The Business Standard.
In the 1960s he acted in more than 40 films which include seven Satyajit Ray films, three by Mrinal Sen, two directed by Tapan Sinha and three by Asit Sen. It was a rare luxury for a new actor to work with so many talented directors of the time.
Later in his career, he smoothly transited to character roles that were commensurate with his natural, graceful ageing.
What sets Chatterjee apart? Everything. Where else can one find a cinema actor who is also a poet –with over a dozen poetry books to his credit – an essayist, a playwright with over 15 adaptations, a theatre director of more than 30 productions, an elocution artist, a painter and an editor for two decades of one of Bengal's most versatile literary magazines Ekshan?
"If I stop acting, I won't exist. I dream to pass away while I'm acting. Not everyone can be that fortunate. I would call such death an accidental gift of life" Soumitra Chatterjee had mentioned in an interview with Livemint. And he actually worked to make this dream come true. Till the end of his life he was actively acting on numerous movies like "Bela Shuru," "tokhon kuasha chilo" "72 Ghanta" "Samapti" and many other projects.
For more than six decades, he was a part of Bengali cultural life, one of Bengal's last Renaissance men along with two of his idols – Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray.
The veteran cinema and theatre legend, Soumitra Chatterjee died on Sunday after suffering from Covid-19 infection since October 6. Known as one of the finest actors of post-Independence Indian cinema, Chatterjee was 85.
Soumitra breathed his last at 12:15 pm at Belle Vue Clinic in Kolkata on Sunday.