Soumitra Chatterjee, the renowned Bengali actor, director, playwright, essayist, and poet who passed away this weekend at the age of eighty-five, liked to tell the story of landing his first screen role. In 1955, when he was twenty, a friend of a friend introduced him to Satyajit Ray, who was preparing a sequel to his landmark debut, Pather Panchali. In Aparajito, Apu, the young boy who had grown up poor in the Indian countryside of the early twentieth century, would become an outstanding teenage student with a promising future. Ray considered Chatterjee too old for the role, but when Aparajito won the Golden Lion in Venice, Ray announced that he would make a third film about Apu and that he already had an actor in mind. “Much later,” Chatterjee recalled, talking to Raja Sen at Rediff.com in 2012, “at least two to three years later, I came to know that he made up his mind because he had found someone who could play the adult Apu. He decided to make the film because he saw me. That’s how this wonderful collaboration started.”
Chatterjee started acting in school plays and simply never stopped. Over the course of his long career, he would write more than thirty books of essays and poems, write and direct dozens of plays, paint, edit a literary magazine, and appear in more than three hundred films directed by some of India’s greatest filmmakers, including Mrinal Sen. But Chatterjee will always be remembered first and foremost for his work with Satyajit Ray. Writing about the Apu trilogy for the 2015 release of our restoration, Girish Shambu notes that it is not insignificant that, especially with a beard, Chatterjee bore a resemblance to the young Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, writer, and philosopher who had a profound influence on Ray.
In Apur Sansar (1959), sometimes referred to as The World of Apu, Chatterjee plays an aspiring penniless writer who more or less stumbles into marital bliss before suffering a tragic loss. “I was somewhat like Apu as one who does not belong to the metropolis in the beginning, coming from a distant semi-village background, with a rural tinge in his character,” Chatterjee told Raja Sen. “And then this big city sort of engulfs him and opens so many windows of the bigger world, and that kind of an evolution was part of many, many of our generation . . . So when I played Apu, I did not play myself, I played a generation.”
In 1964, Ray adapted Tagore’s 1901 novella Nastanirh as Charulata, the story of an unwittingly neglected wife of a preoccupied newspaper editor. Chatterjee plays the editor’s cousin, a poet who finds himself slipping toward an affair with Charulata. Philip Kemp, writing for us in 2013, found that it’s in this film that Chatterjee “gives perhaps the finest of his fifteen performances in Ray’s films as Amal—young, impulsive, a touch ridiculous in his irrepressible showing off, bursting with the joy of exploring life in its fullness.”
The following year, Ray told the story of another love triangle, and even though Chatterjee once again played the third wheel, the tone of The Coward (1965) is bleaker. In Ray’s films, Chatterjee “played many kinds of characters, from befuddled bridegrooms to cocky intellectuals to brilliant detectives,” wrote Terrence Rafferty here in the Current last year. “But his role in The Coward may be the toughest Ray ever asked him to play, because Ami is neither a hero nor a villain nor even a clown, but simply an ordinary man with some extraordinarily unattractive qualities: it takes a strong actor to play a weakling, a brave actor to play a coward. Chatterjee meets the challenge, and then some.”
The brilliant detective Rafferty mentions is Feluda, a Kolkata—based investigator Ray dreamed up in a story for a children’s magazine in 1965. A series of novels followed, and Ray directed the first two adaptations himself, Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1978), both starring Chatterjee. “I was happy about one fact when I became Feluda,” he told Alaka Sahani in the Indian Express earlier this year. “I was finally playing a character that my children would love. But when Feluda became a cult figure, I used to wonder why should people, particularly the young ones, know me only for playing Feluda? Later on, I realized I was mistaken. Even if one young child remembers me as Feluda, that makes me happy as an actor.”
In 1984, Ray turned to Tagore once again, adapting the 1916 novel The Home and the World—for the second time, actually. He’d tried his hand at writing a screenplay based on the book he’d long admired back in 1948, and in his later years, he said that he was glad that project fell through. His first attempt had been “pitifully superficial and Hollywoodish.” The Home and the World, set in 1907 in the immediate fallout of the first Partition of Bengal, is yet another love triangle with Chatterjee playing a man—a passionately political radical in this case—drawn to another man’s wife. “Chatterjee is the steely heart of the film, cast against type as an aggressive firebrand of a leader,” wrote Michael Koresky in 2014. “The actor, usually given gentler roles, brilliantly and sympathetically inhabits a figure who, because of his turn to nationalistic violence, could have read as merely antagonistic.”
Reporting on Chatterjee’s passing on Sunday, the BBC quoted Indian director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who noted that, from Apu through Feluda to his lead performances in theatrical productions such as Raja Lear, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Chatterjee “became the quintessential Bengali—intellectually inclined, of middle-class orientation, sensitive and likable.”
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