Bengali First: The Fierce Commitments of Soumitra Chatterjee

Features

Dec 1, 2020

Near the end of the late Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee’s six-decade career in cinema, journalists liked to ask him one question quite frequently: Why did he never enter Bollywood?

Depending on your vantage point, this query is either reasonable or ridiculous. Imagining Chatterjee anywhere other than Bengali-language cinema might sound impossible to many filmgoers, especially those of us with Bengali roots. The thought exercise may seem doubly absurd when you consider how the quiet tenor of the films he got his start in feels so discordant with the ostentatious leanings of Bollywood. Art-house Bengali features gave Chatterjee global renown, beginning with the title role in the director Apur Sansar (1959), the final installment of Satyajit Ray’s widely feted Apu Trilogy. A transition to the deceptively greener pastures of Hindi-language movies, with their promises of greater money and national exposure, may have seemed logical for a performer as gifted as Chatterjee was. Offers reportedly even came for him as early as the 1970s.

But he never succumbed to Bollywood’s temptation. Why would he leave what was then known as Calcutta, the urban headquarters of West Bengal’s cinema, for the glitter of Bombay? His attachment to Bengal, the land of his blood, was too fierce. “I am a Bengali first and then anything else,” he reasoned to the newspaper the Hindu in 2012. 

So he never left, a gesture that seems both bold and righteous from today’s remove. He was firm in his fealty to the Bengali people, his people. In choosing to stay, Chatterjee, who died in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in November at eighty-five due to complications from COVID-19, left a deep impression upon Bengali cinema, art, culture. Obituaries have rightly noted that he made a whopping fourteen films with Ray, their bond so tight that Pauline Kael once referred to Chatterjee as the director’s “one-man stock company.” These roles flaunted the actor’s versatility: a sensitive poet in Charulata (1964), a Brahmin doctor and teacher living through the Bengal Famine of 1943 in Distant Thunder (1973), a sly revolutionary in The Home and the World (1984).

Long before the names of Mrinal Sen or Ritwik Ghatak would land on global cinephile’s radars, Ray was Bengali cinema’s most prominent export. By extension, Chatterjee became the face of an entire region’s cinema to audiences across the world. That very fact may seem at odds with the reality that Chatterjee’s filmography, focused in West Bengal, was so local in its orientation. This is the great paradox of Chatterjee’s career, though. He gained plenty of international admirers and the enduring affection of fans in his home state of West Bengal, but the rest of India was slower on the uptake. 

In any case, Chatterjee was far more than Ray’s poster boy. Chatterjee appeared in hundreds of films in the Bengali language with directors other than Ray, which is to say that he was a vital presence in a side of Bengali cinema that usually goes unseen by global audiences. His talents stretched beyond acting, too. He was a prolific essayist, magazine publisher, painter, playwright, poet—a polymath, in a word. Chatterjee’s creative inclinations earned him the reputation for being what the director Suman Ghosh called a “renaissance man,” while the critic Amitava Nag, writing in the book Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee (2016), referred to him as the “thinking man’s hero.”

The Home and the World

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