The world was first introduced to Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu- a sensitive, conscientious, and diligent young man- by Satyajit Ray in Apur Sansar (1959). We see the actor’s smiling face for the first time on-screen as he says, “Acha, choli sir. (Okay. I’m leaving, sir.)”.
Chatterjee may have left his earthly presence, but his aura still lives and breathes in the hearts of everyone who watched his magnificent cinematic journey.
Born to Mohit Kumar Chatterjee and Ashalata Chatterjee in the Sealdah area of Kolkata in West Bengal on January 19, 1935, a young Chatterjee was highly influenced by theatre as both his father and grandfather were theatre actors. After graduating from City College, Kolkata, in Bengali literature, he later pursued a master’s degree in the same subject from the University of Calcutta. As a student, he not only performed in college theatre productions, but was also being mentored by theatre stalwarts like Sisir Bhaduri and Ahindra Choudhury. Meanwhile, he was also on the lookout to debut on the silver screen.
After being rejected for a role in Neelachaler Mahaprabhu, he approached auteur Satyajit Ray and expressed his interest to act as Apu in Aparajito (1956), the second film in Ray’s Apu Trilogy, but was rejected as Ray thought he was too old to play an adolescent Apu. Ray, however, had decided to cast the young actor in the third film in the series, Apur Sansar. On May 1, 1959, Chatterjee and Ray came together with the cinematic brilliance- Apur Sansar, which went on to win the National Award for Best Feature Film that year. What followed was a great camaraderie between the director and the actor, who went on to work together in 14 films, including the famous Feluda series.
With Ray, Chatterjee experimented and performed different roles, adding to the volume of illustrious career. In Charulata (1964), we see him as an ardent literature aficionado and an intellectual companion to his lonely sister-in-law, while in Samapti (part of Teen Kanya, a three-film anthology film which released in 1961), he portrays a headstrong, educated young man who marries a girl of his own choice only to realise she’s too immature to be his wife.
However, Chatterjee became Bengal’s favourite private detective with his performance as dashing, young Prodosh Chandra Mitter aka Feluda, who solved the greatest of mysteries with his mogojastro (power of intelligence). Ray had, in fact, modelled Feluda along the lines of Chatterjee’s physical appearance when writing the character of the sleuth. Despite several other actors slipping into his shoes as Feluda; for Bengalis, Chatterjee has been the one and only Feluda.
In his 2006 memoir titled Manik Dar Shange (The Master and I), Chatterjee wrote about Ray: “All my life, I felt that he had always treated me like his own discovery, combined with a feeling of possessiveness — the way a father-figure always tries to shield his children from all dangers. But his possessiveness never curtailed my freedom. This became even more clear afterwards — when I started working with other directors too. I used to ask him, Manik-da, should I act in this particular film? He used to guide me, which was of immense help to me. Especially at the beginning of my acting life, this magnanimous assistance was extremely useful.”
The memoir was later translated to English by Arunava Sinha in 2014.
Chatterjee did not restrict himself to acting with just his mentor. At the time, Uttam Kumar was considered the reigning king of Bengali commercial cinema. Chatterjee went on to perform in commercial films, on the advice of Ray. He worked in Akash Kusum (1965) with Mrinal Sen, Jhinder Bondi (1961) with Tapan Sinha, Teen Bhubaner Pare (1969) with Ashutosh Bandyopadhyay, Parineeta (1969) with Ajoy Kar, Basanta Bilap (1973) with Dinen Gupta, Kony (1984) with Saroj Dey, and did many other films with notable directors during the time.
His iconic dialogue as a swimming coach in Kony- “Fight Kony, fight”- became Bengalis’ popular catch-phrase. In an interview in 2012, Chatterjee said he would often chant the dialogue to “lift his ageing spirits”.
In the 1980s and 90s, when Bengali cinema was undergoing a change, Chatterjee didn’t shy away from working with contemporary directors like Goutam Ghose, Aparna Sen, Anjan Das, and Rituparno Ghosh. His famous films during from this period include Ghosh’s Asukh (1999), Sen’s Paromitar Ek Din (2000), Abhijit Chowdhury’s Patalghar (2003), Sandip Ray’s Nishijapon (2005), Ghose’s Shunyo Awnko (2013), among other films.
His sensitive, layered portrayal as an elderly book store owner who suddenly decides to divorce his wife of 49 years in Bele Seshe (a 2015 film directed by Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee), earned him both critical and popular acclaim. The film was so successful that the makers went on to make a sequel, Bela Shuru, which was supposed to release this summer but was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.
Chatterjee, however, never considered reaching out to Mumbai and working in Hindi films. He was apparently offered Anand by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Junoon by Shashi Kapoor, but he turned them down.
Even after becoming a superstar, Chatterjee returned to his first love- theatre. In 1978, he starred in his own production Naam Jibon. His oeuvre includes Rajkumar, Phera, Nilkantha, Ghatak Biday, Tiktiki, Homa Pakhi, and more. His most noted act in theatre is Raja Lear, a play directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay and based on King Lear by William Shakespeare.
Chatterjee was not just a star. He was a poet, painter, editor of a literary journal, and above all a bhadralok (gentleman). He wrote several volumes of poetry, prose collections and plays. Unlike many big names, the actor did not have security personnel accompanying him and was an approachable star. He continued to work till the time he tested positive with Covid-19 in October. Just before he fell ill, he was working on Abhijaan, a biopic of his own life directed by Parambrata Chatterjee. According to his daughter Poulomi Bose, he was disturbed by the lockdown and would spend time at his study room to write poetry and paint.
A staunch believer of Marxist ideologies, he did not hide his political leanings. He was regularly seen sharing the stage with CPI(M) leaders in West Bengal during the Left Front’s regime in the state. In 2007, when the state’s intellectuals were voicing their opinions against the then CPI(M) government’s land acquisition in Nandigram, Chatterjee stood by the state government, despite facing criticisms. His last published article was a Durga Puja special- titled Ekhono Biswas Kori Bamponthai Bikolpo (I still believe Leftist ideology is an alternative)- for Ganashakti, the Bengali mouthpiece of the CPI(M). An open critic of Rightist politics, he criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for implementing the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Despite establishing his acting prowess, he continued to be snubbed by the National Film Awards committee. He was vocal about his disappointment in the award committee’s alleged bias in celebrating mainstream films. In 2001, the veteran actor refused the Special Jury Award for Goutam Ghose’s Dekha to protest the “biased attitude” of the Awards committee.
Later in 2006, he accepted the National Film Award for Best Actor for Podokkhep and later won two more National Film Awards.
He was decorated with the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian honour given by the Indian government, in 2004, after turning down the Padma Shri in 1970s. In 1998, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.
He received the Officier des Arts et Metiers, the highest award for arts conferred by France in 1999. In 2018, he received the Legion d’Honneur, the highest civilian honour conferred by France.
In 2012, he was conferred with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest award in cinema by the Indian government, for lifetime contribution to Indian cinema.
His greatest achievement, however, was the immense love he received from his fans. This probably motivated him to work till the last days of his life. Chatterjee will forever remain etched in everyone’s hearts for his iconic acting, his infectious smile, and his beautiful baritone voice.
At the entrance to heaven
A tourism poster hangs
I stand beneath it
Holding immigration papers
No more music now
No more of counting the stars
In the circus of fairies and nymphs
The band plays
Many hippos, many giraffes
And a walrus
Moving in a queue
Towards the entrance to heaven
Beneath the tourism poster
I wonder, floating in my dream,
When I will wake up
And tell the boy at the tea shop
Can you wash the cup in warm water
And give me some tea
– Soumitra Chatterjee