Suman Ghosh: Kaku, how old are you going to turn on January 19?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Oh, that I dont know! But I know my birth year… 1935.
So, how do you approach ageing?
Frankly, the feeling of having to depend on someone else is a bit difficult to deal with. Im scared of dependency. I have never really been dependent on someone till now.
Looking back, would you consider yourself happy?
Its difficult to say that. Happiness in life is occasional… temporary. It is like an oasis, if it wasnt present then life would be like walking in a desert. But talking about work, sometimes I wonder how much I can actually give to the society through the work I do…. Just a moment of happiness.
I have noticed a change in your attitude towards life in the last two years. Your usual vivacious self is absent. Why has that happened?
I would call that melancholia, because I am worried about how long I can continue working. I can feel the various constrictions that age brings in and Im growing increasingly wary about my life and work.
Do you think you have been able to do justice to the role of a father and a husband?
I think I have tried to, definitely. See, like so many other fathers and husbands, I have not been able to go to the market every morning, but I have tried to create a balance between work and family. Maintaining the balance is very important, otherwise happiness doesnt seep in.
You have spent your life with stalwarts like Sisir Bhaduri, Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar… the list is endless. Do you feel a vacuum now that almost no one from your generation is there any more? How do youyou cope with the changing times and people?
Yoy know there is a quote by Bernard Shaw which goes something like if you trip in the darkness do you blame the darkness?Its true that my generation is getting wiped out slowly and I feel lonely thinking about the same. There is a vacuum being created. Probably because I am an escapist I can deal with the changes easily. I cant attend funerals and just dont think about the people around me passing away. Instead I keep myself busy with my work, with theatre and films.
So how does Soumitra Chatterjee the actor prepare for a character-centric role? You can give an example of a film and explain…
Okay, so let me tell you about Sansar Seemantey, which was written by Premendra Mitra and directed by Tarun Majumdar. For this film I had to extensively work out the look and traits of a thief. Firstly, I thought about how the man would look and dress. I sat with the scriptwriter and director to decide the particular way his hair and face should be and the clothes he should wear. Even the make-up was pre-decided by us. Secondly, the behaviour of the character was worked upon. His traits and the way he would talk or react to a particular incident. I read a few books for that to know how a thief might behave. In real life, no matter how much I might have seen people catch thieves or seen thieves trying to steal something, playing the role of a thief was a completely different experience. The process of building the character inside me was very crucial. It had to be convincing…. So there should be an internal preparation and an external one.
There has always been talk of the rivalry between you and Uttam Kumar. What do you have to say about that?
See, rivalry is natural when you are in the same industry and you do the same work. But there was never a tense situation between the two of us. When I was in college, I remember, the Uttam-Suchitra pair was a hit already. While my friends admired Suchitra Sen and her capabilities as an actress, I was an Uttam Kumar admirer. I was doing theatre back then. Later on when I started working in films, I got to know him well. But I never really idolised him. I have idolised Balraj Sahni, I still believe he is the best actor that our country has produced. Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah), of course, comes close.
What was your relationship with Uttam Kumar like?
It was very good. In fact, after our shoots, we used to go for addas at the Great Eastern Hotel. We used to chat till late. Let me give you an example of how our relationship was. Once during a film shoot, he was getting stuck on a word and wasnt being able to pronounce it properly. There were a lot of takes and still he wasnt able to deliver the line. I was there and asked him what was going wrong and mind you, we shared a very good rapport. He said after some time, Do something, go out for sometime. So I did. Then in one take he delivered the line.
When he came out, I asked him why he had asked me to leave and whether he was feeling uncomfortable in my presence. He told me, I was getting self-conscious. You have very clear pronunciation and I dont really have that. He used to read Chandipath and panchali out loud to improve his pronunciation. Remember, he was at his peak then. So a man who can talk about his shortcomings so openly and then overcome the same, deserves all the appreciation.
Among recent Bengali films, has any performance stood out?
I dont really get to see a lot of films nowadays, but I have seen some. Earlier I used to drive out and go watch films when I wanted to. Now because I cant drive, I dont get to watch much. In Autograph, Bumba (Prosenjit) was very good. I think I liked the fact that the character was very well defined and not overdone. I also liked Moner Manush but I think the dialect could have been worked on a bit more. Indraneil (Sengupta) did a very good job in Angshumaner Chhobi.
And what about the actresses?
Hmm… I think in Saanjhbatir Rupkathara, Indrani (Halder) was very good.
What is your message to the young actors of today?
You know, somehow I feel many of them concentrate more on self-exhibition and less on their work. I would only tell them to concentrate on their approach towards work…. Charles Chaplin is remembered today, not for a particular incident that he was associated with or a single film. When his name comes up there are so many images that cross your mind. From him being a factory worker to playing Hitler and so many more such scenes. I think he is a great source of inspiration for actors across generations.
Now the question without which this chat would be incomplete: what has been Tagores role in your life? You had told me how you got to know about him when you were very young...
I remember when I was in Class I we were in Krishnagar and on baishey srabon I didnt go to school because I wasnt feeling well. My brother who was two years elder to me came back from school very early, and when my mother asked him what had happened he said the school had declared a holiday because Rabindranath Tagore had passed away. My mother caught hold of the wall next to her and slid down, crying. That was my first impression of Rabindranath Tagore. A poets death could reduce a housewife to tears and I am sure this was true all over Bengal. That was significant for me.
Later in life, my father who was a very good elocutionist, used to recite many of Rabindranaths poems to us while on his weekend stay at Krishnagar because he had to be at the Calcutta High Court five days a week. I started reading a lot of his works, and was amazed at his capabilities as a writer. Im not saying this because Im a Bengali, but the kind of grasp he had over the language I dont think anyone else in the world did or does. His works influenced lives of so many people across society.
He has been a guide for me all my life. Whenever I am in a conflicting situation, I turn to Rabindranath the human being, not the writer or poet or artist. I wonder what he might have done, if he was in doubt about the same thing. I wanted to, rather want to, understand the man; he has been a fascinating influence in my life.
What do you think about the large-scale celebration of his 150th birth anniversary?
Of course there is a hujug (hype) associated with it and a business angle. But I think, to a certain extent, more and more people are getting to know about his work and appreciating it. The younger generation is getting to hear a lot of his songs from so many different sources and becoming aware of him and his work. In that sense its good.
You think people today are really imbibing Rabindranath Tagore?
When my son recited Rabindranaths poems in school, I thought to myself, his works are being taught even now, and when I saw my grandson reciting one of his poems, I was glad that he and his works are still around us and that he lives within us.
Lets move on to a different topic, politics. You are basically a Marxist. Given how the Left transformed itself in places like China and Brazil, where they are still very much in power, what do you think happened with the Left in West Bengal?
Yes, I have been a Leftist throughout, but that doesnt mean that I approve of the way that it works here in West Bengal. Things could have been done differently, maybe. When I read the Communist manifesto, I thought the words held truth and in fact it does even today…. When I was in college I went through this rebellious phase, probably like everyone else. I came close to politics during that time in my life.
I have known you very closely for more than 10 years now. Only on one aspect did I not like your reaction or views… after the Nandigram incident. I think you said Ja korechhey besh korechhey…
No, you got it wrong. I had said chhaley baley koushole. I never said that for the wrong actions that were taken. Why will I say something like that? I said chhaley baley koushole when they were entering (Nandigram) through the cadres.
That means you approve of violence to curb violence? Where is your Rabindranath?
See, it isnt like that, violence is necessary in cases. You should definitely fight for what is rightfully yours. But other than that, I really didnt appreciate the way the matter was handled.
What is your view of the current West Bengal government?
I havent been able to form any yet, its too early…. Havent seen any big changes as such.
What drives Soumitra Chatterjee? When you get up in the morning what do you look forward to?
My work; I feel incomplete without work. I really dont know what I would do if I didnt get to work. It is a driving force behind almost everything else that I do. But you know, previously it was dreams with which I woke up, now its ashampurno swapno (unfulfilled dreams).
What would your last wish in life be, if you were told that would be granted?
I dont know really… (pauses) I think, to pass away in dignity and peace.