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Feluda and fangirl!

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Who is this girl?” Soumitra Chatterjee asks Roopa Ganguly, pointing at a life-size photograph on one of the walls of her drawing room. “This is from Yugant... Feluda, tumi chinte parchho na?!” she counters. “Were you so thin then?” he muses. Roopa smiles. “She imagines me to be Feluda. In fact a lot of people do, but they call me Soumitrada. Roopa is the only one who always calls me Feluda. I am her Feluda!” smiles Soumitra. “When I first saw him, I was awestruck and I said, ‘Oma, ei toh amar Feluda!’” Roopa reminisces. And we knew that the Monday morning adda with Satyajit Ray’s favourite actor and a powerful actress at her Golf Club Road home would be riveting. Over singara, rosogolla and black tea, Soumitra Chatterjee and Roopa Ganguly — the lead pair in Friday film Punascho, directed by Souvik Mitra — talked films and fidelity, stardom and relationships with t2...

Roopa: Feluda, there’s one question that I want to ask you — how do you remember so much? You quote lines from poems, from Tagore...

Soumitra: Honestly, I can’t remember so much nowadays. Ekta shomoy toh ashbe jokhon smriti bismritir majkhane dariye porte hobey (there will be a time when one will be standing at the crossroads of memory and loss of memory). What I have realised is I remember old events... childhood events... more than the recent ones. The distant is crystal clear, the recent ones are blurry.... I have always been very bad with names.

Roopa: Me too! (Laughs)

Soumitra: Yes, it’s not a recent phenomenon. A few years back when I was working in Prabhat Roy’s Lathi, we were discussing Hollywood and I was telling him about my favourite Hollywood actors. I forgot Ronald Colman’s name and he was my only favourite actor when I was young. In fact, may be there are some influences of Ronald Colman on me, may be I can’t discern it properly, but sometimes I felt that I was trying to walk like him; sometimes, not always. But I just couldn’t recall his name that day! I was so disturbed the whole day...

Roopa: Yes, that happens and till the time you don’t remember the name you don’t feel like doing anything else.

Soumitra: But I am fascinated by faces. I can recognise people by their face but that actually works to my disadvantage! I had a fairly close friend, we studied in the same school but he lives elsewhere now. We didn’t meet for five years. Suddenly I met him on a train to Krishnagar. I was very happy to meet him but I completely forgot his name! I somehow managed to talk to him without mentioning his name on that ride. But later whenever I bumped into him, I ran away!

t2: Do you remember the names of the characters you’ve played on screen?

Soumitra: No. The good films that I have worked in and if a film was a hit because of the character’s name, then I do remember the name, like Feluda. Khidda (his character in Koni where he played a swimming coach)... Khidda is a very favourite character of mine. Honestly speaking, I have very few favourites like Khidda. Of course there’s Apu.... Apu bolley ami akhono fida hoye jai! Apu is a part of us. He is not just mine, he belongs to my generation.

Roopa: When I started calling him Feluda, a lot of people would tell me, “You are wrong, his name is Puluda.” But for me, he has always been Feluda.

Soumitra: An entire generation, even this generation thinks that I am Feluda.

Roopa: If you leaf through the pages of Satyajit Ray’s books and see the sketches, you know he is Feluda.

Roopa: Achha, actors who still tremble while sharing screen space with you, how do you handle them? (Laughs)

Soumitra: I don’t know.... Who are you referring to?

Roopa: Me, for instance!

Soumitra: You know there can be a qualitative change in a relationship, and that is related to one’s changing world view. Earlier when I used to come across a beautiful woman, I would want to have her company. But now I expect something else, that is different than just closeness. What I wanted when I was younger is not what I want now. If it was possible now, and it doesn’t happen in our social set-up, I would have liked to have a very close friendship (with a woman). I don’t desire a lover anymore.

It’s not that I don’t feel attracted to a woman because I am ageing... no, not at all. Even at 80, I feel drawn to women but my priorities and wants are now different.

Roopa: I have been acting for many years and I have picked up acting skills from you. Do you remember, you had told me at the very beginning of my career to speak louder while saying a dialogue? That was my first shot with Feluda (Hindi short film Nirupama, based on Dena Paona in 1992) and I was barely audible. Feluda kept insisting that I should speak in a higher pitch. And you showed me how to do that. In my 25 years as an actress, I have never seen anyone do something like that. Feluda taught me so much. He would say one sentence in 50 different ways. Feluda, please show us how you do it!

Soumitra: (Laughs) I don’t remember much now....

Roopa: Okay, try saying this — I had gone there but didn’t meet you. Say this in at least three different ways please!

Soumitra: You can say this line in 20 different ways.

Roopa: Bolo na, bolo na... (Pleads)

Soumitra: In theatre I always teach my actors the fundamentals of acting. I firmly believe that I should know the Bengali language in the best possible way and I am proud to say that none of the actors know Bengali the way I do. I am not saying nobody, I am saying none of the actors. Roopa you say, have you come across any actor who has as much command over Bangla as me?

Roopa: When I was shooting for Punascho with you I was scared, even after so many years of being in this profession.

Soumitra: I am not scared of facing the camera anymore. But I still devote that much time to a character.

Roopa: Do you still think about a character?

Soumitra: Yes, I still think of how to approach a character… but the fear has subsided. That’s because I am a fan of Jim Corbett. I don’t read his books because of my love for adventure, but because I get to learn valuable lessons on life.... That’s why I go back to his books again and again. He had mentioned about a man-eating tiger in his book. The man-eater noticed Jim sitting on a treetop. Jim was scared, but where does he score over an ordinary man? He can control his fear because he is confident that his bullet will not miss the man-eater. Similarly, as an actor, I too know my job very well. But the reason why some actors feel nervous while working with me is because they are attracted to me more than my work.

Roopa: Am I also one of them? No, no, I’m not one of them!

Soumitra: No, you are definitely not one of them. My only complain about the present generation of actors is that they don’t know my work. For them, I am a social icon. They respect me but they haven’t seen my work.

Roopa: You know, though I am scared of working with you, I also take pride in the fact that you’ve been my greatest teacher....

Soumitra: When you came to work with me on the first day, during your close-up shots, I would stand behind the lens and tell you to look at my fingers while I moved them from one direction to the other, jaate chokher khelata pai ar ki. I would always help you. You’ve absorbed it so well and that’s why I like you so much.

Roopa: Can you recall a scene from Punascho where you felt I couldn’t perform well? But you’d have told me if I did something wrong, isn’t it?

Soumitra: Of course I would have told you. If I thought you had missed the right expression during dialogue delivery, I would have definitely pointed it out.

Roopa: I would sit quietly in a corner and watch your close-up shots on the floor.

Soumitra: There are such great actors in Bombay nowadays, taader dekhle chokh juriye jai (I feel overwhelmed by their performance). When I watched Irrfan Khan’s The Lunchbox, I said to myself “Hai re hai, why couldn’t I play a character like this!” How wonderful! Nawazuddin (Siddiqui), such a good actor. Forty years back, I watched Two Women. What a dominating performance by Sofia Loren, she just broke herself to pieces. Ki apurbo abhinoy, dekhlei pagol hoye jai!

t2: An actor may not always relate to a character. In that case how do you make the role convincing?

Soumitra: Well, let me give you a classical example. Jhinder Bondi’s Mayurbahon is not a character we have seen in reality. None of us has seen him, it’s an imaginary character. But the imagination is such that the character has been residing in our hearts since childhood. So when I played Mayurbahon, another layer, another sphere of reality was created. Then I relate to that imagination. Whether I have seen him in reality or not, I don’t think about it during my performance. Obviously, I haven’t come across anyone who flashes a sword in real life.

Roopa: Do you relate to your character in Punascho?

Soumitra: Yes, in certain ways I do. In Punascho, he is two-timing and that is so common in society.

Roopa: Is it just two-timing? Actually, you can’t explain the relationship between Mohona and Animesh [In Punascho, Roopa and Soumitra play college friends who decide to meet after many years].

Soumitra: No, it can be explained. His attraction for this woman forces him to two-time and spend time with her. Two-timing doesn’t make a man a villain.

t2: You mean infidelity isn’t a big deal?

Soumitra: Well, at this age I am not really concerned about infidelity as I was when I was younger because I feel that we judge people in a very unidimensional manner. We are products of society but also much more than that. If my infidelity hurts people around me, then I should think twice. But I also believe that people are not ekmatrik (unidimensional). Not just lust and desire, there can be various facets which may be reflected through one’s relationships. So I don’t really look down upon infidelity. I’d rather go by the norm that I should not hurt anybody.

Roopa: But somebody who wants to be hurt will be hurt anyway! For instance, I had a childhood male friend. Say now I marry Mr X, who never tried to understand my equation with my childhood friend. He has always been jealous of the relationship and felt that I was having an extramarital affair with my friend...

Soumitra: See, you can’t really bracket a relationship. I am not a prude but you should be concerned about the person you are living with before indulging in infidelity.

t2: Coming to films, is there a film which makes you feel that you’ve failed as a performer?

Soumitra: There are so many to regret, I can’t make a list. I have been working for 55 years and even if I haven’t done 12 films a year like Uttamda (Kumar), I have done four every year and I’ve worked in over 350-odd films.... I have so much to regret. But I must say that in all the good and bad films I’ve done so far, I have always tried to go ahead. I always kept in mind that I shouldn’t stop with a film. Even if it’s a bad film, littered with bad dialogues, I have tried to mouth those convincingly.

Roopa: Exactly.

Soumitra: I have used bad films as a platform for practice! I am mostly dissatisfied with my work. I am seldom satisfied. Luckily, my family is very supportive and one day I asked my son, “Ki kori bol dekhini, moner moto chhobi paowa jay na. When Manikda (Satyajit Ray) will make another film, ei niye toh boshe thaka jaye na.” He said, “Do a film like Missing!” What I did was get hold of mediocre directors who would agree to make a film like that!

Roopa: You had made only one telefilm (Streer Patra) and you chose to cast me (smiles coyly)...

Soumitra: Yes! Have you seen any of my recent work? Have you seen Anjan Dutt’s film?

Roopa: Which one?

t2: Shesh Boley Kichhu Nei.

Soumitra: Had you seen that film, you’d have known that as an actor I am still trying to improve. Now I am trying to get into a zone which cannot be straitjacketed.

Soumitra and Roopa in Punascho

Soumitra: Let me ask you a question, Roopa. Like I said I have progressed with every film, I am sure you too have done that and we are all looking for that one role. How do you fight this? Because half the time there aren’t those kinds of films....

Roopa: Etar moqabila toh kortei parina, Feluda. I keep it bottled within me and I wait... and my intuition or what I don’t know... what I want from my heart it does happen. I actually want to do very little work nowadays. I wish to do good work. And I keep myself busy with other things. I do a little bit of gardening, social work. So I don’t have regrets and I am a little slow by nature. I stay at home. But in my heart I wish and wait for a good role to come to me, there’s no option other than waiting. I don’t do theatre like you.

Soumitra: Hmmm.... One thing that kills an actor or an actress is stardom. But that has actually helped me. You can experiment as much as you want. I would think okay, so they have come to see their star, let me experiment and they would accept me. I could change my style of acting often.

Roopa: You never belonged to that group of stars.

Soumitra: Yes, but it was my conscious desire.

Roopa: A star will never be able to experiment.

Soumitra: Uttam Kumar is my favourite star and I like so many of his films, but I never fell into the trap of his mannerisms. I just picked up the craft of acting from him. Ask me what I learnt from him on the first day of our shoot together (for Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bondi) and people will laugh at it! We were giving a shot where he was supposed to snatch the medal from me. Suddenly in the middle of the shot, he said, “Tapanda, kaato! NG hoyechhe (It’s an NG shot).” He was a little tense because he was acting opposite a Satyajit Ray actor and so was I because for me he was a star and it was my first shot with him. And the way he said “NG”, it felt as if he had done a favour to all by giving an NG shot! So I learnt to do an NG from him! Because in all my previous films, even if one shot was NG because of me, I would feel terrible!

t2: But acting always brings stardom. How does an actor separate the two?

Soumitra: Of course. Have I not wanted to be a star? Of course I have.

Roopa: What do you mean by “wanted to”? Aren’t you a star?

Soumitra: A star yes, but nobody has thrust this stardom on me.

Roopa: A star can only separate the two if he can stay grounded.

Soumitra: What he should cultivate, as far as my experience goes, is he should forget that he is a star when he is shooting. He should forget that he was a star ever.

t2: What do you think of each other as actors?

Soumitra: What I think about her as an actor? And what she thinks about me as an actor? Well, I was the reason why Roopa was born as an actress! (Laughs) But had she stood right there, I would’ve had no interest in her. She didn’t remain there, she went ahead in far better ways, which is apparent in her work and that’s why my affection for her has endured.

t2: Can you name a few films that have influenced and impacted you as an actor…

Soumitra: How do I answer this? I have worked in 14 Satyajit Ray films. I have learnt everything as an actor from his films. But I have also learnt so much from Tapan Sinha, which is unparalleled. If someone asks me which film I would like to see in my dreams, I would name a film which isn’t made by any of my favourite directors and that’s Koni. Koni inspires me, rejuvenates me, it awakens my soul. The dialogue ‘Fight Koni, fight’ gives me goosebumps. When I am down, I tell myself that.

Roopa: I am very bad with names dear, don’t ask me this question!

Kushali Nag

What is the one question you would like to ask Soumitra and Roopa? Tell t2@abp.in

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