Remembering Soumitra Chatterjee
It is so heartbreaking when you lose someone from your family. I have acted with Soumitra kaku in so many films. Each of the films were so special to me. He was a most sensitive, courageous actor... a tall, gallant, handsome man. He was a guiding light. I used to call him the most handsome hero. “Your looks are unmatchable,” I had told him. He used to laugh. I learnt so much from him. He was like a true father figure for me. Some of my best films were with him, like Paramitar Ek Din and Basu Poribar. He taught me such beautiful nuances of acting. He showed me how to deliver a line or churn out some emotion inside. Soumitra kaku was full of energy, love, affection, creativity. Work was worship for him. He was devoted to creativity. With Praktan, I saw another side of Soumitra kaku where he recited Hothat dekha beautifully. I played his daughter in Bela Sheshe and we created such great scenes. In the forthcoming film Bela Shuru, we have some great moments together. With a heavy heart, we say goodbye. But on second thoughts, you will always be with us, you will walk with us, laugh with us, act with us.
This is not only a great loss to the industry, this is a great personal loss too because he has been the closest to me as far as the film industry is concerned, as far as my relationship with him is concerned. He also happens to be one of my in-laws because he grew up in Krishnanagar and so did my father-in-law. They were very close and so he happens to be sort of my father-in-law. So, it is my personal loss in that respect. I would say I have lost a great idealist. We used to follow his ideologies, his teachings and now that he is gone, I have almost lost another father. He has inspired me in all respects — as a culturally and politically aware human being, an artiste, poet, painter. He was the president of Artists’ Forum and inspired us in so many ways.
My first meeting with him was when I had started shooting for the first time. The first time I had faced the camera was for a television series and he played my father. Then we performed together many times. But I never had the opportunity to work with him on stage, I missed it. My last meeting with him was before he was hospitalised. His daughter Poulami did an interview series video, and Sandip Ray and I interviewed him about Satyajit Ray. He kept on talking and there was so much of energy in him when he was talking about Satyajit Ray and that was my last meeting with him. Poulami had said, “Baba wants to shoot this and he wants to talk about Satyajit Ray.”
It was his Feluda that inspired me to walk up to Satyajit Ray and tell him to give me a chance because I wanted to be in his shoe and I wanted to be like him. I was a bit scared when I took over as Feluda because I felt that people would reject me. I always had that apprehension that I would not be able to match up to him but I was lucky enough that people accepted me. And I think that his guidance played an important part. He had said, “Just remember Felu is not a James Bond, he is not a Byomkesh, he is not a man with muscle. It is about his brains. And it shows on screen. Try to portray Feluda with your eyes”. And that is how he guided me.
On many occasions he would narrate me his parts and there were quite a few jokes that he shared. He had told me what a brat he was in his younger days. He jokingly had said that he used to play pranks. He always spoke in a refined manner. He had a wonderful diction and always had many stories to tell us. I used to intensely listen to him and now all that is gone.
I have worked with him in a lot of films and ads. He was so effortless and spontaneous. We last met in July or August for a film shoot. That was my first shoot post-lockdown. He had a great sense of humour. He was very humble, down to earth, no fuss at all... he was such a great actor and he had no airs about him. He would always ask about the well-being of my mom and dad.
We would talk about Rono whenever we met. He was a very patient man. I think I first met him during the shoot of Nishijapon (directed by Sandip Ray).
I am still in shock actually. My heart is with his family right now. Sanjhbati was my last full-fledged feature film with him.
Post-lockdown we shot for Aboho at the end of August, and I had scenes with Soumitra jethu.
I was facing the camera for the first time and he just asked me, “Isn’t it feeling a little different? We are facing the camera after so long. I hope we remember our dialogues. You should never let your mind gather dust.” Working with him is a learning process all the time. I was going through those pictures taken during the shoot... his smile, exuberance, energy, positivity is so infectious. The memories are so fresh.
People think of working at various places, but he worked always for Bangla cinema, Bangla language... he worked with so much love. That is something to learn for the next generations to come.
After the premiere of my film Khawto, he had told me that my acting is very cinematic. How many people have this understanding? That made him so special, his presence, experience, his articulation, his way of reciting poems. Staying around him always felt good... it felt good to talk to him and there was so much to learn from him always. All the memories from our last day of shoot are rushing back to me now.
We had spent a lot of time together working on various films and those memories will always remain with me. Like for Abar Aranye, we had a long outdoor shoot in Dooars. During the shoot of Saibal Mitra’s Tokhon Kuasa Chilo, we stayed in one hotel, in adjacent rooms and had long conversations at night. His personality always inspired me. My first meeting with him was during the dubbing of the film Amrita Kumbher Sandhane, in which my father (Subhendu Chatterjee) played the hero’s role. One day he walked in wearing a yellow punjabi. I was very impressed. We worked in Basu Poribar and stayed together for a few days at a place near Haldia. The cast of Basu Poribar was quite big, a mix of young and senior actors. So, on the first day of shoot, the younger bunch sat for an adda. Next day, I noticed that Soumitra jethu was looking very serious. He asked, “Am I so old that you all didn’t come for an adda session in my room for some time at least yesterday?” That was so sweet. From next day onwards, we made it a point to spend the first one hour post-shoot in his room!
I have acted with him in several films. I had the great fortune of being on stage with him. He recited a Bengali poem and I read from a book.
As an actor, I think, there are two distinct stages of Soumitrada. One is when he was the hero... in quite a few Ray films like Apur Sansar, Charulata. And there was a kind of second innings, where he became no more the hero but a character actor. And what a performance that was... I watched him in Bela Sheshe, in Kolkatay Kohinoor, and he was so effortless. Whatever he said at that point became so convincing. His acting had so much depth.
However, he could live without cinema but he couldn’t live without the stage. That is how I feel about him and would like to remember him that way.
In Ray’s Sakha Proshakha, he plays a character who is unhinged. To prepare for the character, he visited a mental asylum and studied a person, who had the habit of banging his hands on the table whenever he didn’t like something.
Once I remember he had told me something which was very flattering. He said, “You were always handsome, but now there is a Sean Connery vibe about you.” And that’s him.
Our first meeting was perhaps at Aparna Sen’s house, I think. She used to stay in New Alipore then and she had thrown a party where Satyajit Ray was there and Soumitrada was there too. But I think we had met once before.
I really admired the way he would praise others. When you are confident about yourself, you don’t find it hard to praise others. I distinctly remember him praising Sabitridi to high heavens. He used to say, “I have never ever come across an actress like her and I cannot say no to her.”
No matter what was happening in his life, it never affected his acting. For him it was to go beyond, to not act. Soumitrada had become that person.
To me Soumitra Chatterjee means an icon, a stalwart of Indian acting. He represented all the finesse that defined the modern Bengali. Clearly he was a regular favourite for directors such as Satyajit Ray and even a few Mrinal Sen films because he had that balance between maintaining his handsome stature along with performance glory without over-shining it with star power. Off-screen his stardom dazzled your eyes. He was what one would call the perfect actor. I often hear people remembering him as Apu yet to me I think his on-screen persona kept Apu immortal.
With such legends your experiences are not worthy of talking about but to me it was just pure delight as when I had written Mach, Mishti and More in 2008. I had decided I would never do the film if he were to fall sick and something were to happen as we had just found out about his fight with cancer. Finally I got lucky and my film happened in 2011 and it was nine days of working with the legend. A man of a few words and heck I wrote keeping the guy in mind. But what I really loved was that he would check with you if I was happy, ask me some minor details about how I would see it. And then boom! The rhythm in which he spoke... I still can never forget. It was like a pre-written drum beat. He just never missed the beat. He was unwell but always high on energy. Even now when I talk to younger actors I mention Soumitrada for his diction and rhythm. You try to write words in a page. He makes it into a song. I remember I had this scene between him and Parno who had just come fresh out of Ranjana... and had shot Bedroom with me. I was going to do a scene about him advising her not to smoke. His first opinion on the scene was how can I tell her something I don’t believe in. And we both sort of laughed. I was a bit worried about how it would work out as Parno played a very urban millennial and he was playing the doting grandfather and their rhythm would be very different but Soumitrada just played to her rhythm and that’s a masterclass. A great actor is like a musician. He lets the bass do its thing if he’s on the drums. His passing away is a great loss to the cultural heroes of India. But his work will always remain. Live life king size...
Tota Roy Choudhury
It was in the late ’90s, and I was working in a Swapan Saha film in which Soumitra Sir was starring. One morning as I arrived at the sets I was told that I would be sharing a make-up room with Soumitra Sir. I gasped and did a jig inwardly. ‘Feluda! I am going to share a room with Feluda!’ Outwardly I maintained my stoic demeanour. As the great man entered I stood up and wished him ‘Good morning’. He smiled, nodded, took out a bound pad and got busy writing. I sat quietly without disturbing him and started reading my paperback since the actual shooting was some time away. He glanced and asked what I was reading. “John Grisham’s The Street Lawyer,” I replied. “Ah, Grisham! I had read a couple of his books. Nice. How’s this one?” That’s how he broke the ice and made me feel at ease in his company. I was wearing a T-shirt and he asked, “It’s apparent that you exercise. Good. Always remember, an actor will lose his ability to perform at his highest level if he loses his health”. I have remembered those lines ever since. I told him how I admired his physique in Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri. I felt that he looked like an Indian version of Johnny Weissmuller, the American actor who was famous for playing Tarzan. His eyes twinkled with happiness and he said, “Oh, I was very serious about my body in those days. I still exercise but only to maintain basic fitness.” Upon further discussion I found out that he played 2nd division hockey at the Calcutta league. Since I had played competitive hockey at the school level I told him so. He was stunned and exclaimed, “An actor of your generation has actually played hockey! I am impressed.” I think he started liking me after that.
He was the only person from the industry who knew and addressed me by my good name, Pushparag. One morning Rituda (Rituparno Ghosh) called me and said, “What will you treat me to if I give you a piece of news which will make your miserable life worthwhile? Soumitrada was effusive in his praise of your performance in Chokher Bali.” I nearly fell off my chair. Finally the actor who I idolise and look up to the most, has noticed my performance! I pestered Rituda for the next half an hour to tell me verbatim what he actually said without missing even a semicolon. I still maintain that his words were the biggest award that I have ever received.
My biggest regret is that we couldn’t show him even a frame of the Feluda Pherot series. While shooting, Srijit (Mukherji) often expressed his desire to arrange for a special show for Soumitra Sir and ask him for his feedback. All of us were enthusiastically looking forward to it. After having been selected as Feluda, I wanted to call him and seek his blessings and a few pointers but couldn’t muster the courage to do so. I felt as if I was trespassing. But Anirban (Chakraborty, who plays Lalmohon Babu and who regularly had acted with Soumitra Sir in many theatrical productions) showed him a few working stills of me in Feluda’s get-up. His words were, “Bah! Chomotkaar maniyechhe.” Three words which will forever be etched in my memory till the day I die.
He was very close to me and a fun person to be around. There was a lot to learn from him always and the way he would teach us, the lessons would always remain with us. He is incomparable. We had worked together in many films and plays. We shared a very strong bond. I still remember that we did an audio drama together called Shesher Kobita and we did many shows of that in Rabindra Sadan. He used to play Amit and I would play Labanya. That show gave him immense joy. We would listen to him in awe as he would recite the last poem and I would have tears in my eyes. Another memory very dear to me is acting with him in the play Naam Jibon. He would tell me not to put on any make-up for that role and I listened to him. One day he left a note for me that said, “You have put on a lot of make-up today, your face is looking too white.” Immediately I went to his make-up room and told him that I hadn’t applied any make-up. Later, we found out that a blue light on stage that was giving the effect of a moonlit night was making my face appear too white (smiles)!
I knew Soumitrada since my college days. We were close since then. An era comes to an end with his passing. What set him apart as an actor was the acting style he learnt from Manikda (Satyajit Ray) and we have witnessed that style in many of his other films too. His way of acting was very modern and natural.
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