It is not easy when you set out to do a biopic. Any biopic. It becomes increasingly more difficult when the name is ‘Soumitra Chatterjee’, one of the last beacons of Bengal’s true-blue intellectuals. His giant strides across theatre, poetry, cinema and paintings, and most importantly, his politics, bear testimony to his immense contribution to the cultural landscape of Bengal.
The story of Abhijaan is straightforward — after chasing him for months, Dr Sanjay Sen, an oncologist from London, succeeds in getting Chatterjee’s approval to interview him on camera. The approval comes after the legend’s grandson meets with a fatal road accident. Through the interviews and the interactions between the two, is revealed the life and philosophies of a thespian, an actor, a poet, a painter, and a person convinced of his politics. The oncologist, too, has his own issues with life. The time spent with the legend helps him fight his own demons.
The film begins like a docu-drama. Watching a real-life Soumitra Chatterjee interact with a fictional character, who is video-documenting him, is an interesting play of reality and imagination. Soon, it dives into the past to reveal a childhood when the seeds of culture were being sown into little Pulu by his parents. He was born into a family that celebrated Tagore’s poetry, his songs. No wonder, Pulu had his bearings right.
Every person has a turning point in his life. Pulu, too, had his. And that was his meeting with Sisir Bhaduri. Bhaduri, as we all know, went on to become his mentor at the theatre. By now, Pulu has grown up to be a handsome young man doing his Master’s in Bengali. Bhaduri reacts to his name, Soumitra Chattopadhyay, and seems rather pleased — “Such names are rarely heard of these days!” Who knew then, what that name would represent five decades on? A journey of training under Sisir Bhaduri begins with Prafulla. And therein begins the ‘abhijaan’ of Soumitra Chatterjee.
One of the winning points of the film has been its writing. Deftly alternating between the present and the distant past, the clever screenplay touches upon the representational moments of Soumitra Chatterjee’s life — both personal and professional. A lot of it has been in the public domain for decades now — the initial rejection by Satyajit Ray, for the character of Apu in Aparajito because of his height, the later inclusion in Apur Sansar, the gentle rebuke by Uttam Kumar for being seen in public way too often, the tiff with the megastar during the ‘Chalachchitra Sangrakkhan Samity’ agitation, the special friendships with Suchitra Sen and Sharmila Tagore, being a few such moments.
The relationship with his wife Deepa Chatterjee and how she helped shape his life are well represented. The short and sensitive depiction of his son is a standout scene. The narrative is interspersed with many such moments.
The interactions between the oncologist-film-maker Sanjay and Soumitra Chatterjee are the highpoints of the narrative. The sequences have been brought alive by the writing, by the performance of the legend, and by the camaraderie between the two actors. Just listening to Soumitra Chatterjee speak his mind and his heart out is an experience in itself. The sequences have the power to make the audience become one with the character of the oncologist Sanjay Sen. The sequences appear simple enough, but achieving such simplicity is the most difficult.
The other sequences that made this writer nostalgic are the scene recreations from the classics. They are all well executed, but the one that worked for me the most was from Saat Paanke Bnadha where Suchitra Sen tears off Soumitra Chatterjee’s shirt in that emotionally heavy scene!
Another writing subplot that triumphs is the one in which the doctor-film-maker fights with his own demons. This piece of intelligent writing immediately places Soumitra Chatterjee on a higher pedestal. It is only after spending time with, and listening to, and interacting with the legend that the film-maker achieves self-catharsis.
No amount of documentation of the legend’s qualities and achievements as a poet, a thespian, an elocutionist, an actor, etc could achieve this. It is only when someone touches our lives to the core and transforms us for the better, do they become great. In that sense, Abhijaan succeeds in depicting Soumitra Chatterjee as ‘truly great’ — the last of the Mohicans.
Jisshu Sengupta as Soumitra Chatterjee
This brings us to the performances. Soumitra Chatterjee plays himself; while Jisshu Sengupta delivers a landmark performance as the young Soumitra. Without trying to emulate the legend, he has effectively captured the spirit of the man and his politics, of the husband and his responsibilities, of the actor and his craft, of the hero and his sense of self-worth. It was a pleasure watching Jisshu’s close-ups. Parambrata Chattopadhyay, too, puts up a very commendable act as
Dr Sanjay Sen, a man who has a self-inflicted wound from the past, to heal. His character’s ideologies clash with the legend’s, and somewhere towards the end, they part ways. This scene was intelligently and effectively presented. They reunite after an incident involving his grandson. A bit of writing visible there, but well-executed all the same.
The final scene between the oncologist Sanjay Sen and Soumitra Chatterjee is a powerful one. Others including Debshankar Halder as Sisir Bhaduri, Basabdatta Chatterjee as the legend’s wife Deepa Chatterjee, Sohini Sengupta as his troubled daughter Poulami Bose, Subhasis Mukhopadhyay as the veteran Robin Majumdar, Paoli Dam as Suchitra Sen stand out among a plethora of good acts by a starry line-up led by Prosenjit Chatterjee, Raima Sen, Rudranil Ghosh, Sohini Sarkar, Tridha Choudhury, Tuhina Das, Anindita Bose and others.
One must mention cinematographer Appu Prabhakar here. There are three distinct looks in the film depicting the present, the past, and the recreation of the classics. The director and his cinematographer have been able to create three different worlds through their lighting, lensing, camera movement, and staging and blocking.
The past does evoke warmth that makes you yearn for that old and charming world. The present, in contrast, is depicted as quite matter-of-fact. Sabarni Das’s assured costume design, Riddhie Basak’s production design, and Niranjan Bhattacharya’s art direction are spot on. The narrative has been well-stitched by Sumit Chowdhury’s seamless edit, its effectiveness evident in its absence. Also to be mentioned are the sound design and mix, which, under the unavoidable circumstances, do stand out. Shomi Chatterjee needs to be complimented here. Prabuddha Banerjee’s background score is good, but probably there are a few scenes where it was not needed.
Something that I missed in the film was Soumitra Chatterjee’s powerful recitation. Indeed there were a couple of shots where the actor was seen reciting lines from a verse or two, but he was such a giant in that sphere that the heart yearned for more. But then this is nitpicking in an otherwise accomplished work.
What has been achieved through this film is a rare transcendence from the personal to the universal, from the political to the philosophical. Soumitra Chatterjee has rightfully been elevated from a mere human being to an idea. And it is not easy to achieve this.
Towards the end, in one of the final scenes, Soumitra Chatterjee congratulates the oncologist-film-maker that he has found his intent ‘noble’, and wishes him all the best for his film. That very sense of nobility in the intent of the maker is visible on the body of work that is Abhijaan. It is honest, without any pretension, and most importantly, sans gimmick. The moments created have a sense of purity about them.
A film succeeds if it manages to create a few cinematic moments that have the ability to weave magic. Soumitra Chatterjee was known to be allergic to the creation of his own biopic. He had, however, agreed to that oncologist-film-maker in the story, and to the director Parambrata Chattopadhyay in real life. He explains his decision towards the end, in one of the most sensitive scenes of the film. One wonders what he would have told the maker had he witnessed the powerful magical moments unfold one after the other. One can only guess.
But one thing is certain. With the passage of time, Abhijaan has the potential to emerge as one of the go-to works on the late legend in the audio-visual medium that the future generation will access to discover the idea that Soumitra Chatterjee was. Rather, is.
Ranjan Ghosh is a Bengali filmmaker based out of Kolkata