Apu's autumn a creative spring - Thespian Soumitra Chatterjee recalls a life in cinema

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  • Published 22.08.12

The hair is silvery, the handsome face lined with age, but look closely and you still find traces of Apu.

Soumitra Chatterjee (77), who was in Bokaro on Monday to participate in the 5th Jharkhand Natya Mahotsav hosted by Bengali literary magazine Ghunpoka, Bokaro Steel Limited and the Calcutta-based Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, charmed the gathering with his grace and wowed it with his talent.

The thespian recited some of his self-composed poems at the drama fest. The globally renowned actor is a man of many parts — a poet and an elocutionist, to name a few of his talents.

Talking to The Telegraph exclusively at Bokaro Nivas on Monday evening and Tuesday morning, the actor described his long journey in cinema. Chatterjee owes his major global renown to Satyajit Ray’s third part of the trilogy of films — Apur Sansar or The World of Apu (1959) — adapted from Bhibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s coming-of-age sequel to Pather Panchali, Aparajito (1932). The romance of Apu, played by Chatterjee, and his bride Aparna, played by then schoolgirl Sharmila Tagore, is frequently listed as one of the world’s 100 greatest films ever made.

Chatterjee would go on to work with Ray in 14 films — Charulata, Ashanir Sanket, all the detective Feluda movies and many others.

But, as Chatterjee says, the acting bug bit him almost by chance. “Had I not met the great film personality Shishir Kumar Bhaduri and interacted with him as a young college student in Calcutta over five decades ago, I would never have been a film and stage artiste. When I met the stalwart, an electric current ran through my veins and something inside whispered in my ears, ‘this is what I have to do too, act’. So started my journey,” said the great film and stage actor and the winner of major national and international awards.

On being asked to name who according to him are the best actors past or present, of Indian cinema that will complete 100 years in 2013, Chatterjee reeled off names — Balraj Sahni, Naseeruddin Shah, Chhabi Biswas, Tulsi Chakraborty. Among filmmakers he named Ray, “an institution in himself”, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and M.S. Sathyu.

The veteran actor who straddled alternative and commercial cinema with ease — think Charulata and Teen Bhubaner Paare — and also worked as the principal patriarch in many Bengali potboilers, confessed to liking Hindi film heroes Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar.

On Indian films of today, Chatterjee remembered liking Firaaq (2008) made by actor-turned-director Nandita Das on Godhra riots. But he said: “We need to upgrade our cinema in terms of craft, technique, scripts and direction to compete on a global level.”

The actor, who had a very successful stage run with Raja Lear, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, stoutly defends theatre. “Bengali theatre is doing well. It is in revival mode,” he said, praising the organisers of the drama festival in Bokaro for keeping theatre alive in Jharkhand.

In the autumn of his life, what keeps him going? “Acting, writing poems, keeping abreast of what is happening in India and the world,” he said. Clearly, it is still a creative spring.