I am in Shantiniketan, a small town near Bolpur in the district of Birbhum, a few hours from Kolkata, where veteran Bengali Soumitra Chatterjee is filming for a movie. It’s a nice morning. Sip in a steaming cup of chai and soak in the environment. There are a million butterflies in my stomach as I walk up to the actor’s bigger than life for an interview. We sat on the lush lawn near the bungalow and chatted about shots about his life and times.
At 82, Soumitra Chatterjee is tall, fit and handsome. He speaks crisp British English, with a jet of Bengali thrown here and there, every word uttered with unpretentious confidence. And I devour everything …
From your first movie, Apur Sansar from Satyajit Ray in 1959 to 2017, you had a version every year …
This is my job. I’m a professional actor and I’ve always wanted to be one. I was fortunate to get in touch with the legendary personality of the Bengali theater Sisir Kumar Bhaduri. After that, the first break in the movies came from Satyajit Ray. Finally, this relationship proved to be fruitful. I will always value your contributions in my career.
But Sisir Kumar Bhaduri was so contrary to the cinema that he said no to Ray Mahanagar (1963). What attracted you?
I was an avid moviegoer from an early age. I used to go to school and watch movies. But theater was my first love. I still work on plays. Tomorrow I’m going to travel to Bardhaman to perform on stage and return for the shoot.
How do you handle this?
I do not know … physically, I feel tired these days. But I have no choice. This is my job, this is my life, this is how I am done.
You are also a poet, a writer, a painter, you have been the editor of Ekkhon magazine … What inspires you to wear so many hats?
I was attracted to creative activities from childhood. I was the Jack-of-all trades, but a master of none. So I focused on a few that excelled, such as theater and recitation of poems. There was substantial help from my parents.
How did Apur Sansar happen? It is said that Ray shared the script with you, something he never did with his actors …
I was looking for someone to play the Apu teen school in the second part of the trilogy, Aparajito (1956). But I was too big for the role. When I was first taken away, he had exclaimed, “You are too tall and grown!” After winning the Golden Lion Honorary Award at the Venice Film Festival, he announced the third part of the trilogy. This time I did not suspect that I would choose. (Smiles) He told me many years later that he decided to do the third part after he saw me. What could be better than making debut in a film of Ray … There have been many other actors who made their debut in a film of Ray Satyajit. But none could enjoy the kind of flowering I happily made. We did 14 feature films and two documentaries. I remember being the narrator of his father Sukumar Ray. I was very surprised because in everything else, he used his own voice.
Cinema connoisseurs called him “Ray’s alter ego.” Your thoughts.
I knew what to expect from me and knew what I expected from me. We had a wonderful relationship. He was my mentor. It formed not only my career but also my mentality to a large extent. We even share some kind of legacy. But he was an absolute genius. He was a teacher and I should never be compared to him. That would be bad.
Once you mentioned that Ray gave you freedom as an actor, even if it was your debut …
He never said in those many words that he could do whatever he wanted. He used to make me listen to his scripts, even if I was not in the movie. A few times, I even asked him to give me a paper but he did not. (Laughter) I really wanted to play the role of Goopy in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968). When he read that script for me, I got up and asked. But he said that my face was not cut to play the son of a farmer. The funniest part is, Tapen Chatterjee, who finally played it, was born to play that part. It was so extraordinary that he could not even go and tell Manikda (Ray) that he could have done better. But I associated myself with the saga of Goy Gyne Bagha Byne as Udayan Pandit in Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980). Coming back … until the end of our association in the movies – Shakha Proshakha (1990) – he gave me that freedom. He told me that there is a small paper with no more than 25 lines of dialogue in it. He asked me if I would. I laughed. If Manikda had asked me to stand like an umbrella in the corner of a room, I would have played that role as well.
Shakha Proshakha was Ray’s penultimate film and the last with him. How was it different?
Manikda told me: “Listen to Soumitra, your whole life, I have given you the freedom to do whatever you want.But in this movie, we both think together. “It was the role of a deranged character. He said,” I’ve seen a lot of people like that and so have you. They have different compulsive behaviors. I need you to tell me about them as you write the script.
Any different incidents that you remember fondly about this collaboration over the years?
I have been riding for thousands of days and nights in the five decades of my career. But I will never forget the first day of the shooting of Apur Sansar. The scene shows Apu in a labeling and bottling factory, looking for a job. See people working as robots there. He gets nervous when he realizes it’s not his cup of tea.
Coming to your partner, the last Uttam Kumar, you were dubbed “a cerebral actor” while considered the “pop icon” …
(Interrupts) This leveling … I do not like it at all. A good actor is both cerebral and realistic. A so-called brain actor has to have his feet planted on the ground. Or, you can not be a good actor. He had met Uttam Kumar long before he entered the movies.
How was your equation with Uttam Kumar?
He was a close friend of my brother-in-law. The first time I met him was when he came to our house for my sister’s wedding. The first movie we did together was Jhinder Bandi by Tapan Sinha (1961). We fell in love with each other during the outdoor movie. (Laughter) After that, through fights and fights, our friendship was the test of time.
You enjoyed a great following female follower. How did you handle adulation?
It was certainly flattering. I’d be lying if I said I did not get female attention. The first love letter I had received from my fan was carefully preserved by my wife, Deepa, for many years. Then we changed our house a couple of times and lost it. (Laughter) The essence of the letter was “it’s a pity you’re married.” I have thousands of letters after that, but it was special because it was the first.
People still identify you as the young detective Feluda in Sonar Kella de Ray (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979). Ray even started drawing Feluda in his novels keeping you in mind …
The first sketches were not like me. I remember telling Manikda that it seemed like he was projecting through them. A whole generation grew up with that and I remained Feluda for them. Honestly, at first I did not like people to say to me like Feluda. I would say, ‘I’ve done so many good films. Should I be remembered as only Feluda? Not for Apur Sansar or Ashani Sanket? “But I realized my mistake.My job is to make people happy.If even a person remembers me as Feluda, then I should be grateful and not angry.Also, back then, there were not many children’s films. I did for the two children at home, but all Bengali children out there.
The mannerisms of Feluda were different … Have you ever thought that Feluda, in fact, could be Soumitra Chatterjee?
(Smiles) A bit like me and a bit like Satyajit Ray. Feluda, he and I … we are a happy triangle.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor … so many people wanted you to work in Hindi movies, but you stayed away. Why?
I do not know why. If it were today, I would not have turned them down. I was young and dumb and did not realize the importance of money. To be frank, after seeing people in the Hindi film industry, I never felt excited to work there. Could I have written poems if I had gone there? Could I have chased the theater there? If I had worked in Hindi cinema, fame and appreciation for my work would have increased. But he was already working on the Satyajit Ray movies and were being watched internationally. Nothing could have made me greedy. Later in life, I did television movies just to show that I could speak Hindi.
Naseeruddin Shah has said that he is a great admirer of yours. Did you know him?
Oh yes, a number of times. We went to Berlin together. I did not know he was a fan until he gave me a wonderful and illuminating praise once. We were supposed to attend a movie show in Berlin. It was a movie by Akira Kurosawa. He did not arrive. The next morning, I asked him why. He said: “Dada, I was tying the cords to get out, but I came to know that they were going to show Ashani Sanket on TV.That’s a Satyajit Ray movie that I had not seen.I could watch the Kurosawa movie sooner or later, But not a Ray movie in India. “I asked,” Naseer, did you like the movie? Did you like my work? “He said,” Given, as an actor I would fulfill if I could inspire someone as you inspired me. “He has been a great admirer of my work and vice versa.
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