Perhaps few movie-goers and critics have bothered to identify a distinctive feature in the acting career of the late Soumitra Chatterjee. It becomes clear if anyone compares the actor's performance in his early films with the works in which he appeared when he was in his 60s and onwards. The actor's roles as old and reflective, and also nearly blind and voyeuristic, persons in 'Shakha Proshakha' (Dir: Satyajit Ray, 1992), 'Jijibisha' (2017) and 'Dekha' (Dir: Goutam Ghosh, 2000) seem completely different from the young-adult Apu in 'Apur Sangsar', his debut film. It was directed by Styajit Ray in 1959. 'Shlilotahanir Porey' (2020) and Kusumitar Goppo (2019) were among his notable works done in the last phase of his acting career. Of his total 300 films, a major segment comprises Soumitra's performance in the roles of middle-aged and elderly characters. His unique style of naturalistic under-acting continued to mature as he aged. This feature kept becoming distinctively clear; because on reaching even his 85th year, the actor hadn't thought of stopping appearing before the camera. He may have continued acting in movies hadn't death drawn the final curtain on his life.
With his death on November 15, the modern Bangla-language cinema lost one of its two pioneers in acting in the sub-continent. The other, the legendary Uttam Kumar, left this world in 1980 at the age of 54 years. In one sense, the two, despite a wide gap in their start of career, launched the Bangla cinema's modern era. While Uttam Kumar with his suave and romance-sodden style of performance won the hearts of millions, Soumitra was picked by the relatively enlightened and urbane audiences. They comprised mainly the youths, film society movement enthusiasts, who were acquainted with the special 'language of the cinema'. Soumitra's initiation into the film world was made by one of the pioneers of the India-based film society movement --- Satyajit Ray. The year when Ray picked Soumitra for 'Apur Sangsar', his third part of 'Apu Trilogy', Ray had already become a celebrity in the world cinema for his 'Pather Panchali'.
The great Bengali director could detect the latent acting potential in the then theatre movement worker, young poet and aesthete. Moreover, despite growing up amid silver-screen romantic melodramas directed by the time's box-office-hit directors, Soumitra could also discover a great film maker in-the-making in Satyajit Ray. As Ray stepped into the world of film-based accolades one after another, Soumitra, too, found himself drawn into the exclusive world of the former. In Ray the young talented actor discovered a guide and teacher who had taught him the basics of cinema, especially acting. These lessons imparted to a disciple eager to broaden his horizon created the chemistry which had bound the two until Ray's death in 1992. This intellectual and aesthetic bonhomie resulted in 14 full-length films and two documentaries directed by Satyajit Ray with Soumitra in the lead roles. They especially include 'Ashani Sanket' with Bangladesh's Babita opposite Soumitra (1973). The actor also appeared in a movie version of Ray's Felu'da detective novel series --- 'Sonar Kella'.
The decades of the 1960s and the 1970s literally remained overwhelmed by Uttam-Suchitra, Uttam-Spriya, Uttam-Mala Sinha starrers. As for the male lead, few could command the courage to even make an attempt to go parallel with the unbeatable superstar Uttam Kumar. It still baffles movie-goers and critics to grasp how a relatively new lead actor like Soumitra could stand up to the aura and glamour of Uttam Kumar. In fact, Uttam was also a consummate artiste. He was gifted with the qualities of demonstrating both the melodramatic and down-to-earth performances. Being a born artiste, he could also come to grips with the skill of naturalistic under-acting. Perhaps this rare quality of Uttam prompted Satyajit Ray to cast him in two of his major films --- 'Nayok' and 'Chiriakhana'.
Undoubtedly, Uttam Kumar was a great actor in the sub-continent's perspective. It was his favourable stars and good looks, and chemistry with a few heroines like Suchitra Sen, which helped him find a deep root in the West Bengal cinema. Had premature death not dissolved him, Soumitra would have still been confined to the exclusive domain of 'unconventional' movies. Thanks to the acute dearth of skilled 'heroes' after Uttam's death, producers and directors swarmed on popular male actors like Bishwajit, Basanta Chowdhury et al. Only a few movie companies turned to Soumitra, a largely untested artiste in the formula-film world. To the utter surprise of the producers and directors, as well as the audiences, Soumitra proved quite successful also in the commercial cinema. He proved that a genuine artist is also prolific and is capable of acting in all types of movies. It has already been proved in Mumbai, with Amitabh Bachhan, Om Puri, Nasiruddin Shah appearing in both serious and commercial films.
Soumitra Chatterjee had, however, remained selective in choosing his movies. In spite of this, his total number of films crossed 300 in sixty years, compared to 200 by Uttam Kumar in nearly three decades. Apart from Satyajit Ray's, Soumitra also appeared in ventures by Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, and Goutam Ghosh. In the last decade, the actor appeared mainly in movies directed by young talented directors. A lot of them are debutant film makers.
Few of the general admirers of Soumitra know that the actor has shown his lifelong weakness for plays and stage. In fact, it was his passionate involvement with drama starting in his childhood which had accelerated his entry into the film acting. Soumitra's father was a theatre activist. He grew up amid a world dominated by staging of plays and close contacts with the celebrated actors' performance. He was introduced to play-acting on the stage at his ancestral home at Krishnanagar in Nadia district in West Bengal. This tradition had flowed through Soumitra's blood thanks to the inspiring patronage for drama-staging by his grandfather and father.
Due to Soumitra's emotional links to the stage and plays, his eventual involvement with film acting seemed both incredible and unusual to many. It was because upon reaching Kolkata in 1951 to enrol in college, the future movie star got moved by the performance of the great stage actors like Shishir Bhaduri et al. But Soumitra's destiny may have sported a sarcastic smile. The emerging artist himself had been unaware that what awaited him in his acting career was cinema --- not the stage. And the person waiting for him was one who would change the course of his future life. He was none other than Satyajit Ray, just showered with plaudits worldwide for his debut movie 'Pather Panchali'. It was based on the great novel of the same title by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopaddhay.
Ray cast Soumitra in his 'Apur Sangsar', a movie-episode from the Apu Trilogy, which constituted the whole 'Pather Panchali'. Being also a young man nurturing a strong love for literature, Soumitra couldn't resist himself from being drawn to the 'new wave' literature, poetry in particular, which was at its zenith at that time. Thus in the decades spanning the 1950s to the 1980s, the actor was seen simultaneously busy acting in cinema and writing literary pieces --- and, even, editing a literary magazine. In a sense, this brilliant actor was fortunate enough in being picked for doing the main roles in the movies based on some major Bangla novels and stories. Apart from Bibhutibhushan, they include Tarashankar Bandyopaddhyay (Ganodevota), Sunil Gangopaddhyay (Oronyer Dinratri) and his mentor Satyajit Ray. Ray is considered a skilled author of Bangla juvenile detective novels and stories called Felu'da series. By acting in the role of Felu'da in such a story called 'Sonar Kella', Soumitra literally immortalised the character of Felu'da in cinema.
At the end of the day, all of us have to accept the universal truth that life is too brief to grasp it in full. Nature keeps transient places for some of the blessed in the fluid time. The extraordinary persons among them, like Soumitra, make the transitory places engraved in people's memory. Unalloyed love and admiration for one works this ethereal magic.