“My search for man and mankind is all I know”: Soumitra Chatterjee
Pradip Biswas on the veteran actor
February 28, 2018
Soumitra Chatterjee, the winner of the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the highest honour in Indian cinema, appears to be an infallible prodigy. If one considers acting as a craft, he is remains unsurpassed. In a conversation with me, he says, an understanding of the art of cinema, as well as of acting, can only come from insight. His main point is this: one has no right to love or hate anything, if one has not acquired a thorough knowledge of its nature. His ideas and views on various subjects, all inform his rich body of work, which is also influenced by his relationship with Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumder, Asit Sen, Ajay Kar and his bete noir, Uttam Kumar.
Chatterjee has explained what, in his opinion, makes the characters he portrays so complex, complicated, and memorable.
Some claim that it is his ability to dig into the skin of the character that makes each of his characters totally different from one another. To understand a character, one has to understand the situations and circumstances which cause a human being to struggle in life. He struggles, and then he is either successful or unsuccesful.
Chatterjee’s dictum is that one needs to understand the man in all given situations, whether the situations are antagonistic or symbiotic.
A work of art becomes most meaningful when it follows response, when it unravels the instinctive obscurities that frames an individual decision.
Pauline Kael, a pioneering critic, while looking into Asani Sanket, had called Chatterjee, “Ray’s one man stock company.” This was because he had acted in 14 of Satyajit Ray’s best films, exceeding the number of times Toshiro Mifune acted in Kurosawa’s films.
Chatterjee had a quaint beginning so to say. Behind his initial rise in theatre, there was the indelible contribution of great Sisir Bhaduri, a thespian who navigated professional theatre in Bengal with epic posturing. Chatterjee said, recounting those days:
In my house, there was a great love for acting and the stage. My father used to love acting and was an amateur actor. He was a lawyer by profession. In our small town of Krishnanagar, where I grew up, there were small theatre groups that were active in those days, mainly due to the influence of the famous dramatist Dwijendra Lal Ray.
Chatterjee’s grandfather was the president of one such group. Chatterjee has been acting on stage since he was very small.
He remembers staging plays at home as a child, using the bed as a small stage, his mother's saree for the wings and the bedcover for screens.
Then, he started acting in school plays. In those days, a good performance in a school play was rewarded by a medal.
He started receiving several medals by the time he was in the higher classes in school. He was soon gripped by the desire to act, act, and only act. He got an opportunity to study in Calcutta. During this time, he saw Sisir Bhaduri in a play. This encounter set the standard, and, by the time he was going to complete his graduation, he had made up his mind to become an actor.
Incidentally, he met Bhaduri through a friend's mother, who herself was a very eminent actress – Shefalika Putul. She acted as Aparna's mother in Apur Sansar. The day they met was a very sad one. It was on that very day his theatre was closing down. Bhaduri asked him to come to his house, and, since then, they kept in touch. This would be the last three years of Bhaduri’s life.
During these years, Chatterjee got the chance to act in one of Bhaduri’s plays. Whatever Chatterjee learnt of acting in those initial years was from watching Bhaduri. Chatterjee emulated his manners and movement.
Chatterjee’s name stands inexorably linked to Satyajit Ray's. It is said, if there were no Satyajit Ray in his life, he wouldn't have gained the same rank and position, that he occupies today, on the strength of his talents alone. But this is a two-way street: how Satyajit Ray would have been able to make some of his films without him is also a matter of conjecture.
“I would have been an actor in any case,” says Chatterjee. He had already made up his mind to be an actor after he met Sisir Bhaduri, but was unsure how successful he would be.
Remembering those he acted with, he says, “In my film career, Sabitri Chatterjee is the actress I have respected the most. She is a class by herself. She still rules the roost.”
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