Acting legend, Soumitra Chatterjee passes away

Soumitra Chatterjee

Acting legend, Soumitra Chatterjee passes away

Legendary Indian actor from Bengal, Soumitra Chatterjee breathed his last on Sunday at 12.15 pm in South Kolkata.

With the death of Soumitra Chatterjee, the curtains have indeed come down on a golden era of cinema in Bengal. The 85-year-old actor was admitted to hospital in Kolkata city on 6 October after he tested positive for the virus.

Chatterjee starred in almost more than 300 movies. A multifaceted personality, Chatterjee was an accomplished playwright, theatre actor, editor and poet.

He tested negative a few weeks after he was admitted to hospital but his condition soon deteriorated and he was put on a ventilator in the last week of October. He died on Monday morning. Chatterjee was perhaps best-known for his work with Satyajith Ray, one of the world’s most influential directors from Bengal.

He began acting when he was in school, where he starred in several plays. He was in college when a friend introduced him to Satyajith Ray – it was a chance meeting, but it eventually led to Chatterjee’s film debut. Chatterjee entered into the tinsel world  in 1959 through  Apur Sansar, the last movie of the Apu trilogy, directed by Satyajith Ray. The film garnered critical acclaim, winning many awards worldwide. After that, he acted in the lead role in 14 of Ray’s films.

The specialty of Chatterjee, according to Pauline Kael, a respected film critic from the US, is that despite acting in many different roles, he moved so differently in which he was almost “unrecognisable”.

He was chosen for India’s highest award in cinema, Dada Saheb Phalke Award, in 2012.  France’s highest award, the Legion of Honour, also arrived on Indian soil, felicitating the exemplary performance of Chatterjee as an actor. He also won Padma Bhushan and National Awards for his films.  He was a quintessential icon of Bengal and always kept a safe distance from becoming  a run of the mill icon of Bengali cinema.

Chatterjee’s roles in Satyajith Ray films were vivid and diverse. He played a Sherlock Holmes-like detective in Sonar Kella, an effeminate bridegroom in Devi, a hot-tempered north Indian taxi driver in Abhijan, a city slicker in Aranyer Din Ratri, and a mild-mannered village priest in Asani Sanket. He also played what Seton called a “thinly veiled portrait” of Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore in Charulata, one of Ray’s most admired films.

His major advantage was the natural sensitivity of his appearance. Ray mentored his favourite actor, lending him books on cinema and often taking him to watch Sunday morning shows of Hollywood films in Kolkata. Ray, who died in 1992, had said that Chatterjee was an intelligent actor and “given bad material, he turns out a bad performance”.

“Not a day passed when I did not think of Ray or discuss him or miss him. He is a constant presence in my life, if not for anything else but for the inspiration I derive when I think about him,” Chatterjee told an interviewer.

Over the years, Chatterjee worked with leading directors like Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, Asit Sen, Ajoy Kar, Rituparno Ghosh and Aparna Sen. In 1988, he worked with John Hurt and Hugh Grant in The Bengali Night, a film set in Kolkata.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan, one of India’s greatest filmmakers, said that on screen, Chatterjee “became the quintessential Bengali – intellectually inclined, of middle-class orientation, sensitive and likeable”. As a creative writer, Chatterjee edited a literary magazine and published more than 30 books of essays and poetry; acted, directed and wrote an equal number of plays. As a painter, he drew many excellent works of painting.

One of his most successful plays, Ghatak Bidey, a comedy, ran for 500 nights. Chatterjee acted in a commercially successful Bengali adaption of King Lear, which many believe was one of his finest performances on stage. For all his popularity, Chatterjee stayed away from Bollywood, preferring to act in Bengali language films.