Age bows to his talent

Age bows to his talent

Remember the shy husband Apu as he introduces his new bride (Sharmila Tagore) from a rich family in the village to his modest flat in the city in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959)? That was Soumitra Chatterjee’s debut role.

Today, more than five decades later, having acted in 400-plus films and numerous awards in his kitty, he is as versatile as ever, as also in demand. Two documentaries have been made on him. He won ‘Officier des Arts et Metiers’, the highest award for arts given by the French government, and a lifetime achievement award from Italy.

A reluctant actor


Chatterjee has aged gracefully and the roles that come to him suit his personality. Few know that before his debut in the maestro’s film, he was rejected for the title role of Bengali film Neelachale Mahaprabhu.

“I went for the audition reluctantly because in those days, having nourished myself on films like Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Fall of Berlin etc I had an extremely snobbish attitude towards Bengali and Indian cinema. I failed the screen test, of course. Believe me, it was a great relief because they had told me that I would have to shave my head if finalised for the title role!”

There is an interesting footnote to it. “Several years later, when I was travelling with Manik-da (Satyajit Ray) to Delhi to pick the President’s award, we met the producer of Neelachale Mahaprabhu. He proudly told Manik-da, ‘I was the one who discovered Soumitra Chatterjee.’ Manik-da knew the whole story and countered, ‘but you had rejected him’.” Chatterjee chuckles at the memory of the crestfallen producer.

Pather Panchali, Ray’s first film (1955), changed Chatterjee’s entire perspective about Indian cinema.

He recalls, “It had already created a stir among the Bengali intelligentsia while in production. I came into the scene quite accidentally. A crew member from Ray’s team spotted me outside the (iconic) Coffee House on College Street one day. They were scouting for someone to play Apu in Aparajita, the second in the Apu trilogy. Ray took one look at me and decided I was too tall for Apu. But he had earmarked me for Apur Sansar. Later, he made me go through a camera test and a voice test though he had already decided that I would play Apu in the film. The entire rigmarole was to strip me of camera consciousness.”

It was the time when Uttam Kumar was ruling the Bengali cinema scene. About his relationship with the senior actor, he reminisces, “Working with Uttam Kumar didn’t intimidate me because we shared a close family bond. I had seen him first at my sister’s wedding. Working together for the first time in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi (1961) only strengthened the friendship.”

Love for theatre

Being in the Kolkata performing scene, how can he not be involved in theatre? Chatterjee has directed and acted and even translated significant plays. Raja Lear, a translated version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, drew packed houses when performed. In 2011, he wrote, directed and acted in Prachya’s Tritiyo Onko Otoeb, an autobiographical production.

The play maps the personal and socio-political journey of his life. At that time he was suffering from cancer but he presented his autobiography as a stage performance nonetheless.

Chatterjee finds acting on the stage more challenging and more dynamic than acting in films. Elaborating the difference, he explains, “Acting in theatre is acting in real time. It is continuous, sequential, and chronological. The rehearsals for a play take care of the actor’s preparation for his role. The response too, is immediate. Acting in cinema is not so. You can’t improvise on a performance once the final shot is taken.”

Age, he believes, is no constraint for an actor. “When working with young directors, I function with them on the same platform so that they don’t feel uncomfortable working with me. Did age come in the way of the greatest actor of all time — Charlie Chaplin? The biggest actors, in course of time, also become the greatest stars. I continue to work, to act, and life goes on,” he sums up.

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