Soumitra Chatterjee: Cerebral directors’ delight

Soumitra Chatterjee: Cerebral directors’ delight

The Bengali actor who died last Sunday at 85 believed acting was observation first

Acting is when it doesn’t look like acting.’ That was Soumitra Chatterjee’s succinct reply to a Persian-language interviewer at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, some years ago.

Persian being my mother tongue, I had helped the interviewer, who didn’t know English, speak to the actor. I had the additional advantage of knowing Bengali.

Over the years, I got many opportunities to observe Soumitra Chatterjee not just as a thespian but also as a versatile genius who spoke sublime Bengali and recited Tagore and Jibanananda Das in his baritone.

“In professional acting, I’m just acting a part of my persona,” he once said at the Satyajit Ray Film Institute, Kolkata. This summed up his life. He acted out a part of his many sides, while he also explored other talents.

Soumitra Chatterjee had distinguished himself in writing, directing, reciting and painting. He had a brooding presence that made him a thinking man’s actor and a cerebral director’s delight. Satyajit Ray’s favourite, he acted in 14 of the 29 full-fledged movies the great auteur made. (The count goes up to at least 44 films if documentaries are also included.)

In an Uttam Kumar-dominated Bengali film industry, Soumitra Chatterjee not only carved a niche for himself but also eventually outshone all other actors. “I don’t know, I don’t understand what method acting is. To me, acting is presenting life on celluloid,” he
often said.

Soumitra Chatterjee starred in about 200 films. He could never understand the significance of acting schools. Whenever he was invited to teach acting at FTII, Satyajit Ray Film Institute, New York Institute of Dramatics and the National School of Drama in Delhi, he would politely decline.

“Acting comes with observation. Observe life closely and act it out on screen,” was his mantra. I once asked him why he never acted in Hindi films. He matter-of-factly told me he had reservations. He wasn’t sure of his command of Hindi. And he did not feel at home in Bollywood. Having worked with Ray, Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen, parallel ‘realistic’ cinema appealed to him more than commercial Hindi cinema.

Yet, the ever-humble Soumitra Chatterjee never pontificated and said anything disdainful about other industries. He was knowledgeable and effusive about actors from Bengali and other cinemas. He praised Balraj Sahni, Dilip Kumar, Naseeruddin Shah, and Anant Nag from Kannada cinema, among others.

Though Uttam Kumar was more popular among Bengali cine-goers, he never felt envious. Very few are aware that Soumitra Chatterjee had a fine sense of music and Bengali composers and lyricists made him listen to their creations before releasing them. The famous Bengali singer and musician Shyamal Mitra would invariably seek his feedback and make changes on the thespian’s suggestions. 

Bracketed with top actors Anthony Hopkins, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and Laurence Oliver, Soumitra was a legend in his lifetime. Yet, he remained down-to-earth and never forgot his small-town roots. He hailed from Krishnanagar, 100 km from Kolkata.

Those who interacted with him will always cherish his refined sense of humour, his measured smile and his quotes from world literature. He was a voracious reader who finished a book in 24 hours even when he was busy. He used to jot down lines from the books he read and quote them at the right moment.

Diagnosed with cancer, he didn’t let it dampen his zeal for life and acting. He remained busy till the end.