ANINDITA ACHARYA, Kolkata: Satyajit Ray was looking for an actor in the character of college-going Apu for Aparajito. One fine day, Soumitra Chatterjee who was on his way to Coffee House met a friend who was friends with Nityananda Dutta, Ray’s assistant at that time. Soumitra could envisage that his friend was trying to engage him in petty talks. Later, he realized he was signaling to someone standing on the opposite side of the road. It was Dutta, Soumitra recalled in his interview with Silhouette editor Amitava Nag. “They are looking for Apu for their second film Aparajito, my friend told me. By then, I have watched his Pather Panchali (1955). We boarded a bus immediately and went to Ray’s house,” said the actor. The moment Soumitra entered, Ray thought he was too tall to play Apu in Aparajito (1956). However, in 1959 he was called again, this time for Apur Sansar, final instalment of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) marked Soumitra’s entry into films. Soumitra’s zeal and enthusiasm for acting have been exemplary. His passion for cinema, stage and love for acting were so strong that he kept pursuing his passion till two days before he was admitted to Belle Vue hospital in Kolkata after testing coronavirus positive on October 6.
Now, 40 days after his long battle with Covid encephalopathy, the legendary 85-year-old actor has breathed his last at 12.15 pm at Belle Vue on November 15. He is survived by his wife Deepa Chatterjee, daughter Poulami Bose and son Sougata Chatterjee. Though Soumitra was admitted after testing COVID-19 positive, on October 14 he tested negative for the virus. However, the doctors said the Covid encephalopathy impacted his health and soon his condition started deteriorating. He underwent tracheostomy and plasmapheresis earlier this week. Soon, he stopped responding to the treatment and was put on life support.
Though Soumitra worked in Bengali films and plays, he cannot be called a Bengali actor. The world knows Soumitra as the “most coveted actor” who went onto perform in 14 Satyajit Ray films namely Charulata, Ghare Baire, Ashani Sanket, Devi, Abhijan, Aranyer Din Ratri, Ganashatru, Sonar Kella and Jai Baba Felunath. He is also Bengalis’ forever Feluda, a character created by Ray. In fact, Ray even made some illustrations of Feluda based on Soumitra’s body structure and look in the 1970s Feluda books. In 2018, Soumitra received the Legion of Honour, the highest French civilian award. In 1987, Satyajit Ray had received the same award from then French President Francois Mitterrand.
Soumitra has also worked with greats like Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, Ajoy Kor and Tarun Majumdar. How can anyone forget Soumitra as the sophisticated antagonist Mayurbahan in Tapan Sinha’s 1961 film Jhinder Bandi?
Even when he was at the top of his game, he played diverse roles be it the thief Aghor in Sansar Simante, doctor Gangacharan in Asani Sanket, a hot-tempered taxi driver Narsingh in Abhijan or young, angry Shyam Sundar Bose in laugh riot Basanta Bilap.
Soumitra is one of the few Indian actors who aged gracefully and also shifted to roles which suited his appearance and age. Here was one icon who has worked with almost all filmmakers in Bengal, be it experienced or newcomer. So, if he has worked with Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ekdin, Rituparno Ghosh in Asukh, Gautam Ghose’s Dekha, he has also worked with Atanu Ghosh, Suman Ghosh, Shiboprosad Mukhopadhyay and Nandita Roy, Swapan Saha, Leena Gangopadhyay, Saibal Banerjee and Parambrata Chatterjee. In fact, Soumitra received his first National Award for Best Actor for Suman Ghosh’s Podokkhep in 2006. With Atanu, he developed a special bond as he went onto do three movies with him. Mayurakhi (2017), which is a tale of a father and son, won the National Award for Best Bengali feature film. In case of Shiboprosad and Nandita, Soumitra had already done four films with them, the biggest hit being Bela Seshe. The other one, Bela Shuru was supposed to hit the theatres in summer 2020 but got postponed due to COVID-19. It was Shiboprosad and Nandita who brought Soumitra and Swatilekha Sengupta, the enigmatic pair of Ray’s Ghare Baire, on the big screen after 30 years in Bela Seshe (2015).
A legend, this octogenarian was the cultural institution for the country, who has not entertained us with his presence on the big screen only. His contribution to theatre is immense. Lucky were those spectators who witnessed Soumitra play the protagonist in Suman Mukhopadhyay’s theatre production Raja Lear, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear in 2011.
In between his shooting for films, writing poetry and plays, Soumitra made sure he found time for his first love – theatre.
When Soumitra was in the final year of college, he watched a play by thespian Sisir Bhaduri. It was then that he had decided to become an actor. He even managed to meet Bhadhuri through his friend’s mother, actress Shefalika Putul. Though, he met Bhaduri, towards the end of his career, when his theatre had closed, for the next three years, till Bhaduri’s death in 1959, Soumitra made him a mentor, and learnt acting from him through their regular interactions.
As soon as actors above the age of 65 were allowed to resume shoot amid coronavirus, Soumitra was one of the first senior actors of Bengal to reach the shooting floor. On July 14, Soumitra shot for Parambrata Chatterjee’s Bengali film Abhijaan, a biopic on his life post COVID-19 lockdown in Kolkata. In fact, the green signal to shoot in the ‘new normal’ came from the thespian. The shoot of the biopic, which stars Jisshu Sengupta as the younger version of Soumitra, got stalled since March 17 due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Parambrata, who has acted with Soumitra in several films be it Sraboner Dhara, Bhalo Theko, Samantaral or Sonar Pahar, had posted a photograph with the veteran actor on the last day of the thespian’s shooting on Abhijaan’s set. Parambrata mentioned how during the journey of Abhijaan amid COVID-19, he battled fear, tension, he shared some wonderful moments with Soumitra and got ‘strength’ from the legendary actor.
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প্রচার এর দায়িত্ত্বে যা শেয়ার করতে হয় অন্তর্জালে তার বাইরে কাজ নিয়ে খুব বেশি লেখালেখি করার অভ্যেস থেকে দূরে থাকার চেষ্টা করি কিন্তু এই ছবিটি দেখাবার লোভ সামলাতে পারলাম না গতকাল আমাদের ‘অভিযান’ ছবির সৌমিত্র বাবুর অংশটি র চিত্রায়ন শেষ হলো আড্ডা দিতে দিতে জীবন কাহিনী এবং দর্শন বোঝার দিন গুলো থেকে শুট , মাঝপথে অতিমারী , অচলাবস্থা , তারপর আবার বিপুল টেনশন এবং ভয় নিয়ে এই সাম্প্রতিক শুট … অনেক টা সময় , অনেক মুহূর্ত , অনেক গল্প , অভিজ্ঞতা , মতের মিল অমিল সব শেয়ার করলাম অশীতিপর এই মানুষটির সঙ্গে অনেক পেলাম সবথেকে বেশি পেলাম সাহস সেইরকম ই একটি মুহূর্ত এখানে … #abhijaan @ig_roadshowfilmsofficial @shriratannirman
Soumitra was also shooting for a documentary on his life and works days before he was admitted to the hospital for coronavirus. He even appeared on a singing reality show.
In 2012, when he was honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award by Vice-President Hamid Ansari, Soumitra had said, “I have always been in doubt about my work. I always thought that entertainment business was not worthwhile but time and again for more than 50 years I have been accepted, loved and made to feel as one of my own by my countrymen. I love them (audience) and that is the reason why I am doing cinema. I salute them as they have supplied me with energy and dedication of what I think is a good art.” As we bid a tearful adieu to the treasure called Soumitra Chatterjee, we can only say that cinema will never be the same again.