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Copyright 2004




Soumitra Chatterjee: Acumen and ability set him apart

THAT MORNING in Calcutta, Soumitra Chatterjee was clearly tired. The journey by road from Kolaghat the night before had been tiresome. A long pile-up of trucks on the highway had got him delayed by several hours, and the evening, when he staged a play, had been no less strenuous for Soumitra; theatre can be exacting, minus the cushion the screen provides.

Yet, Soumitra keeps his date with me, is not just punctual to the dot, but even opens the door to let me inside his tastefully decorated home on the southern fringes of the teeming metropolis.

Soumitra must have picked up the discipline and humility from the man who literally moulded him into a brilliant actor. Why, Satyajit Ray, of course, who not only introduced him (and Sharmila Tagore) to a demanding Bengali audience in the 1959 (``Apur Sansar'',) but also cast him time and again. Soumitra worked in 14 of Ray's 31 features, and the director (who would answer telephone calls himself and even the doorbell) would have used the actor more often, but for some of the scripts which just would not entertain the man, however chameleon like he was.

Writer Pauline Kael once described Soumitra as Ray's ``one man stock company''. Precisely so. As Amal in ``Charulata'' - certainly his finest performance with Ray - he enraptures with his verve and wit the lonely wife of his cousin. It is not a role that can be forgotten; in fact, in the mind's eye, Soumitra the actor is inexplicably linked to Amal the character.

Inexplicable, because his parts have been so wonderfully varied. He has been a brash hero, a taxi driver, a detective, a revolutionary, a famine-stricken priest and what have you. Apart from Ray, Soumitra's excellence was frozen on frame by men like Tapan Sinha (``Kshudista Pashan''), Mrinal Sen (``Akash Kusum'') and Ajoy Kar (``Saat Pake Bandha'') .

Some may argue that Soumitra is what his renowned directors made him into, but I would disagree with this, although the man himself tells me that an ``actor is always dependent on someone else. It could even be the scriptwriter. I realised this at the beginning of my career. An actor's work differs here from that of a poet or a novelist, who can choose to work alone.''

It took a while for Soumitra to learn this, but when he did, he found it easier to work with, let us say, lesser mortals, and in situations that were, at best, phoney. This again is something that Ray himself taught him when he once found Soumitra not serious enough in a shot by some other film maker. ``He told me to be professional, to believe in whatever I was doing.''

This, though, was not very difficult in Soumitra's heyday, when Bengali cinema drew its inspiration from the region's rich literary tradition. ``Even ordinary boy-meets girl kind of stories gave interesting insight into society. There was always something for an actor to work with, to develop. But, later - particularly in the last decade - Bengali movies degenerated into poor copies of Mumbai or South Indian commercials.''

Soumitra feels that it was unwise of Bengali cinema to have stepped out of its forte, literature. ``To begin with, we do not have the kind of funds that Mumbai or Chennai has, and we can, therefore, only produce poor imitations. And the passing away of stalwarts - some are still living but have become very old - has worsened the situation, almost creating a crisis.''

What is even more sad is that these ``copies'' do not run. If they had, the means (getting hold of a Hindi or Tamil cassette and plagiarising it) might have justified the end.

Since it has not been so, ``I think Bengali cinema has to return to literature. Admittedly, a few directors are trying to make sensible films, directors like Goutam Ghose and Buddhadeb Dasgupta. I have just completed one (`Dheka') with Goutam. It is about a blind person, who is an intellectual and comes from a well-to-do family from North Calcutta. It is non-linear, and explores the contradictions inherent in such Bengali middleclass characters.''

Earlier in a Raja Mitra work (``Ekti Jebon''), Soumitra modelled himself on a researcher, who had with Tagore's support compiled a Bengali dictionary. The researcher, Haricharan Banerjee, lived and taught in Santiniketan.

That took us to that morning's newspapers which had frontpaged a story on violence at the Abode of Peace (Santiniketan). Soumitra turns sombre. ``It is terrible. It hits us. But, tell me, how many of us today are conversant with the real Tagore ? We may listen to his songs, but most of us hardly know him. Tagore is almost at the point of being forgotten.''

A day earlier, a Calcutta daily had carried something equally disturbing. At a quiz conducted in a few reputed city schools, students did not know who Jawaharlal Nehru was! ``This is shocking ignorance. I think we are consciously or unconsciously trying to erase history. We are ceasing to be conscious of our heritage. This is painful, because we are as good as refugees, rootless and devoid of dignity'', Soumitra laments.

One important reason for this decay is the lack of time and inclination among the middle classes to pursue anything other than their chosen professions. Once, they were repositories of culture. They finetuned it, pushed it, promoted it and kept it alive. Not any more.

This is reflected on the screen images. This is apparent in those who put them together. Soumitra cites Rituparno Ghosh as an example. ``Among today's young directors, he is one who is meticulous about detail. But where he fails in comparison to the great masters of the past, like Ray or Ritwick Ghatak, is his lack of depth. He does not have a strong point of view, something that Ray and Ghatak had and conveyed through their work. They had a commitment to life, to their society, to their fellow beings, a commitment that was deep and passionate. Todays's directors are good craftsmen, and nothing beyond.''

This is typically the modern crisis of a society that is motivated by money alone. ``We all have to earn to survive. But we have to look beyond that to live and breathe. Otherwise life leads a soulless existence''. Soumitra's words echo his thoughts, and together they enrich his style in all its magnificence.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated December 15 2000)

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