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Apu, Lear and the bhadralok

Bishakha De Sarkar | Updated on November 20, 2020 Published on November 20, 2020

Portrait of an artiste: He was a star, no doubt, with the magic in his eyes and honey in his voice, but he was also the last of Bengal’s Renaissance men   -  ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Remembering Soumitra Chatterjee, the actor who rose above scripted roles

* In Kolkata, crowds gathered to bid goodbye to Soumitra Chatterjee, who died the morning after Deepavali, at the age of 85, of complications related to Covid-19

* Chatterjee was a polymath who saw the best of world cinema. He loved classical music and wrote and recited poetry. He’d penned 29 plays and acted in 300 films — 14 of which had been directed by Satyajit Ray

* The last book that he was reading was James Shapiro’s 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

Kolkata’s traffic is erratic in the best of times. I was in the city for an interview with Soumitra Chatterjee and, not wanting to be late, had set out from my guest house with ample time in hand. Then, of course, old Murphy stepped in: The roads were remarkably empty and I reached the actor’s Golf Green residence an hour before the appointment. I sat in a taxi outside his house, looking suspiciously like a deranged fan stalking Satyajit Ray’s Apu.

The neighbours in the largely middle-class housing complex went about their mid-morning chores and no one seemed unduly troubled by the sight of a harried woman looking at her watch every five minutes and furtively at the house in front, where Bengal’s most celebrated actor lived.

I was reminded of this — the ordinariness of an extraordinary life — as I watched visuals of the actor’s last journey. Crowds gathered to bid goodbye to Chatterjee, who died the morning after Deepavali, at the age of 85, of complications related to Covid-19. As I saw shots of his garlanded body, I recalled his gentle face wreathed in a smile — and the leisurely conversation of that October morning in 2016.

We’d met earlier, too. In 1985, when he was in Delhi as a jury member for the International Film Festival of India, a friend and I had interviewed him at The Ashok. I, a wet-behind-the-ears sub-editor, was working for a wire service and hoping for a scoop; the friend, equally green, was recording him for All India Radio.

Neither of us can remember much of what was said — though I recall that the friend, a die-hard Ray junkie, posed many questions about the director, and she holds that I wanted to know why artistes did not join social or political protest movements. But then this was, let’s not forget, soon after the Sikh massacres in Delhi.

What we do remember is that the man known for his drop-dead good looks seemed ancient to us. “He was 50 — and we thought he was so old,” my friend exclaims.

He didn’t look old, though, when he strode into Siri Fort Auditorium for the opening of the festival. The friend — who clearly ate memory-enhancing almonds as a kid — points out that he wore a magnificently embroidered red shawl and looked like a “prince”.

More than 30 years later, when I met him at his residence, I concluded that he was actually not so much a prince as the Bangali bhadralok — the quintessential Bengali of another age. He was a star, no doubt, because of the magic in his eyes and the honey in his voice, but he was also the last of Bengal’s Renaissance men.

He was a polymath who saw the best of world cinema. He loved classical music and wrote and recited poetry. He’d penned 29 plays and acted in 300 films — 14 of which had been directed by Ray. He acted in numerous plays, co-edited a much-admired little magazine called Ekkhon and was an avid reader. The last book that he was reading, his son told Anandabazar Patrika, was James Shapiro’s 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear.

He had picked the book out of his son’s collection, and that didn’t surprise me, for the man who will always be remembered for his debut role as Apu in Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959) will also always be feted as King Lear for playing the part of the mad king in the Bengali play Raja Lear. The play, while being staged in 2012, was abruptly called off, and the whisper then went that this had been done at the behest of the ruling Trinamool Congress. Chatterjee, after all, had stood by the Left even when most other artistes had nimbly jumped onto the Trinamool gravy train after the fall of the Left Front government in Bengal.

If Bengal was once seen as a repository of intellectual and artistic activity, it was, indeed, because people like Chatterjee shaped the popular discourse. An old friend of his recalls how those were the days when the Coffee House in College Street doubled as the living room of the city’s intellectuals. After overdosing on coffee and cigarettes, the group of poets, novelists, singers, academics and others would move to Chatterjee’s or somebody else’s house in the evenings. A poet was not just a poet, or an actor merely an actor — they read, discussed, debated and dreamt of a better world together.

A video, now widely shared, is a memento of those lost times. In the clip, Chatterjee is sitting with a group of friends. The glasses on the table hint at a night of revelry. He is singing a song about love.

But, as posts pile up on social media after his death, the one that I keep going back to is by a young friend. In 1973, Chatterjee, with family and friends, had stayed at a guest house in a forest in Tripura. Their visit was being overseen by two forest officers, one of whom was the friend’s father. Late at night, the two men saw a silhouette under a eucalyptus tree. It was Chatterjee, looking at the moon, and reciting Tagore, one poem after another.

His last night — at the hospital where he’d spent 40 days before succumbing to the virus — was a dark, moonless one. The voice that serenaded the moon with Tagore was still.

But there will be moonlit nights again, with poetry. And the voice will resonate.

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Published on November 20, 2020
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