Behind the scenes with Soumitra

Sathya Saran | Updated on January 18, 2021

Between the lines: Vulnerable as only a sensitive soul can be, Chatterjee, during a series of interactions in Kolkata, revealed his fears to the writer of the book   -  PTI

On the eve of his 86th birthday, a peek into an interview-based book that reveals the actor’s many moods, fears and vulnerabilities, and his reflections on life

*The setting for these meetings is a garage turned into a very basic study with a low roof where the sunlight often struggles to enter

*We learn that he is inspired by Tagore as a painter, and not, as one would expect, Satyajit Ray

*Nag also draws out Chatterjee’s admiration for Pele, Gary Sobers, and to an extent Tendulkar


Good actors are difficult people to fathom. Playing a role is second nature to those who can deftly don the persona of the many characters they portray. It is something that can be pulled on at a moment’s notice, perhaps to hide the real person underneath the mask. Often it is done knowingly; sometimes unintentionally.

After almost six decades of role playing — from the part of an earnest young man buffeted by life’s twists and turns in Ray’s Apur Sansar to that of an ageing patriarch in his last films — Soumitra Chatterjee had enough masks he could call up at will to hide behind. He was never the typical star who enjoyed the warmth of the limelight. More private and introspective, Chatterjee sought to keep away from the public eye; the adulation of his fans served only to stoke his drive for excellence in his work.

Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee; Amitava Nag; Blue Pencil Publishers; Non-fiction; ₹249


Yet, in Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee by Amitava Nag, we see a man who stands revealed, discussing his passions and moods, and at times even baring his vulnerabilities.

Nag, a Kolkata-based film critic and writer, first offered an in-depth look into Chatterjee’s acting talent as a selection of his best work by the actor himself in Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee. In Murmurs, Nag holds a mirror to the mind of the man who was born on January 19, 1935, and died on November 15, 2020.

Despite its rather quixotic title, Murmurs is a book that offers a satisfying read. Though right from the first segment it is obvious that Nag is in complete awe of the actor, the book, as he says, is not a biography. “Nor (is it) a hagiography of a bright star of our collective mental sky. I speak to him about many anxieties I have, questions, hazy perceptions, unresolved miseries.”

In fact, Nag confronts his own inhibitions that had made him stand in 2000, with a fan letter he had written to Chatterjee, “for an hour beneath the tree opposite of the post office to decide whether to drop the envelope or not.” When it started raining suddenly, caught without an umbrella, he finally threw “the envelope containing the letter in the hearth of a red cylindrical post box outside the local post office in a friendly city”. As a wry postscript to that confession, he adds, “No, I never got a reply.”

The setting for these meetings is a garage turned into a very basic study with a low roof where the sunlight often struggles to enter. This is where the actor had moved to after his grandson met with an accident. Nag finds its “agitated anxiety” unsettling.

But soon he is drawing the actor into conversations about his love of things beyond his work in cinema and on stage. Poetry links the two men together, and discussions follow.

We learn much about Chatterjee’s hobby of painting, seeking perfection in his work, knowing he is far from achieving it, yet not letting it unsettle him. We learn that he is inspired by Tagore as a painter, and not, as one would expect, Satyajit Ray.

Nag also draws out Chatterjee’s admiration for Pele, Gary Sobers, and to an extent Tendulkar with whom he shares “a long innings”. And his candid admission of admiration for two actors from the plethora of Hindi cinema stars: Balraj Sahni and Naseeruddin Shah.

Vulnerable as only a sensitive soul can be, Chatterjee reveals his fears. Nag expounds this in a single eloquent paragraph, as he shares a thought Chatterjee reads out to him:

“There are a thousand faces of desire. But if there are two most important ones, which have stayed on with me till now in the form of anxious fear, they are — shall I continue to be earning till the last days of my life? And ultimately is there any form of art produced by my being? Else, the life that I have lived for so many years seems so futile, so hopeless. My family’s well being is linked with the first desire; the second questions my existence. If there is no worth, then why am I still here? Not only that, how else can I repay my debts. All the grandeur that life has showered on me, if I don’t pay back even a small portion of that, a feeling of guilt will bleed me till the end.”

Nag’s observation which follows is poignant: “His voice doesn’t crack easily. It doesn’t even now. But it trembled for a while. Just a bit as he raises his face to look at me. It is now that a time of poetry is also a time of silence.”

Nag has some piquant turns of phrases. Sometimes he walks the thin line of grammar that an indulgent reader may call poetic. But somehow the book holds right through. Through his own observations, his dialogues with himself that run parallel to his talks with Chatterjee, Nag affords us a glimpse into a relationship that flowers into a friendship.

When after a long discussion on translating Chatterjee’s poems, the actor impishly utters three words: “Why don’t you?” Nag finds that they hold the same power to stun as other three-word sentences such as ‘I love you’ and ‘He is dead’.

But there are other sentences that stun the reader throughout the book, some by Nag, others by Chatterjee.

When Nag writes, “After all, death is nothing but a nostalgia of the young, and nostalgia is the death of the old”, or when Chatterjee says, “Amitava, I have lived your age. I know how it is. But you don’t know yet how my age looks like. I don’t envy your age,” it becomes obvious this is no ordinary interview-based book.

Sathya Saran is a journalist and editor based in Mumbai

Published on January 18, 2021

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