Actor Soumitra Chatterjee passes away at 85

Abhishek Law Kolkata | Updated on November 15, 2020

File photo of Dada Saheb Phalke awardee Soumitra Chatterjee   -  The Hindu

Versatile as an actor could possibly be. The swashbuckling hero whose smile would melt hearts off-screen; the cerebral sleuth who did not bat an eyelid before rounding up the bad guys; the “good-looking” antagonist who would make audiences blood boil with his Machiavellian persona. Soumitra Chatterjee, was all that on-screen and more.

The actor conferred with the Dada Saheb Phalke award in 2012  breathed his last on Sunday afternoon after a prolonged battle with post-Covid19 and age-related complications. He was 85. He is survived by his wife, son and daughter.

The legendary thespian, whose career spanned six decades, won awards by the armful – from Padma Bhushan to ‘Officier des Arts et Metiers’ (the highest award for arts by the French government) – and drew praise for his roles in films such as Apur Sansar (his debut movie); Teen Bhubaner Pare (a movie that made him the working class hero) and “Jhinder Bandi” (one of his rare negative roles).

But was forever tied to his turns as the sleuth, Feluda aka Pradosh C Mitter – a creation by Satyajit Ray – who preferred to smoke of his favorite Charminar cigarette, and used Magajastray (brain as a weapon) to solve near perfect crimes.

Incidentally, besides getting 8 times BFJA – Best Actor and international awards, Chatterjee never won a National Film Award for acting in the early part of his career.

 “I lost a dear friend. He has left a void in world cinema which can never be fulfilled. He leaves behind a rich legacy,” Sharmila Tagore, his co-star in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) and other films told a private channel.

Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, while mourning the death of the thespian said he was a “versatile genius”. “I believed he would fight through. He won over Covid, but succumbed to other age-related complications. Death is a reality and we lost an icon today,” she said.

Career Defining Roles

Despite his versatility Soumitra was associated with two stellar roles: the sleuth Feluda and Apu from his debut movie, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). Both incidentally we cinematic masterpieces by Ray.  

When Soumitra played the 34-year-old Feluda in Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) in 1974, he was already 38 years of age. In the second and final Feluda venture made by Ray, Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God; 1978 ), the actor was in his forties. Yet, so strong was Soumitra’s influence in visually establishing the character, within the Bengali psyche, that Satyajit Ray’s later illustrations and sketches of Feluda had a ‘Soumitra look and feel’.

Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) paved way for the thespian to become a cultural icon for Bengalis. Soumitra personified Feluda and the two became almost interchangeable from then on.

When Satyajit Ray’s son, Sandip. took the mantle of making Feluda, he brought in Sabyasachi Chakraborty and Abir Chatterjee for the roles. But, Soumitra will always be the first and perfect Feluda etched in the minds of viewers and readers.

The Dream Debut

It was in 1959 – the third and final instalment of Satyajit Ray’s classic Apu trilogy, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) – that marked Soumitra’s big-screen debut.

The actor who came to Calcutta after spending his childhood in Krishnanagar (Nadia) offered himself for the role of Apu in Aparajito (1956) – the second part of the trilogy. But Ray thought that he was too tall to play an adolescent Apu. However, some years later he was called back for the lead in Apur Sansar.

Association with Ray

Post this, a remarkable cinematic relationship of both collaboration and mentoring was born.

Soumitra went on to play the lead protagonist in 14 of Ray’s movies. It was often said Ray scripted these stories and screenplays keeping the thespian in mind.

His centrality in Ray’s work has often been compared to other classic collaborations of world cinema that include Mifune and Kurosawa, Mastroianni and Fellini, De Niro and Sorcesese, Di Caprio and Scorcese, Max von Saydow and Ingmar Bergman, Jerzy and Kieslowski.

Other Works

Besides working with Ray, Soumitra excelled in collaborations with other legendary Bengal directors like Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha.

 He was at ease playing the swashbuckling horse-riding villain in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi (1961) sharing screen space with the then matinee idol, Uttam Kumar.

He earned critical acclaim for his role of an impostor in Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum (1965); and in Teen Bhubaner Pare  (1969) he shared screen space with Tanuja as the flamboyant working class hero balancing societal expectations and his own ideologies.

Besides films, Chatterjee continued acting in Kolkata’s theatre circle and even published over 12 poetry books.

After a two-decade long busy career as a leading man of Bengali cinema, he returned to theatre in 1978, with his production Naam Jiban, staged at Biswarupa theatre in Kolkata. This led to other plays like Rajkumar (1982), Phera (1987), Nilkantha (1988), Ghatak Biday (1990) and Nyaymurti (1996), beside notable plays like Tiktiki (1995), an adaptation of Sleuth, and Homapakhi (2006).

In November 2010, he performed the title role of the play Raja Lear directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay, a play based on King Lear by William Shakespeare.

Post-Ray era

In the post-Ray era of Bengali cinema – during the 1980s and 1990s - he started working with contemporary directors, like Goutam Ghose, Aparna Sen, Anjan Das, and Rituparno Ghosh.

In 1986, he played the role of a swimming coach in the film Koni  (1986) directed by Saroj Dey. The film centred around a young girl from a slums wanting to become a swimmer. In a 2012 interview, Soumitra called Koni one of the best films of his career. He even recalled using film's catch-phrase "Fight-Koni-fight" in hard times.

An aberration of the phase – Fight Apu Fight – had become widely popular as the veteran actor fight Covid-19 and other old age related complications over a 40-day period at a private hospital in Kolkata.

Published on November 15, 2020

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