Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020): A life that blended intellect with simplicity

Photo: BBC

By Prithvijeet Sinha

Soumitra Chatterjee, the Bengali doyen of theatre and film, straddled mediums, eras, generations and continued to enunciate a physiognomy of humility throughout his eighty plus years on earth. To say that his association with Satyajit Ray’s cinema accorded his already unassuming personality a greater aura of the common man’s humility and that genial, gentlemanly charm forever preserved in our screens, would not be wrong. Both drew from each other’s talents to encompass a rich creative streak that will always define Indian arts.

To this writer, as to countless others, Soumitra Dada was a combination of the intellectual and the everyday. I feel blessed to have watched so many of his embodiments poised around those traits. A film like Devi (The Goddess) rests on his perplexed complexity as he attempts to reason with the spectre of superstition that has gripped his household. As an educated young gentleman, his horror at seeing his wife Dayamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) deified as a goddess becomes our own. He acts as the eyes of the audience, questioning age-old ideals and ushering in a young independent nation’s religious diktats and simultaneous liberation associated with a new generation. In a way, he is able to combine reserves of both the modern and the traditional with his rational, balanced approach to the characterisation; even his name in the film, Uma (dawn) resonates with me. He was not only expressing visually the idea of both tradition and modernity in the context of his home state Bengal but the nation as a whole.

The even-keeled approach to life through thick and thin, perhaps springing from his own personal views, became his touchstone in several of his collaborations with Ray. As the beloved younger brother of a liberal, privileged man in Charulata, he draws his sister-in-law Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) towards him through his intellect. But it is first and foremost a meeting of minds as the already intellectually gifted lady finds an outlet to escape stifling constraints of bourgeois life. In the iconic sequence where she watches him through binoculars as she sits on the swing, his innocence and life-affirming smile makes us see him as the titular character does. It is love of a platonic, deeply spiritual kind without any idea of lust or sensual attributes. That tasteful handling of an implosive personal narrative benefits from his befuddlement and lack of resolve towards the end passages of the film. Without making a hue and cry, he lends an ear to a lonely woman’s internal conflicts and then chooses to retreat silently to the outer world. The narrative is very much Charulata’s own in terms of agency and trajectory but the real tragedy rests with his subtle shades.

How can I also forget that intermingling of sporadic joy and soul-crushing tragedy that he managed to conjure in his first film, Apur Sansar, the final part of a transcendental trilogy centred on the title character? In adulthood, Apu’s expressive silences abounds with poignancy as the loss of his wife and estrangement from his young son makes us privy to the lonely life that he has always led, losing all the women he loved to premature death. As he wanders around the natural landscape in no particular location, he captures the sheer desolation of a spirit already grappling with being a have-not and knowing that he cannot fully mourn because he has to survive to make ends meet. In that moment, he loses himself to an awakening akin to a fakir or banjara. When he finally reunites with his son, the closing image of him mounted on the father’s shoulders somehow makes his renewed tale of hope palpable because life always gives us second chances. Apu takes that chance and endures.

As a revolutionary canvassing for independence from the British rule in Ghare Baire (Home and the World), a veteran doctor grappling with moral and ethical issues after standing up against systemic corruption in Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People) or a corporate baron opening up tantalizing vistas of the man-woman bonding in Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), rife with human  hypocrisies and fallibilities galore, his intellect literally propels his penchant for realism and understatement that years of working with the masterly Ray let him hone.

I am fortunate to have seen him in his recent works: in Aparna Sen classics 15 Park Avenue as the father to a schizophrenic child, as the lifelong friend of a spirited old lady in Paromitar Ek Din (A Day in the life of Paromita) and the charismatic, unpredictable older husband to a young, equally charismatic and unpredictable wife in the popular short film Ahalya. Given his consistent output through the years, it completes his arc of never settling for the easy way out or the complacency of a legendary status. His prolific body of work and professional ethics make him stand out as one who continues to hone his craft till his final year.

As news of his passing away reached me, the skies suddenly went overcast, thunder rolled and rain filled the plains for the night. I felt as if it was a sign, taking me all the way to the same symbols of a portent in his memorable Ashani Sanket. It felt like nature mourned his loss. But I know his infectious smile, simplicity and humility will always remain with me. So will his effortless contribution to multiple generations of Bengalis, Indians, Ray aficionados and the very annals of world cinema. Simply put, Soumitra Dada’s positive and definitive image is engraved in his work – something that makes everyone look up to him.

Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow. After completing his MPhil, he launched his writing career by self-publishing on the worldwide community Wattpad in 2015 and on his blog ‘An Awadh Boy’s Panorama’. He has published in several journals such as Gnosis JournalReader’s DigestCafé Dissensus EverydayCafé Dissensus MagazineConfluenceThe MedleyThumbprint MagazineWilda Morris’ Poetry BlogScreen QueensBorderless Journal, encompassing various genres of writing, ranging from poetry to film reviews, travel pieces, photo essay, and culture.


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