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Meet Soumitra, 81 India’s best actor

Published : Jan 30, 2016, 8:30 pm IST
Updated : Jan 30, 2016, 8:30 pm IST

Shyam Benegal likens Soumitra Chatterjee’s measured performance as a standoffish, socially awkward suitor in Satyajit Ray’s Samapti (1961) to “a fine Persian carpet, subtle and exquisite”.

Shyam Benegal likens Soumitra Chatterjee’s measured performance as a standoffish, socially awkward suitor in Satyajit Ray’s Samapti (1961) to “a fine Persian carpet, subtle and exquisite”. Quoted by the author of this lively rundown on an extraordinarily varied and eventful acting career, the filmmaker says: “It is only when you turn to look at the back of the carpet do you see the intricate weave that has gone into its making.” This vivid description could well be a summation of the entire body of Soumitra’s work as a thinking man’s film actor who brings deceptive ease but rich detailing to his craft. His worldwide reputation — few Indian actors can match it — is obviously intertwined with that of the trailblazing Ray. However, in India, outside of Bengal, Soumitra’s name might ring no bell except in informed circles of cineastes. This has as much to do with the distance he has kept from Hindi films as with the kind of cinema he champions. Amitava Nag’s book is, therefore, essential reading for anybody who wants to know exactly why it would be no exaggeration to assert that Soumitra, now 81, has no peer in India. He worked with Ray until the very end of the latter’s life, from 1959’s epochal Apur Sansar (the actor’s screen debut) to the maestro’s second last film, Shakha Prosakha (1990). In a long interview that forms the book’s final chapter, Soumitra shares with Nag the little but priceless things he learnt from Ray, who gave him the first draft of Apur Sansar well before the shoot began. “Till then he had made four films and had not given any actor the whole script to read,” says Soumitra. Ray also gave him Apu’s full character profile on two foolscap sheets. “ That also he had not done for anyone else,” the actor recalls. From Ray Soumitra also imbibed the art of preparing a subtext to indicate what a character might be doing when he is not shown on the screen “so that we get an uninterrupted timeline”. It was not without reason that his and Ray’s director-actor partnership was, in terms of output and impact, on par with the iconic combinations forged by Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Ingmar Bergman and Max von Sydow, Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni. The films that Ray and Soumitra made together put Bengali and Indian cinema on the world map like nothing else ever has, before or since. But Ray was only one aspect of the career of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award-winning actor who has been in the business for well over five decades. “The popular view,” Nag writes in the introduction, “is that Soumitra excelled mostly in the films of Ray where the general standard of acting is anyway high. The range of roles selected here will dispel that misconception and show how Soumitra excelled over the decades, with several directors and in different profiles.” Beyond Apu serves its avowed purpose to perfection. While Soumitra’s rise was meteoric, it was no cakewalk. Nag writes: “The journey was not easy, straddling as he did two different streams: establishing himself in the artistic cinema of Ray, (Mrinal) Sen and Tapan Sinha, while struggling for a foothold as a major commercial star.” While Beyond Apu focuses primarily on Soumitra’s approach to screen acting, it also brings out the many facets of Chatterjee’s creative genius, devoting a chapter each to his still-thriving theatre career and a recent exhibition of his art. Soumitra has straddled the worlds of cinema and theatre with equal success. In this respect, he is unlike any other star-actor Indian cinema has known. He is also a poet, author, literary editor and painter to boot. Drawing upon his conversations with Soumitra and his own analyses of 20 of the actor’s handpicked screen characters, Nag presents a portrait of a screen performer whose intricate and subtle skills border on the miraculous. This book reveals the blend of minimalism and meticulousness that underlines Soumitra’s technique. As a result, his histrionic sleights are nearly invisible. When at their best, they can only be felt and experienced, not seen. Impressed by Soumitra’s interpretation of a robust but conflicted Rajput taxi driver in Ray’s Abhijan, Uttam Kumar, Bengali cinema’s brightest superstar, drew an analogy between the performance and “an expensive 555 cigarette”. No two characters that the versatile Chatterjee has played on the screen are probably as different from each other as Amulya of Samapti and Narsingh of Abhijan. And Apu, the Apur Sansar role with which he burst upon the world in the late 1950s, was in another zone altogether. These three characters, played in a span of four years, all for Ray, demonstrated his ability to fully internalise distinct screen personas. Early in his film career he also played the villain in the Bengali version of Prisoner of Zenda — Jhinder Bandi, directed by Tapan Sinha and starring Uttam Kumar as the eponymous king. He carried it off with such aplomb that it became a watershed. For another Ray classic Charulata, Soumitra changed his Bengali handwriting for good. He spent six months practising the letters and strokes of a pre-Tagore era and emerged, at age 27, with an all-new running hand that has stayed with him. It is no surprise that the maker of the Apu trilogy figures prominently in this book. Eight of the roles enumerated here are from nine Ray films — one character, Pradosh Mitter aka Feluda, belongs to two films (Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath). But given the sheer range of roles that Chatterjee has played, several other notable Bengali filmmakers — notably Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar and Goutam Ghose — have made it to the list of his favourite films. Beyond Apu, the first English-language appraisal of Soumitra’s work, isn’t just for fans. It is for anyone, professional or spectator alike, who values the fine art of nuanced acting.

Saibal Chatterjee is a National Award-winning film critic and writer based in New Delhi