Soumitra Chatterjee is one of the greatest actors ever to grace Indian cinema. Possibly he could have been more famous (among the masses at least) if he had acted in Hindi movies but he never did so (by choice). He and Mahanayak Uttam Kumar can justifiably be called our legends. Soumitra and master director Satyajit Ray were very close and he and Sharmila Tagore are one of the top pairs ever in Indian cinema.
Let us go on a trivia journey about Soumitra’s early days – how he landed up in cinema, his movies with Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar, and Sharmila, and the awards he has received in his illustrious career.
Soumitra Chatterjee was born in Surya Sen Street ( then known as Mirzapur street) near Sealdah railway station of Kolkata on 19 January 1935. He, however, spent the 1st ten years of his life at Krishnanagar in Nadia district which had seen famine in 1943. He is on record saying that this helped him much later while shooting for Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket in 1973. His father was a lawyer and later worked for the Government and he was an amateur actor while his grandfather was President of a theatre group. Soumitra did his Masters in Bengali literature from Calcutta University and friendship with theatre exponents Mritunjaya Sil and interaction with Sisir Bhaduri made him think about a career in acting in theatre and movies as well. Initially, he worked in All India Radio and after his debut in movies in a Satyajit Ray film, he never looked back. Much later he did come back to theatre and his title role of Raja Lear, a play by Suman Mukhopadhyay, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear has received wide applause and critical acclaim.
Soumitra Chatterjee and Uttam Kumar
Mahanayak Uttam Kumar was a close friend of Soumitra’s brother-in-law. They first met at Soumitra’s sister’s wedding. Their first movie was Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi in which Soumitra played the role of a cruel villain Mayubahan. They would go on to act in 8 movies together.
Their other movies include Aparichito and Stree by Salil Dutta and Jadi Jantem by Tarun Majumdar. Devdas directed by Dilip Ray was one of their most famous movies. Soumitra played Devdas while Uttam Kumar played Chunnilal. Dilip Ray also directed their movie Darpachurna. Pankhiraj, directed by Piyush Bose, starred them both and Utpal Dutt as well. Their last movie was Pratishodh by Sukhen Das and it also had Prasenjit.
Soumitra is often called a “cerebral actor” and Uttam Kumar a “pop icon”, which Soumitra himself in a newspaper interview had voiced his dislike to this stereotyping. Interestingly, Soumitra had also said he was not a big admirer of Uttam-Suchitra movies (they made 30) as there was not much to take away from them and he preferred to see International movies. Soumitra has also clarified that the reports of them not being friends and being against each other are highly exaggerated.
Soumitra and Sharmila
The first movie of this legendary pair was Apur Sansar when Sharmila was still a school-girl. Though she became a superstar of Hindi cinema, she and Saumitra are a loved pair for their various movies. Both acted in Aranyer din ratri and Devi directed by Satyajit Ray and Barnali directed by Ajoy Kar. Both Sharmila and Soumitra are on record that they owe a lot to Satyajit Ray for their terrific careers. In 2003, Gautam Ghosh directed Abar Aranye, a sequel to Aranyer din ratri, 30 years after the Ray movie. Ghose won the National film award for best actor and Sharmila too won the National film award for best-supporting actress.
Soumitra Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray
Apur Sansar was the third and last movie of the Apu trilogy by master director Satyajit Ray and starred Soumitra as the adult Apu. Interestingly Soumitra had wanted to act in the 1st movie Aparojito but he was 20 and Ray considered him too old for the movie, but not only identified him for future collaborations but decided to make part three of the trilogy. At Venice, while receiving the Golden Lion award for Aparajito, he had even said that he had identified “someone”.
When Soumitra had gone to see the shooting of a Ray movie Jalsaghar, Ray introduces him to actor Chabi Biswas that Soumitra was going to star in Apur Sansar. This would be his debut. He went on to do as many as 14 movies with Ray and portrayed a wide variety of characters from Apu to Feluda. One role he wanted to do but was turned down for was Goopy in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Rabi Ghosh had been finalised for Bagha and Soumitra wanted to do Goopy’s role but Ray explained that he would not suit the role of a poor village farmer. Finally, Tapen Chatterjee played Goopy and Soumitra accepts that Ray’s selection was fantastic. Some memorable roles played by Soumitra in Ray movies were Amulya in Samapti (Teen Kanya, 1961), Narsingh in Abhijaan (1962), Gangacharan in Ashani Sanket (1973). A brief mention of Ghare Baire which won National film award for the best feature film in Bengali is a must as well. It was the last movie of Jennifer Kendall. During the movie, Satyajit Ray had two massive heart attacks and the film was completed by Sandip Ray.
The Government of India awarded the Padma Bhushan to Soumitra in 2004. He had earlier refused the Padma Shri twice. Such refusal of awards was not new to him. Once when Anil Kapoor was preferred for Best actor Award for Pukar at the National Film awards in 2000 and he was given the Special Jury Award for Gautam Ghose’s Dekko, he turned it down, terming it a consolation award. He was also awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2012. It was indeed surprising that he did not win the National award during the peak of his career or for any of the Satyajit Ray movies which he openly stated as well, giving one more example of Shashi Kapoor ( in New Delhi Times) being preferred over his Kony. He was finally awarded the National award for best actor for Podokkhep in 2007. The highest civilian award of France is the French Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur which Satyajit Ray was awarded in 1988 and Soumitra in 2018 and he expressed his happiness by saying in his inimitable manner that at 80 plus, awards held less meaning for him, but since it came from France, a country rich in culture, art and heritage, he was indeed happy.
Soumitra Da was admitted in a private hospital in Kolkata on October 6 for COVID-19. He recovered but other complications set in. Today he passed away.
Soumitra Da, you are a legend and will always be in our memories. We will always remember you fondly.