I’m in Shantiniketan, a small town near Bolpur in the Birbhum district, a few hours from Kolkata, where Bengali veteran Soumitra Chatterjee is shooting for a film. It’s a pleasant morning. I sip on a steaming cup of chai and soak in the ambience. There are a million butterflies in my stomach as I walk up to the larger-than-life thespian for an interview. We sit in the lush lawn near the bungalow and chat between shots about his life and times.
At 82, Soumitra Chatterjee’s tall, fit and handsome. He speaks in crisp British English with a whiff of Bengali thrown in here and there, each word uttered with unassuming confidence. And I devour it all…
Ever since your first film, Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar in 1959 to 2017, you’ve had a release every year…
This is my job. I’m a professional actor and I’ve always wanted to be one. I was lucky to come in touch with the legendary Bengali theatre personality Sisir Kumar Bhaduri. After that, the first break in movies came from Satyajit Ray. Eventually, this relationship proved to be fruitful. I will always value his inputs in my career.
But Sisir Kumar Bhaduri was so averse to cinema that he said no to Ray’s Mahanagar (1963). What attracted you to it?
I was an avid cinema goer from an early age. I used to bunk school and watch movies. But theatre was my first love. I still work in plays. Tomorrow I will be travelling to Bardhaman to perform on stage and return for the shoot.
How do you manage this?
I don’t know… physically, I do feel tired these days. But I’ve no option. This is my work, this is my life, this is how I’m made.
You’re also a poet, a writer, a painter, you’ve been the editor of the magazine Ekkhon… What inspires you to don so many hats?
I was attracted towards creative pursuits since childhood. I was the Jack-of-all-trades but a master of none. So I concentrated on a few in which I excelled, like theatre and recitation of poems. There was substantial help from my parents.
How did Apur Sansar happen? It’s said Ray shared the screenplay with you, something he never did with his actors…
He was looking for someone to play the college going adolescent Apu in the second part of the trilogy, Aparajito (1956). But I was too grown up for the role. When I was first taken to him, he had exclaimed, “You’re too tall and grown up!” After he won the Golden Lion Honorary Award at the Venice Film Festival, he announced the third part of the trilogy. That time I didn’t suspect that he’d choose me. (Smiles) He told me many years later that he decided to make the third part after he saw me. What can be better than debuting in a Ray movie… There have been many other actors who made their debut in a Satyajit Ray movie. But none could enjoy the kind of blossoming that I fortunately did. We did 14 feature films and two documentaries. I remember being the narrator for the one on his father Sukumar Ray. I was really surprised because in everything else, he used his own voice.
Cinema connoisseurs called you ‘the alter ego of Ray’. Your thoughts.
He knew what to expect of me and I knew what he was expecting from me. We had a wonderful rapport. He was my mentor. He shaped not only my career but also my mentality to a great extent. We even share some sort of legacy. But he was an absolute genius. He was a master and I shouldn’t ever be compared to him. That would be bad.
You once mentioned that Ray gave you freedom as an actor, even though it was your debut…
He never said in those many words that I could do whatever I like. He used to make me listen to his scripts even if I wasn’t in the film. A few times, I’ve even asked him to give me a role but he didn’t. (Laughs) I really wanted to play the role of Goopy in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968). When he read that script to me, I jumped up and requested him. But he said my face wasn’t cut out to play a farmer’s son. Funniest part is, Tapen Chatterjee, who finally played it, was born to play that part. He was so extraordinary that I couldn’t even go and tell Manikda (Ray) that I could’ve done it better. But I did associate myself with the Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne saga as Udayan Pandit in Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980). Coming back… till the end of our association in movies – Shakha Proshakha (1990) – he gave me that freedom. He told me there’s a small role with no more than 25 lines of dialogue in it. He asked if I’d do it. I laughed. If Manikda would’ve asked me to stand like an umbrella in the corner of a room throughout, I’d have played that role too.
Shakha Proshakha was Ray’s penultimate film and your last with him. How was it different?
Manikda told me, “Listen Soumitra, all your life, I’ve given you freedom to do what you like. But in this movie, we both will think together.” It was the role of a deranged character. He said, “I’ve seen many people like that and so have you. They have different compulsive behaviours. I need you to tell me about them while writing the screenplay.”
Any distinct incident that you remember fondly about this collaboration through the years?
I’ve shot for thousands of days and nights in the five decades of my career. But I’ll never forget the first day of Apur Sansar’s shooting. The scene shows Apu at a labelling and bottling factory, looking for a job. He sees people working like robots there. He gets nervous realising it’s not his cup of tea.
Coming to your peer, the late Uttam Kumar, you were dubbed as ‘a cerebral actor’ while he was hailed as ‘the pop icon’…
(Interrupts) This leveling… I don’t like at all. A good actor is both cerebral as well as down-to-earth. A so-called cerebral actor has to have his feet planted on the ground. Or else, you can’t be a good actor. I had met Uttam Kumar long before I came into films.
How was your equation with Uttam Kumar?
He was a close friend of my brother-in-law. The first time I met him was when he came to our house for my sister’s wedding. The first film we did together was Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi (1961). We fell in love with each other during the film’s outdoor. (Laughs) After that, through furores and fights, our friendship stood the test of time.
You enjoyed a huge female fan following. How did you handle the adulation?
It was certainly flattering. I’d be lying if I say I wasn’t touched by the female attention. The first love letter that I had received from my fan was carefully preserved by my wife, Deepa, for many years. Then we changed our house a couple of times and lost it. (Laughs) The gist of the letter was ‘it’s a pity that you’re married’. I got thousands of letters after that, but it was special because it was the first one.
People still identify you as the young detective Feluda in Ray’s Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979). Ray even started sketching Feluda in his novels keeping you in mind…
The first sketches were not like me. I remember telling Manikda that it seems like he was projecting himself through them. A whole generation grew up with that and I’ve remained Feluda for them. Honestly, in the beginning I didn’t like people addressing me as Feluda. I’d think, ‘I’ve done so many good movies. Should I be remembered as Feluda only? Not for Apur Sansar or Ashani Sanket?’ But I realised my mistake. My work is to make people happy. If even one person remembers me as Feluda, then I should be grateful and not angry. Also, back then, there weren’t many children’s movies. I did it not for the two kids back home but all the Bengali kids out there.
Feluda’s mannerisms were distinct… have you ever thought Feluda, in fact, could be Soumitra Chatterjee?
(Smiles) A little like me and a little like Satyajit Ray. Feluda, him and me… we’re a happy triangle.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor… so many people wanted you to work in Hindi movies, but you stayed away. Why?
I don’t know why. If it were today, I wouldn’t have refused them. I was young and foolish and did not realise the importance of money. To be frank, after seeing the people in the Hindi film industry, I never felt excited to work there. Would I have been able to write poems if I had gone there? Could I have pursued theatre there? Had I worked in Hindi cinema, the fame and appreciation for my work would’ve increased. But I was already working in Satyajit Ray films and they were being watched internationally. Nothing could’ve made me greedy. Later in life, I did television films just to prove I could speak in Hindi.
Naseeruddin Shah has said that he’s a big fan of yours. Have you met him?
Oh yes, a number of times. We went to Berlin together. I didn’t know that he was a fan till he gave me a wonderful and illuminating compliment once. We were supposed to attend a film show in Berlin. It was an Akira Kurosawa film. He didn’t arrive. Next morning, I asked him why. He said, “Dada, I was tying my shoelaces to leave. But I got to know that they were going to show Ashani Sanket on television. That’s one film of Satyajit Ray I hadn’t seen. I could watch the Kurosawa movie sooner or later but not a Ray movie in India.” I asked, “Naseer, did you like the film? Did you like my work?” He said, “Dada, as an actor I would be fulfilled if I’d be able to inspire somebody as you have inspired me.” He has been a great admirer of my work and vice versa.
Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, Tarun Majumdar… you’ve worked with all the big directors barring Ritwik Ghatak, even though he offered you Komal Gandhar (1961). Any regrets?
No. It never materialised. I believe it would’ve been a bad chemistry between us. Personally, I never liked him, plain and simple. But as a director, I admire him.
You dabbled with a completely new medium when you worked in Sujoy Ghosh’s short film Ahalya. How was that experience?
I don’t understand mediums. I’m illiterate in these forms. I don’t understand what a computer is. But if there’s a camera in front of me or if you put me on stage, I’ll act. I loved Sujoy’s Kahaani and understood this boy knows his work. So, when he requested me to work in his movie, I said yes of course. It was a good experience. Radhika Apte was pretty good in it.
How is it working with this young brigade?
If they’re good, I enjoy it. If they’re not, I feel bored and distracted.
Do you follow their work?
Most of the good ones work in Hindi cinema. I don’t get the time to watch Bengali movies, let alone Hindi. Actually, I don’t feel like watching the Bengali films of today, they’re so bad.
What has changed since then and now?
There were two decades in between where the mainstream Bengali films started copying South Indian movies. We’ve thankfully crossed that horrible phase and some able young directors have begun making intelligent movies. But due to poverty in subjects, sooner or later those movies seemed like chalbaazi to me. There was no soul in them.
Is the tide changing now?
Some of them are good otherwise how did Sujoy’s Kahaani happen? Even though it was in Hindi, it was a Bengali movie. Not only because it was shot in Kolkata but also because it had Kolkata’s ambience, its people and its soul.
You’ve worked with Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy in Alik Sukh, Praktan and Belaseshe before and now Posto. How are they as directors?
They’re competent and know their job. They generally make family-oriented films that get acceptance. They instinctively know how to make the screenplay appear interesting to the regular middle-class audience.
What was challenging about your role in the recent Posto?
I played the role of a grandfather who, along with his wife, is in charge of looking after their grandson in Shantiniketan. His parents work in Kolkata. Who is the rightful guardian of this kid, the biological father or the one who rears him? That was the tussle. It was a challenge to do such a role.
In the five decades of your career, what’s the biggest lesson that life has taught you?
To remain truthful.
What would be the milestones?
I was attracted to histrionics from an early age. When I got the opportunity to be an actor, through a film like Apur Sansar, it was the biggest turning point of my life. As far as my personal life is concerned, the biggest milestone was when we had our children.