The Master: Soumitra Chatterjee on Satyajit Rayby Khalid Mohamed May 27 2020, 5:15 pm Estimated Reading Time: 14 mins, 13 secs
Even under the uncertainty facing the world at large, following the outbreak of Covid-19, a valiant bid is on in Kolkata to celebrate the centennial year of India’s best-known auteur Satyajit Ray.
Over to a conversation between Khalid Mohamed with the ever-charismatic actor, Soumitra Chatterjee on the abiding artistry and legacy of Satyajit Ray.
(Excerpted from the book Peerless Minds – An Arc of Achievement, edited by Pritish Nandy and Tapan Chaki, Courtesy: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019)
Soumitra - a name which means a friend, alluding to Lord Rama’s brother Lakshman – appears to be conversation-friendly, going by the reams of his interviews in print and the internet.
An indefatigable film and stage actor, his bio-data covers his myriad facets of a poet, writer, artist and a reciter of poems. His recitations of Rabindranath Tagore’s verses score endless hits on YouTube.
Primarily an actor, he has constantly underscored his lifelong debt to Satyajit Ray. Theirs was a collaboration encompassing fourteen feature films and two documentaries - outnumbered in world cinema only by the twenty one feature film alliances between Hollywood’s John Ford and John Wayne, and sixteen between Japan’s Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.
A Padma Bhushan, he was saluted with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award as well. The actor, however, has indicated mixed feelings about awards and honorifics, evidently because they came to him far too late in the day. On being marked out, patronisingly, for a Special Jury National Award for his portrayal of a blind poet in Goutam Ghose’s Dekha (The Sight, 2001), he had expressed his displeasure with a, “No thank you.”
Right. Back, then to the 85-year-old rule-breaker sitting firm in his small bungalow in Kolkata, amidst memorabilia. A series of cell-phone calls to and from his theatre associates done, coffee quaffed, the grand thespian, asks, “Shall we begin? Was the coffee okay? Would you like something to eat?”
A hypothetical question this. Would there have been the Soumitra Chatterjee we know today without the humane cinema of Satyajit Ray?
Thank you for qualifying your question. Hypothetically or not, clearly I wouldn’t have been whatever I am today without Satyajit Ray. Do you know Uttoran (The Broken Journey, 1994) - about the awakening of the conscience of a doctor who treats only upper class patients - completed by his son Sandip, was drawn from Ray’s real-life experience. He was travelling to Jamshedpur for a lecture and noticed a downtrodden man on the road who was dying out of sheer medical neglect.
Around then, Ray was undergoing intensive medical treatment for heart ailments. At one point, he was administered an expensive life-saving injection. He told me, “Soumitra, if I can barely afford the injection, what about the underprivileged? What is this advancement in medical care which we’re told of repeatedly?”
Ray’s latter-day films, you must have noticed, had a political edge. His style became simpler to become accessible to the common man, without ever pandering to box office dictates. From the outset, from his very first film Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955), he wanted to reach out to the audience by exploring material rooted to the Indian soil.
Would you agree that the stalwart cinematographer, Subroto Mitra, contributed immeasurably to Satyajit Ray’s style in a collaboration starting with Pather Panchali right down to Nayak (Hero, 1966)? The visual texture, the lighting, did undergo a shift once Mitra stopped lensing for Ray.
Without a doubt, Ray did have a special collaborative spirit with Subroto Mitra, Bansi Chandragupta (art and set designer) and Durgadas Mitra (sound engineer). I think the arguments between Ray and Subroto began during the making of Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964). Around then, Ray started operating the camera himself which led to a clash.
They respected each other tremendously, but Subroto made it clear, “What am I doing, if I’m not even allowed to look through the lens?” He stayed on to film Nayak. After that many of Ray’s works were shot by Soumendu Roy who had worked with him earlier on Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961), Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962), Kapurush-O-Mahapurush (The Coward and the Holy Man, 1965) and Chiriyakhana (The Zoo, 1967).
After Nayak, Ray assigned Soumendu Roy, Aranyer Din Rhatri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970) which is beautifully photographed with black-and-white chiaroscuro lighting. So there was no downcurve in the Ray style.
Did you ever have any differences with Ray?
None, simply because the master was open to suggestions. In Abhijan, I was playing a taxi driver, a Rajput settled around Kolkata. I had to learn driving. I’d meet migrant taxi drivers from Rajasthan, observed their manner of speaking and behaviour. On the first day of the shoot, I asked Ray if I could sprinkle a number of Hindi words, the way they do, in the dialogue.
“Okay, let’s do one rehearsal the way you want it and we’ll see,” he said. I did the rehearsal, he was silent, I asked him for his reaction, positive or negative. With his characteristic wry sense of humour, he smiled, “I have no objections but Soumitra, tell me how will the Hindi words sound in the love scenes (with Waheeda Rehman)?” He had a point, but I assured him the love scenes would be fine. Right away, he had the dialogue sheets revised, and allowed me to do it my way.
Ray knew exactly what he wanted from his actors and technical team. The film came first, not his ego.
Whom would you call your prime guru, Satyajit Ray or Sisir Bhaduri, the doyen of Bengali theatre?
See, I came from a small town, Krishnanagar, in the Nadiad district of West Bengal. My father, a lawyer, would occasionally act in plays ever since he was in school. He approached stage acting seriously. If I may say so, acting was in my genes. Our family moved to Howrah, I graduated from the Kolkata City College in Bengali literature.
Then it so happened that I saw a play by Sisir Bhaduri, which left a lasting impact. I acted in one of his plays, for three to four years, before he passed away in 1959. Sisir Bhaduri patiently made me understand the intricacies of the acting process on the stage. Once and for all, I made up my mind that acting was my calling. Otherwise, who knows? I could have become a carpenter? Seriously, there’s an artisan within me. Carpentry is a skilled trade, it’s an undervalued art form.
For better or worse, I was bitten by the acting bug. To rank the theatre doyen Sisir Bhaduri above the cinema auteur Satyajit Ray, or vice versa, would be disrespectful. Both were my gurus as well as mentors.
Were you in awe of Ray?
Awe is the wrong word. He was like an elder brother. He was a teetotaller, because of his Brahmo-Samaj upbringing. He wouldn’t even eat mangoes because of their strong odour. He had his own self-restrictions.
But if I or any of the unit members helped ourselves to a drink after a day’s shoot, he had no objections. I smoked in front of him, and when I switched from cigarettes to a pipe he would instruct me on how to hold it and which tobacco to use. In today’s parlance, he was ‘cool’.
Which would you rate as Ray’s best film?
Charulata! It’s a perfect film, you can’t remove a single frame from it. The recreation of the period of the 19th century of Calcutta when Bengal Renaissance was at its peak, the progression graph of the characters, the psychological accuracy, the vibrancy and the justice done to Rabindranath Tagore’s story, remain astounding to this day and age.
Tagore’s novella Nastanirh (The Broken Nest) was published in1901. Ray chose to set in the 1880s, and as was his wont, he researched the historical background extensively. For once, he shot a film without the pressure of a deadline, and often said that it was his all-time favourite from his body of work.
I also nurse a special regard for Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973), which permitted me, a mofussil boy in real life, to portray a character from rural Bengal devastated by the Great Famine during the 1940s. Based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay, it was photographed in lush colour intentionally. The aim was to accentuate the irony of the catastrophe, around the time of the Second World War. While narrating the breakdown of a teacher’s family, there was the macro-view of how the famine took the lives of three million people.
To this day, Ashani Sanket is relevant to our times. And it has been generously praised by actors of the stature of Naseeruddin Shah. We were at an international film festival once, and he chose to see Ray’s film over Kurosawa’s Ran. And once he introduced to me his son, and said, “Soumitra Chatterjee is the reason why I became an actor.” Coming from a marvellous actor like Naseer, that was really a humbling compliment.
A single favourite or two apart, every Ray film had a certain excitement about it. Take the lighter-in-touch Feluda detective series. He had written and illustrated as many as 35 novels about the amateur detective, describing him as “tall, handsome, well-read and well-behaved.” Naturally, I was flattered to play Feluda in Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979), which were loved by children and adult audiences alike.
And naturally, I will always have a soft corner for Apur Sansar, my first film with Ray. I’d approached him for Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) when I was 20, soon after I completed college. Naturally I was rejected, I couldn’t have possibly played the adolescent Apu, could I? I left it at that, and was thrilled when he remembered me for the role of the unemployed graduate who’s hopeful of becoming a writer in the concluding part of the Apu trilogy.
The Apur Sansar love scene.. the post-wedding night scene, showing you play with the hair-pin of your bride, Sharmila Tagore, was unusually erotic for a Ray film.
There was a strong undercurrent of the erotic in that scene, conveying the physical pleasure experienced by the couple on the wedding night. But why do you say ‘unusual’? I wouldn’t say that Ray was squeamish or shy about sexuality. Instead of being explicit, he preferred to be suggestive, that’s all. Like the way he showed the city guys in Aranyer Din Rhatri reacting to the tribal girl (Simi Garewal), at a hooch adda.
Or let’s take Charulata. The character of Madhabi Mukherjee didn’t have a full-fledged affair with ‘the other man’. She was shown to have her inhibitions, the relationship.. the attraction.. didn’t become physical.
In Apur Sansar, the scene in which you toss the reams of written pages up in the air, discarding your aspirations to become an author, has stayed with me. Yet there’s the nagging thought: can a writer just chuck his work away so masochistically?
That scene was lyrical, not masochistic at all. Ray’s cinema, while being wedded to realism, would have flourishes of romanticism, that quality of expressing emotion through impractical means. The visual image of sheets of paper flying in the air was beautiful.
Indeed, it was and still is. Would you ever get possessive about Satyajit Ray? Were you upset when he cast Uttam Kumar in Nayak?
How could I be possessive? Once Ray had made up his mind, nothing in the world could make him change it. If I had become petty or possessive I wouldn’t have evolved as an actor. I had enough sense to realise that he made the right and obvious choice.
In any case, Ray wasn’t demonstrative. After a film was done, he would never say, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” Yet there were times when he would compliment me in his own special way. He made a documentary in 1987 on his father, the writer, poet and playwright Sukumar Ray. The recitation of his poems, and the voice-over, could have been done by Ray himself but he asked me to be the ‘voice’. The morning after the first screening, he said, “You have made a great contribution to the documentary.”
Then about some 30 years ago, a film society had organised a retrospective of my films at the now-defunct Chaplin theatre. The society’s organisers asked Ray to write something about me. In a letter he wrote to them, “I do not have to give a certificate of merit to an actor who has played the principal character in many of my films. That should be sufficient to show how much I rely on Soumitra.” To that, I can only say that I will rely on Ray’s ethic to the last day of my life.
Frankly, I did feel disappointed once about being left out from a Ray film: Goopi Gayen Bagha Bayen (The Adventures of Goopi and Bagha, 1969). Ray felt I couldn’t look like a peasant. No amount of make-up and styling would have helped, since these aspects hadn’t developed in those days. When I kept pestering him for the part anyway, he said, “You don’t conform to my mental image of the character.” He was right. Tapan Chatterjee, who was cast instead, was outstanding.
Ray had a knack for correct casting. He liked Uttam as an actor, after Nayak he cast him again in Chiriyakhana as the detective Byomkesh Bakshi. I could take solace in the fact that Ray must have liked me too. I didn’t see Uttam and myself as competitors.
Please do elaborate.
Very well. In the 1960s, Uttam, Raj Kapoor, and Yusuf (Dilip Kumar) were good actors. But neither of them was as strong as Yusuf.
As for me, I think I could reflect the aspirations of the everyday Bengali youth in my prime. My roles in Apur Sansar and Abhijan were poles apart, weren’t they? To prevent myself from getting stereotyped I played a pukka, horse-riding villain in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bondi (Prisoner of Jhind, 1961), adapted from Anthony Hope’s novel Prisoner of Zenda. Uttam played the role of the abducted king and his doppelganger. I enjoyed myself thoroughly getting into the skin of the quintessential trouble-maker.
Uttam and I co-starred in as many as nine films. In Dilip Roy’s version of Debdas (1979), I played the lovelorn tragedian. Uttam portrayed Debdas’ friend Chunilal.
Uttam had some fixed mannerisms. And unless it was a period film he would always wear a sharp suit, his slick hairstyle would always be the same. That said, in emotional scenes Uttam could acquit himself excellently. The audience adored the Uttam Kumar- Suchitra Sen pair.
This may sound politically incorrect but I wasn’t a major fan of Suchitra Sen, often I’d feel that she was a non-actress. She must have possessed some extraordinary quality, something magical, to sustain her popularity in the market.
You have acted with so many accomplished and charismatic actresses. The screen chemistry with an actress enhances a performance. Whom would you recall as your ideal co-artistes?
According to me, Sabitri Chatterjee was the best actress in the Bengali cinema of our time. Sharmila Tagore had a tremendous screen presence, the ability to project a distinct personality. She is highly photogenic.
I acted with Aparna Sen in only one Ray film – Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961), in one of its episodes, Samapti (The Conclusion). She was in her teens then. And she featured in a separate, one shot in Aranyer Din Rhatri. Aparna has her endearing qualities but I wouldn’t rate her as a versatile actress.. her Bengali diction is somewhat westernised.
Madhabi was way less versatile than Sabitri who would act with finesse, with unequalled artistry. Beyond her films with Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Tapan Sinha, Madhabi did not deliver any unforgettable performance.
Lore has it that Satyajit Ray was infatuated with Madhabi Mukherjee.
Is that a question or a statement?
(Looks away) He must have liked her immensely.
All things considered, has it been a beautiful life?
It hasn’t always been a beautiful life. Whether good or bad, my life has been interesting. No, no interesting is a vague word. Instead I’d go with the proverbial belief: don’t take yourself too seriously, or you’ll never come out alive.