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Soumitra Chatterjee: A Filmmaker Remembers

Soumitra Chatterjee: A Filmmaker Remembers

by Anuradha C January 19 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins, 3 secs

In a freewheeling conversation with Anuradha Warrier, critically-acclaimed director Suman Ghosh talks about his forthcoming book, Soumitra Chatterjee: A Film-maker Remembers, his personal relationship with Soumitra Chatterjee, and his impressions of the thespian both as an actor and as a person.

What was the impetus for this book?

When Soumitra kaku died, I went into a deep depression. The thought of Soumitra kaku never being there... it’s like our parents; it never occurs to us that they will be gone one day. His passing away was a big jolt.

Then, Shantanu Ray Choudhury approached me in March 2020 with an idea about a book on Soumitra Chatterjee. He had earlier written an article about my films with Soumitra kaku and knew about my relationship with him. I took some time to think over it. I had never written a book before, but I thought that would be a good way to relive my experiences.

Somehow a documentary never came to mind. Writing a book is also more intimate than making a documentary - you are alone with your memories. Making a film means involving other people.

See, whenever I made a film, I used to make notes for myself, notes on what to tell the actors, etc. I had one notebook per film. I pulled them out to refresh my memories. Shantanu also did a very good job of egging me on to think about my experiences in more detail. It forced me to delve deeper into my memories. And writing about a person I loved, who was no more, was a very cathartic process. There was pain, but the pain was enjoyable too.

You talk about how, over the years, Soumitra Chatterjee, the revered actor, turned into your ‘Soumitra kaku’. Was there ever a moment when you were not in awe of the man?

I knew him from 2005, and yes, it took time for that awe to disappear. It is ironic – in fact, I mentioned this to Soumitra kaku also, a couple of years ago. In the last four or five years [before his death], there was a big change in our relationship. He became like my father.

The awe completely dissolved. I attribute a great part of that to the person Soumitra kaku was, the way he interacted with people. I never felt that Soumitra Kaku was carrying the baggage of his legendary status. In fact, he hated adulation and sycophancy.

There’s pleasure, of course, in knowing that your childhood hero – we never thought they were people like us – is your friend. But to go back to your question, yes, the awe disappeared. And I miss it.

Why would you miss it?

I remember the first time I saw him – it was like someone from fairyland was in front of me. That gave me a different kick – that somehow this almost godlike person is in front of me, is talking to me. I admit that it brings a lot of artificiality into your relationship, whoever that person is. But there was a certain amount of joy, a feeling that “Soumitra Chatterjee is my friend now, he’s acting in my film!” Later on, my interactions with him were like my interactions with my father.

How was it directing Soumitra Chatterjee for the first time in Podokkhep?

When I started Podokkhep, I was very much in awe of Soumitra Chatterjee. But I soon realized that if I wanted to make the film, I had to get over that. As I mentioned in the book, he also helped a great deal. He told me that he was the actor, and I was his director. He also said that old actors like him would give me a hard time, but I’d stick to my vision. After the first month of shooting, I realized that he was very eager to work, and very hungry for a good role. I could take advantage of that hunger.

So, was okay for you to tell him “I need one more take”?  

Yes, yes. Not only one more take, but even when he had questions, once I convinced him about the necessity for a certain shot, he would give his hundred percent.

Soumitra da had a large body of work, and a great legacy by the time he was acting in your film. How did he get along with a cast and crew who were at least two generations younger than him?

He had an immense respect for his co-actors - independent of their stature or their age. I have mentioned a few instances in my book.

But I had wondered about something myself. He had worked with such stalwarts – Satyajit Ray, of course, but also Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, etc., and co-actors like the legendary Robi Ghosh. He was a friend with the great novelists and poets of his time - Shakti Chattopadhyay, Sunil Ganguly - their addas were very popular. I’d once asked him, “Don’t you feel dissatisfied that you don’t have such people of quality around you?” He smiled and quoted [George] Bernard Shaw - “If you trip in the darkness, do you blame the dark?” I have never heard him once complain about working with lesser-known actors. He just concentrated on his own work and was happy within himself. 

What about his younger co-actors? How was Ananya [Chatterjee], for instance, able to hold her own against him in Dwondo?

I always hold script readings for all my films. The idea is to have an adda to build the chemistry between all my actors. It helps to reduce the feeling of awe that veteran actors can exude, because that impacts the performance of the rest of the cast. When I held the script reading for Bosu Poribar, the younger cast members were completely tongue-tied in his presence. But he would joke with his younger co-stars, make them laugh, and soon, they would be very comfortable around him.

In Ananya’s case, it was her second or third film, and while she was a confident actress, she admitted to Soumitra da before the shooting that she was nervous. Soumitra da told her about Jim Corbett who had once said that even after shooting many tigers, the next time he aimed at a tiger, he had a slight feeling of trepidation. “That’s good tension,” he told her. “When you’re facing the camera, you should inculcate that slight tension. It keeps you alert.“

Your films are considered some of the best of Soumitra Chatterjee’s overall oeuvre. In fact, he got his first National Award for a debut film of yours, Podokkhep. (Soumitra Chatterjee had turned down the special jury award for Dekha in 2001). Your thoughts…

That says more about the National Awards than it reflects on him. Soumitra kaku had worked in several internationally renowned films, not just Satyajit Ray’s films, but also with other renowned filmmakers like Tapan Sinha.

But I was overjoyed when he got it for Podokkhep. In fact, I told Kaku that the award probably didn’t mean anything to him, but for me, it was a matter of great pride. I started my career riding on his shoulders; with that National Award, my film got a lot of attention. And when Anandabazaar Patrika interviewed Soumitra kaku after winning the award, he said that he was very happy to have got the award for a very good film that he liked very much. I am extremely fortunate to have worked with such greats and to be remembered by history for making the film for which Soumitra Chatterjee got his only National Award.

You write that you have to think of an actor before writing a character.

That is very true.

So, did you, given your growing closeness to Soumitra da, have him in mind while writing your subsequent films?

Not always. See, I always told Kaku about my future projects. When I told him about Shyamal Uncle Turns Off the Lights, he was enamored of the concept. But the only good aspect of me as a director is that I am very honest. I will not do anything to compromise my vision of the film. I wanted to shoot Shyamal Uncle… in cinéma vérité style. That would have been impossible if I’d cast him. He had pleaded with me, saying he would act so no one would recognise him on the streets. But given his star status in Bengal, if he walked on the streets, there would have been a thousand people waiting to watch Soumitra Chatterjee.  And that was not the film I wanted to make.

I know that taking Soumitra kaku would have given my film a wider reach. I knew that casting non-actors in this film was a great risk. But I was clear I could not compromise.

You refer to Soumitra da as a ‘Renaissance Man’. Can you elaborate?

When we use the word ‘Renaissance Man’, we think of Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo.

In common usage, it means someone good at many different things. For me, it also means someone who has an insatiable curiosity. For instance, Soumitra kaku was curious about many things - things that may not add anything specific to his primary craft, which was acting. But it added to his life experiences and gave him a wider perspective, which he then drew from when he was acting. I found the same curiosity in Amartya Sen, and I have heard that said about Satyajit Ray as well.

One of the overarching images of Soumitra da in his later years was that of him publicly signing an anti-CAA protest poster. He was 80+ at the time. Was he always so principled? Did his politics impact his choice of roles, or affect his performance?

I can’t say if his politics impacted his choice of roles. But if you ask me, I think that as an artist, if someone doesn’t have a political view, I am not talking about party politics, of life, there is a big lacuna. I think that is missing in today’s younger generation of actors. I can understand that there is a lot of fear, because there are consequences, but if everyone remains silent, then…

Soumitra kaku has always stood up for what he believes, independent of whichever party was in power. A few years ago, a Bengali film called Bhobhishyoter Bhoot directed by Anik Dutta was unceremoniously and illegally pulled from the theaters. While the Bengali film industry was largely silent, Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen came out on the streets to protest. He was 82 or 83 then.

Their point was that India was a democracy. Why can’t someone critique a party or a government or politics? In fact, he publicly called out his fraternity, asking why they were unmoved by what was happening, and what they would do when it happened to them the next day. 

Talking about old age, in Peace Haven, your characters gently mock the idea of death. Yet, they seem to be celebrating life. Soumitra da was 81; the others weren’t much younger. What was the shooting like?

They are/were all legends in their own right, very established actors with a huge body of work. But they all had a terrific sense of humor. I was very stressed because of their age, but they understood my vision, and they could laugh at the thought of death.  But there was one scene, which takes place in a morgue – that day, Soumitra kaku told me that something, was bothering him. It was an active morgue with dead bodies being brought in, so I can understand his uneasiness.

You also mention that you mulled over making a documentary of his last moments…

[Interrupting] – It was a mixed genre, recreating the events of his life a little and then documenting his actual death. I wanted to experiment with the narrative format.

Making such a narrative demands that you be distant from your subject. Given your closeness to him, could you have been objective?

As you rightly point out, I am sure I wouldn’t have shot the film objectively. For me, too, this would have been an experiment. It would be like observing my father’s death. But as a filmmaker, I would want it to be shot objectively. This dilemma goes deeper into questioning art in general, questioning the process of acting, which was my inspiration for that film. It was not just a gimmick or exploiting his death, but a deeper enquiry into the process of art.

Do you regret not making that documentary?

I do regret it, because first of all, it was a challenge for him as an actor to enact his own death – the interesting thing about it is that he would not have seen his final ‘performance’. I think that would have been the greatest test of an actor, the truth of acting. Because when you are dying, all your thoughts about how you would enact your death cannot compare with your actual death.

Your book has repetitive incidents - was that an oversight, or by design?

I agree that some of the incidents/anecdotes he speaks about in the interviews were repetitions of the conversations we had earlier. But I was dissatisfied with the interviews that were being published then.

The questions had nothing to do with his artistic process or the craft of acting. I don’t blame the journalists because they would often interview him when a film was being released. So, I had interviewed him on two of his birthdays. The repetition occurred because we felt we didn’t want to break up the interviews, but we also wanted to keep the reminiscences.

What next?

You mean as a writer? I am not a writer, but I do write regularly for the popular press. I have written articles on Satyajit Ray; on Koushik Basu, my professor at Cornell University; on economics, etc. That will continue. As a filmmaker, I have signed on to make a social comedy in Hindi. And then, I intend to make a period film in Bengali.

An review of the book follows:

Just a little over a year after Soumitra Chatterjee’s demise, and just in time for his birth anniversary, comes a slim volume of reminiscences, titled “Soumitra Chatterjee: A Film-maker Remembers”.  

Authored by Suman Ghosh, a critically acclaimed film director, the book reads like a memoir, choc-a-bloc with stories from the sets of his films with the veteran actor, as much as it is a personal diary that chronicles the conversations he had with the man who, over the years, came to be much more than mentor, friend, philosopher and guide. That journey - from ‘Soumitra Chatterjee’ to ‘Soumitra kaku’ is told in an engaging manner over the course of 150+ pages.

With a foreword by Sharmila Tagore who began her acting career with Soumitra Chatterjee, the book delves into peeling away the layers of the actor who is known and revered by cineastes to reveal the man behind the many path-breaking roles he performed over a career that stretched over five-plus decades. An essay by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri introduces us to Suman Ghosh’s films that starred the late actor.

In the ‘Author’s Note’ Ghosh mentions that the book was never meant to be an objective exercise. That disclaimer is unnecessary - Ghosh’s affection for the subject of his book is evident in every word. However, this is no hagiography; there’s no attempt to put Soumitra Chatterjee on a pedestal either as a person or as an actor. Instead, Ghosh lets the warmth of his words envelop the reader, taking them along to show them the person he knew - not just the actor who honed his craft till the last, but a man, curious about life, full of zest towards his work until the last, and committed to his craft.

Ghosh first met Soumitra Chatterjee in person on the sets of Goutam Ghose’s Dekha (2000). It took him days to screw up the courage to speak to the great man. But five years later, when he was ready to dip his toes into filmmaking, Ghosh would reach out to Soumitra Chatterjee, who, much to his delight, agreed to do Podokkhep (2005). With the actor on board, it was easy to convince Nandita Das to join Ghosh’s debut feature. Incidentally, Podokkhep would give Soumitra Chatterjee his only National Award for Best Actor.

Ghosh’s professional collaboration with Soumitra Chatterjee stretched over 15 years and five films (including a guest appearance in Nobel Chor (2012) culminating with Bosu Poribar (2019), an adaptation of The Dead, from James Joyce’s Dubliners. Years in which their relationship evolved at a more personal level - from exchanging piles of books that each wanted the other to read to their many addas where they discussed every subject under the sun.

Ghosh’s essays take us through his experiences with Soumitra Chatterjee - the actor’s insatiable curiosity, the meticulous detailing of each character he chose to play, his utter dedication to his work. The essays also include the veteran actor’s anecdotes about the actors with whom he worked, from his regular meetings with supposed-rival Uttam Kumar to his admiration for veteran actress, Sabitri Devi; his friendship with Sharmila Tagore and her husband, to his appreciation of the craft of younger actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Manoj Bajpai, Irrffan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, from his interactions with the author’s family and his driver, to his reminiscences of working with Satyajit Ray.

The final chapter includes two in-depth interviews of Soumitra Chatterjee by the author covering a range of topics associated with the art and craft of performance. Ghosh ends his memoirs with a purely subjective but well-curated list of the actor’s finest performances outside Satyajit Ray’s films; in his extensive analysis of the diverse characters that Soumitra Chatterjee played, Ghosh reveals a keen eye for the craft behind each of the performances. 

Soumitra Chatterjee – A Filmmaker Remembers is an intimate personal memoir, engaging and revealing. For a change, it is also well edited though I raised an eyebrow at the choice of typeface, script, for the Interludes. The only other peeve I have is that a few of the incidents/anecdotes are repeated, probably as a result of those essays having been published elsewhere before becoming part of this volume. A sharper editorial eye could have avoided that, but this is a minor peeve. Because Soumitra Chatterjee - A Filmmaker Remembers is, as Sharmila Tagore put it so succinctly in her foreword, “a welcome addition to the existing literature on Indian cinema.”

Om Books International, ISBN-10‏: ‎9392834179, ISBN-13: ‎978-9392834172

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.