November 29, 2020

A Leading Man of the People: Soumitra Chattopadhyay

Mihir Bhattacharya

SOUMITRA Chattopadhyay died at mid-day on Sunday, November 15, 2020, after treatment in a Kolkata hospital for 40 days. He was 85. He would be missed by millions, for he was among the top Bengali leading men of his generation in cinema. But he was much more: an accomplished dramatist, theatre-director and stage-actor, a poet, a reciter, an editor, a painter in his last years, and an exemplary representative of civilized grace. He was also, in the deepest sense, a man of the people.

His continuous work was well into the sixth decade of his career when death overtook him, and he was busy till the end, always in demand, always adored by his viewers, always giving his professional best to the project in hand, good, bad or ugly. The Phalke Award for contribution to Indian Cinema, 2012, pleased his friends and admirers, and also the French government honours and the Padma Bhusan. Soumitra had accepted the recognition with his usual grace, but these new feathers in his cap added very little to his stature. Till his dying moment, award or no award, he was the tallest presence in Bangla cinema on both sides of the border.

But Soumitra was engaged in more than film-acting and chosen cultural work. He had been active and vocal on public issues whenever there was a call, and had helped out organisations which needed his presence and his intervention in a good cause. This was very much in line with his personal ethic. Many grateful people recall his help, unobtrusively rendered. An unassuming, easy-going, sociable man, he moved seamlessly from the personal to the professional, from private to public. A man of the Left, but above party politics, he had worked selflessly side by side with ordinary people, taken part in rallies, joined political working groups, helped out the people's government.  The Left Front ruled in West Bengal during the latter part of his career; Satyajit Ray felt comfortable working in the milieu, and so did Soumitra. In a sense, his artistic mission had been shot through with the felt need to be in step with the people. No, this man would not be a star, not really.

He joined Satyajit Ray's team for Apur Sansar (1959), playing the eponymous hero in the final part of the Apu trilogy. This started the longest and most fruitful director-actor combine in Bangla cinema, for as many as 14 films. Many people have found similarities with the Kurosawa-Mifune or Fellini-Mastroianni relationship, but the Satyajit-Soumitra bond goes beyond the comforts of professional compatibility. The common cultural tasks they worked on, the values they shared, the milieu which sustained their talents meant so much to both that the relationship transcended film-making and in turn enriched its creativity. Soumitra became a household name in Bangla cinema and something of a highbrow poster boy after Devi (1960), Samapti in Teen Kanya (1961), Abhijan (1962) and Charulata (1964). In between acting in Satyajit Ray films, Soumitra had, by the mid-sixties, starred in Kshudhito Pashan ('The Hungry Stones', 1960) and Jhinder Bandi ('The Prisoner of Jhind', 1961, with Uttam Kumar the matinee idol) by Tapan Sinha, in Punashcha ('The Postscript', 1961), Pratinidhi ('The Representative', 1964) and Akash Kusum ('The Pie in the Sky', 1965)  by Mrinal Sen, in three films by Asit Sen, four by Ajay Kar (one of which was Saat Paake Bandha, 1963, with Suchitra Sen, the heart-throb of millions), one each by Arup Guha Thakurta, O C Ganguly, Harisadhan Dasgupta, Nityananda Datta and Tarun Majumdar. It was clear that in half a dozen years or so, this tall handsome young man had made himself an indispensable presence in high and middle cinema in this neck of the woods. It was a meteoric rise by the standards of the industry, in which an initial hard grind usually precedes success. Soumitra was lucky, yes, but he earned his luck. He also made it clear that he would avoid the social quarantine of conventional stardom. A star is made by commercial operations outside filmic work proper, aided and abetted by textual devices which paper over social contradictions. This was not his cup of tea.

The director's actor places her/his body and face and voice – and their talents – at the disposal of the director, but that is only half the story. Compliance of a high order to the demands of a complex job would often need talent and intelligence of a high order. Only some directors have the ability to work with raw talent and with non-professionals. Satyajit Ray had done it himself, so had Mizoguchi and Bunuel and De Sica and Ritwik Ghatak and Pasolini. One could say that film, being a reproduced work of art – an ensemble of second-order operations on dead matter – rather than a live performance is in a peculiarly privileged position to destroy the mystique of auratic presence, as Walter Benjamin pointed out many years back. But film-making in general has continued to respect the viewer's desire to see 'lifelike' characters of their favourite kind and the actor has continued to be a major vehicle of verisimilar visuality. It isn't enough to follow the chalked line on the floor and look up at the point where the lighting was right and the camera focus was sharp. The actor often has to bring in something extra. The director in turn decides when the actor's own imaginaries can be trusted to have a free run and to what extent. Soumitra convinced his early directors that he could be safely left with the task of interpreting a character to the satisfaction of the viewer.

Charulata (1964) illustrates the chemistry which bonds the work of the director with that of the actor. Soumitra plays Amal, a young enlightened budding intellectual of late nineteenth century Kolkata, against Madhabi Mukhopadhyay's Charulata, the lonely wife of his elder cousin, Bhupati, fond of his wife but distanced by his obsession with the political journal he owns and edits. Soumitra had to play out the internal drama of a kind of bildungsroman, in which he comes of age through a harrowing emotional tangle which leaves all the three parties bruised. One of Soumitra’s real tests comes when Ray gets him to act out Amal's puzzled and disturbed discovery of Charu's hidden depths, first as an author and then as a woman in love. There is a simply stunning moment when Amal reads Charu's composition in a literary journal and faces her with a simple awed exclamation. Because the director is Satyajit Ray and he had prepared you with glimpses of the lonely but talented woman imprisoned in a marriage, Soumitra's brief close-up manages to convey the dawning of a realisation of the limits of patriarchal hegemony. This has been Soumitra's hallmark as an actor. The moment finds the man.

Soumitra was not quite into method acting, which is based on a kind of impersonation, though he observes his surroundings with care and picks out crucial elements from actual models for the authenticity of his portrayals. The gruff taciturnity of the taxi-driver in Abhijan (1962), the loping stride of the rural priest in Ashani Sanket (1973), the genial sharpness of the private detective in Sonar Kella (1974) and Jai Baba Felunath (1978), the ferocity of the marginalised in Sansar Simante (1975), the fake ardour of the revolutionary in Ghare-Baire (1985), the impatient rigour of the swimming coach in Koni (1986), the slow absent-mindedness of the lone lexicographer in Ekti Jiban (1987), the paranoia of a schizophrenic in Shakha Prashakha (1990), -- the list can be expanded to show up the sheer variety and versatility of this legendary actor's performances. Method acting is transformative in a systematic thoroughgoing fashion, a submergence of the actor's persona in an assumed one, whereas Soumitra follows the other option of indicative acting, bringing in a few important traits to build up a generic portrait, approximating to ideal types rather than actually existing  entities. The results speak for themselves.                 

What is not so easy to explain is the other part of his training, his participation in the continuing enlightenment of the Bengali intelligentsia, a radical version of which was current during his formative years. The Indian People's Theatre Association had left a permanent mark on the Bengali culture of the day. For the avant-garde, radical thought and realist texts were more relevant than escapist entertainment. Ray had sensed the turmoil of the times and made film after film in the expected mode. He placed the ordinary man and woman at the centre of his narrative, and naturally transformed the available modes of film-making. Soumitra made and re-made himself as an actor and as a cultural activist in these turbulent times and fashioned an acting style which would fit in with the demands of the new texts, though he regretted in his Ritwik Ghatak Memorial Lecture, 1984, that one seldom had the opportunity to step outside one's class and portray characters from among the labouring people. He had continued to hold fast to these radical values even in the era of a globalised cultural regime which is an accessory to ruthless exploitation and the crushing of people's liberties and divisive intolerance. He had made known his dislike of the atrocious regime in his home state and the fascist propensities of the ruling party at the centre. His civilised professional work and his expressed views are a living refutation of the neo-liberal Hindu-chauvinist cheapening of culture. That is why he is above the sphere of twopenny-halfpenny stardoms of the day.