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Soumitra Chatterjee at his residence in Kolkata’s Golf Green. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Soumitra Chatterjee at his residence in Kolkata’s Golf Green. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

If I stop acting, I won’t exist: Soumitra Chatterjee

The octogenarian actor on being Satyajit Ray's alter ego, shunning Bollywood, Bengal's kitchen politics, and working non-stop at the age of 81

Before shooting began for Shakha Proshakha (1990)—Satyajit Ray’s penultimate film and the last of actor Soumitra Chatterjee’s 14 films and a documentary with the film-maker—the former sounded apologetic while offering Chatterjee a role with very little dialogue.

“Had he asked me to be the doorman for a single scene, I would have agreed; such was my love, respect and trust in him," says Chatterjee, flashing the famous smile that not only takes you back to his boyish past, but brings the memories cascading back—pure audience privilege.

Soumitra Chatterjee. Photo: Alamy
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Soumitra Chatterjee. Photo: Alamy

He told me, the actor says, sitting in the antechamber at his Golf Green residence in Kolkata: “Soumitra, I have always given you free rein as an actor, but here we must etch out the character together." The role was of a mentally challenged individual, the kind of person both Ray and Chatterjee had seen from close quarters. Theirs was a special bond.

At 81, Chatterjee continues to be an artiste; antsy active, and beyond the mellow hues of nostalgia. “I have a fear: If I don’t work, I won’t exist," he says. The entire gamut of his artistic, creative, politically conscious and sensitive mind has been encapsulated in a two-volume collection of his non-fiction writing—Soumitra Chattopadhyay: Gadya Sangraha (Dey’s Publishing), an enormous body of work encompassing 1,299 pages (a third volume is on its way too)—which was published late last month.

The book comes as a pretext to return to one of Indian cinema’s biggest acting powerhouses, and a Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner, to talk about his life on and off screen. Edited excerpts from the interview:

At the book release function, speaker after speaker spoke about Soumitra Chatterjee as a poet, non-fiction writer, theatre personality, editor of a popular literary magazine, painter, elocutionist and actor, of course, with only a few passing references to Satyajit Ray. I found that odd.

To be honest, Satyajit Ray didn’t have much role to play in my writing. I completed my master’s in Bengali and was always inclined towards literature. Nevertheless, my writing was enriched through my association with Ray and my college professor, the famous litterateur Narayan Gangopadhyay. My grandfather, Lalit Kumar Chattopadhyay, was a writer of sorts who wrote a few novels and travelogues. He wrote a fascinating book on my family background in Koya village, now in Bangladesh.

Both my parents were avid readers and the almirah in our house had many books they won as prizes. My father won a lot of prizes as an elocutionist. My mother got married possibly when she was in class IX and their early years of marital life were about financial struggle. Yet they continued to buy books. That must have left a lasting impression on me.

Chatterjee with Satyajit Ray on the sets of Ghare Baire. Photo: Alamy
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Chatterjee with Satyajit Ray on the sets of Ghare Baire. Photo: Alamy

The two volumes of your non-fiction writing run into 1,299 pages. Multiple books of your poetry have also been published. You’ve acted in 54 films since 2010. That’s a phenomenal amount of work. How do you find the time?

If you are inclined to write, you find your time (laughs). I’ve had to toil to write since acting takes up at least 8-9 hours of my day. Then there are social and family responsibilities. I have a notebook, where I write poetry but also jot down ideas. I doodle as well. You could say it’s a distant and silent provocation from Rabindranath Tagore, who would doodle as well.

A still from his debut Apur Sansar. Photo: Alamy
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A still from his debut Apur Sansar. Photo: Alamy

In 1958, when you made your debut as an actor in Ray’s ‘Apur Sansar’, the director had shared the screenplay with you, something he rarely did with actors....

From the very first day, he would chat and discuss things with me a lot. It was his method of assessing a potential actor. He gave a lot of importance to an actor’s diction and Bengali-speaking abilities. I’ve found a lot of actresses getting rejected by Manikda (Ray’s nickname) because of their stilted, Anglicized Bengali. We shared a common interest in literature and the common legacy of Rabindranath.

I did something after reading the Apur Sansar screenplay. In the time-lapse portions, the time gap between shots, I would imagine what Apu would do and write about it. It was like a Stanislavskian method, imagining Apu would meet friends, go swimming, etc. I would also include autobiographical elements. I was apprehensive about showing Ray my thoughts, maybe he’ll laugh it away. But surprisingly, he not only encouraged me but also provoked me to think further. I did it to totally immerse myself in Apu’s character, even when it was outside the screenplay, and Ray knew when somebody’s interest was genuine.

Chatterjee with Sharmila Tagore in Aranyer Din Ratri
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Chatterjee with Sharmila Tagore in Aranyer Din Ratri

Your acting ‘guru’ was the legendary Bengali theatre personality Sisir Kumar Bhaduri. He never considered cinema to be a worthy art form and had even turned down an offer to act in Ray’s ‘Mahanagar’. What attracted you to cinema?

I was associated with him for the last three years of his life. Only once did I get an opportunity to act with him. I consider him my guru from watching his theatre. I learnt the basics of acting from him, the passion and the qualities that I later on tried to inculcate in my acting germinated from seeing him act.

He had a mental block against cinema. Sisir Kumar’s thoughts on this were problematic. He was totally sold to theatre and would be in denial about cinema as a sister art. We would argue often. He would admit cinema could be the 10th muse but wasn’t yet. He only rated (Charlie) Chaplin highly but hadn’t seen any (Sergei) Eisenstein or (Vsevolod) Pudovkin.

Theatre is my first love, but I was a cinema addict from a very early age. I would bunk school to watch films, even adult films like The Song Of Songs. There was a phase in my college days when I became a typical stupid snob who would reject cinema for theatre. Of course, I had avidly watched cinema actors like Motilal and my all-time favourite Indian cinema actor, Balraj Sahni. What can be better than Garm Hava? We were regulars at the College Street Coffee House then. Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) broke that snobbery.

For the first 20 years of your career, you had to contend with the Bengali matinee legend, Uttam Kumar. When you were acting in your first film, he had already done 70. But in a very short time you were parallel—if Uttam Kumar was the most popular star, you were the thinking person’s cerebral actor. The Uttam-Soumitra debate is still alive.

When I joined cinema, Uttam Kumar had nothing more to prove. He was looming large over Bengali cinema from our college days and by then was part of the firmament. I think there can be no bigger star than him in Bengali cinema. I knew him from earlier. He was a close friend of my brother-in-law. I would go to his addas. He was eight-nine years older than me, and I assessed that he was like a big brother to me. He would excel in such roles too, where the elder brother in Bengali society then would be seen as a role model. He would treat me like that too.

Was there competition between the two of you? How did you build up the cerebral hero’s image against his pop appeal?

Oh yes, fierce competition. But that was to a great extent mitigated by our mutual friendship. The ugliness never came to the forefront. From my first film, I knew the kind of films I wanted to do. I had idols like Balraj Sahni and Sisir Bhaduri. And I came from the cradle of one of the most artistic individuals, Satyajit Ray. My thinking on cinema differed a lot from Uttamda’s. I’m still his fan.

Uttam Kumar as the lover is sometimes the guy next door, or when he is in a suit and dark glasses going up the stairs, he represented the aspiring dream of Bengalis. Maybe his portrayal as lover was unreal, but it was so pleasing that it didn’t matter to me, even though acting for me was to project a slice of life. Where I was disappointed in him was in the way he compromised with acting to hold on to his popularity, even though there can be few actors like him. The fact that he wouldn’t even consider a different hairstyle for the sake of acting was disappointing.

In Andrew Robinson’s biography, ‘Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye’, there’s a portion where Ray compares you with Uttam Kumar, saying the latter could make bad material acceptable, “whereas with Soumitra, who’s much more intelligent, given bad material, he turns out a bad performance..." Do you agree?

I don’t think it’s a correct assessment. If I was not successful in turning good material out of the bad, I wouldn’t have remained for so many years. My stardom hasn’t hinged entirely on working on Ray’s films. I have acted in 14 Ray (feature) films, though in a way that’s an enormous number, but that I’ve worked in around 250 films should be considered, with directors like Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Ajoy Kar. Not all the films had good material. It’s also true that Uttam Kumar could not turn all bad material into good. I don’t blame either of us.

Chatterjee with Ray, Madhabi Mukherjee (right) and Gitali Roy on the sets of Charulata. Photo: Sukumar Roy
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Chatterjee with Ray, Madhabi Mukherjee (right) and Gitali Roy on the sets of Charulata. Photo: Sukumar Roy

You’ve worked with the best Bengali film-makers, like Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar and Ray. Ritwik Ghatak is missing from the list. He wanted you for his ‘Komal Gandhar’, but you refused for the meagre fees he had offered. Do you regret it?

No, there are no regrets. We had plans to work on two-three films, but they fizzled out. I hold him in respect as a film-maker. How many films like Titash Ekti Nadir Naam ever got made? But I think the kind of rapport one requires with a director, we lacked.

What exactly was lacking?

See, no matter how soft I look, I’m a very stern man inside. Ritwik Ghatak was a tyrant. Once, not only did I go to hit him...I hit him.

Really? What had happened?

In the 1960s, there was a movement going on within the Bengali film industry. It became divisive and film-making had stopped altogether. The government got together many of us to debate the issue. While Ray, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and others were on one side, Ritwik was on the other.

At the meeting, we sat on the last bench and I was close to Ritwik. He had some very cheap habits; he would manipulate and rib people. He kept on abusing Satyajit Ray. I didn’t get provoked since I didn’t hold a brief to defend Ray. Maybe he got frustrated at my nonchalance and he used an expletive at me. I jumped at him, held him by his collar and planted a huge blow on him. One blow. I said I’ll bury him right there and that I’m not Satyajit Ray and not a bhoddorlok (gentleman) like him. I had a foul mouth too. People like Mrinalda had to intervene and stop me by force. Ritwik was later asked to speak. He was totally drunk and had received a blow from me. He was totally flustered. He mumbled something but the audience got angry at him being drunk at an important debate. He was brought off the stage and sat brooding in one corner.

Ritwik had many good qualities as a film-maker, but I think he was overrated. More so when one compares him with Satyajit Ray.

A still from Charulata. Photo: Alamy
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A still from Charulata. Photo: Alamy

In the way some people compare Ritwik Ghatak favourably against Ray, do you think the former’s Left-leaning politics played a role?

It was typical Bengali kitchen politics. The way grandmothers constantly crib against the neighbour’s wife. There was no real assessment based on intelligence or merit. After Ritwik got admitted to rehab for his alcoholism, I was approached to work in one of his films to help him out. I was a star then and if I agreed, he could easily get a producer. I agreed on the condition that he could drink as much as he wanted to, but only after pack-up. If I found him smelling, I would kick his buttocks and leave the floor. There is nothing wrong in drinking, but why on the floor?

He wanted to do Sansar Simante and the day we were to have a meeting with the producer, Ritwik was nowhere to be seen. We waited and waited, till suddenly the door was flung open and Ritwik came in, swaying like a fern. He couldn’t stand straight. Seeing that, everybody left. I offered to drop him home, but he wanted to go to the Lake (Rabindra Sarobar). I dropped him in the car and he rejoined some lowly creatures and drank dheno (a potent country liquor). So you understand? If I worked with him, we would only have fought.

Are you Satyajit Ray’s alter ego?

I think that’s a correct perception. I think it wasn’t just my versatility and technical ability as an actor that made him take me in so many of his films. There must have been a spiritual connection. He was a senior member of a generation of which I was a very junior member. He was so supremely talented; nothing but a genius. I can never think of putting myself next to him. But our outlook and philosophy towards life, our likes and dislikes, looking at life from a certain standpoint, were common. I could thus almost instinctively guess what he wanted from me as an actor, and he knew what I was capable of. Otherwise, so early in my career, how could he cast me in that very challenging role in Abhijaan? He taught me how to act besides Tapan Sinha—the only other person who guided me and to whom I’m indebted. Tapanda offering me the villain’s role in Jhinder Bondi was a leap for me as an actor.

Ray would say that he drew the character of the iconic Bengali detective Feluda keeping you in mind. You thought Ray drew the character based on himself.

Initially, his illustrations of Feluda didn’t represent me. My opinion is correct. I still think Felu and Professor Shonku, his two characters, are two faces of Manikda. I always felt his shadow in the illustrations. But he slowly moved away and only much later did the Felu character start resembling me. It became totally like me from Sonar Kella.

A still from Joi Baba Felunath.
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A still from Joi Baba Felunath.

You are talking about illustrations here. But what about the character of Feluda—his gait, manner of speaking, lifestyle, who did that resemble?

That was partially like him. As an actor, I consciously wanted Feluda to be like Satyajit—Feluda’s commanding way of speaking with his sidekick Topshe is (a reflection of) Manikda’s inoffensive bossing (laughs heartily). He was a very intelligent man, a computer brain, I would say. I’m sure he understood. It wasn’t a caricature of Satyajit, but served as an inspiration.

From your first film in 1959 till 2016, there has not been a single year when your films haven’t released. Last year, you had nine releases, including the massively successful ‘Belasheshe’.

What do I say? I’m an unsatisfied man. If I don’t work, I will go crazy. Right now, I’m working on directing a play based on (Henrik) Ibsen’s Ghosts. I’ll play the role of the carpenter Jacob Engstrand, for which I was drawing the character’s portrait a little while back. This is how I work. Sometimes, I ignore the back pain after a day out shooting since I have to write. It’s a constant struggle. And a discipline as well. There is a fear in the backdrop. If I stop, I won’t exist.

A still from Belaseshe
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A still from Belaseshe

From Mumbai, you got offers from Raj Kapoor, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Dilip Kumar, Shyam Benegal and Anurag Basu in recent times. You’ve even said you like the city. What stopped you from working in the Mumbai film industry?

I like the city at a surface level, but there’s no city better than Kolkata for me. I don’t think I would have revelled in the atmosphere of the film industry there. It’s a way of life, but how would I have continued to write, edit a magazine, participate in marches, do theatre? I don’t think speaking Hindi would have been a problem, but I relish Bengali dialogue. I have an advantage over my fellow actors in the way I have a command over the Bengali language. This is not pride, but satisfaction. In love for the Bengali language and Kolkata, I shared a bond with Manikda.

You recently acted in Sujoy Ghosh’s short film ‘Ahalya’, which was specifically made for an Internet release. Was the experience any different?

Being a film of short span, the difference was in expression. Not for the actors, but the director. He has to say a lot within a short time. There is no scope to expand on situations.

You had previously worked with your ‘Ahalya’ co-star Radhika Apte in the Bengali film ‘Rupkatha Noy’. Do you follow the career of the current actors in India?

I admire Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s work. He is very good. I always admired Irrfan Khan and in the last few years he has reached greater heights. After watching his film, The Lunchbox, I looked around for his phone number and called him up. He was elated to receive my call. That actors of such calibre have come up is only because of Bombay. Amid such fierce competition, you have to be good to be noticed.

In an article of yours a few years ago, you expressed disappointment at the state of Bengali cinema. Has Bengali cinema overcome the phase somewhat?

It seemed to be getting out of the morass but now I think it has fallen into a trap. Film-makers like Kaushik Ganguly were trying to bring Bengali films out of the rut. To some extent, (the late) Rituparno Ghosh. It’s not like I like all his films, but later on his personal problems were shadowing him. That became very painful.

At least, things were moving out of the culture of copying south Indian films frame by frame. That’s what producers did for years. But the enquiry in Bengali cinema is not about greater society. It has become cunning, fashionable and formulaic. Now, to use explicit words and speak about sex candidly is the fashion. But is there any effort to go deeper into the sexual crisis facing Indian women? Earlier film-makers like Mrinal Sen had an opinion on society. Where do you see that now?

The production house Shree Venkatesh Films has a near monopoly over the Bengali film industry. Has that brought its own set of formulas, aesthetics and ethics to film-making?

Of course. Their monopoly control is a stumbling block. Nobody is trying to break the stranglehold. Because this control over the film industry is linked intrinsically with political monopoly in Bengal. Now everybody has jumped on to the bandwagon of the political monopolists. The radical thought required to break this monopoly is invisible to me. There is no politics or ideology in the films, only a way to control and hold on to power. Venkatesh has no aesthetics at all. I don’t even think films are their main business.

Of course, you have not been without controversies. In the recent past, you termed the Kolkata International Film Festival, organized by the Mamata Banerjee government, a circus.

Yes, that was after I saw the sudden change in the festival. Commercial and mainstream films started getting importance. Why should I watch such films at the festival? I termed it a circus in the way the festival was getting opened through the naachna-gaana of big film stars they could get hold of from Bombay. Is this our film culture?

After the killing of 14 people in Nandigram in 2007, many criticized you for remaining silent, though I later found out that you had indeed written a lot criticizing the Left Front government and its actions. At the same time, you had also said that there could be no alternative to the Left in Bengal. In the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress’ sixth year in government, do you still think that is true?

This is not an alternative to the Left Front, but a substitute. The closet rightist thinking within the Left has been manifest here doubly. These people are ruthless in dealing with political opponents. I’m really very far away from such politics.

You are known to be prone to acute depression. How do you cope?

I do fear death. Only sadhana (meditation) can help in overcoming the fear, through rationalizing, training and preparing the mind.

There is no route to overcome depression, and I can get very depressive. Some days, I find it difficult to wake up. But then I realize that not getting up will pull me further into the dungeons of depression. I start performing my daily chores. On those days when shooting gets cancelled and I have little work, I start painting, even though I’m not trained. But it liberates me. That I work so much is partially to cope with depression.

The late author Sunil Gangopadhyay, who was your friend and classmate, didn’t enjoy ‘Tritiyo Anko, Otoeb’, an autobiographical play written and directed by you, where you confront questions of your own death…

He liked the writing but couldn’t accept the fact that I was talking about my own death. I don’t think it was literary criticism, but opinion coming from a friend. I think thoughts on my death must have hurt him.

It was while acting in this play one evening that you got the news of your mother’s death. It was almost like death came home. Did you continue acting after receiving the news?

Yes. I finished acting and then went to see Ma. When I went on acting after the interval, thoughts of her did cross my mind. But after all these years of professional acting, I have mastered the art of acting even when the occasional personal thought crosses my mind.

Mortality, as you well know, is the most definite truth of life. You have yourself overcome cancer. Do you have a wish for how you want to go?

I don’t want to burden anyone when I die. But the dream would be to pass away while I’m acting. Not everyone can be that fortunate. I would call such death an accidental gift of life.

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