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When the news came of Soumitra Chatterjee’s passing, I sent a message to all my WhatsApp groups (and 80% of the members are not Bengalis, but many are film lovers). It was: “Is there anyone who doesn’t love him?" There was no reply other than expressions of grief.

Chatterjee was 85 when he died at a Kolkata hospital on Sunday.

He was an actor who never appeared in a Bollywood film, in spite of lucrative offers, including turning down the role of a Bengali doctor in Anand, which shot Amitabh Bachchan to fame. He refused the Padma Sri in 1972 because he felt it would be wrong to accept an honour when there was no safety net for daily wage workers in the film industry.

Governments don’t give up (or prefer to forget). So in 2012, he received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest award in India for cinema, and France’s biggest civilian award—the Chevalier of Legion of Honour—in 2017. He is the only Indian actor ever to be the subject of a full-length documentary—Gaach (Tree), by Catherine Berge. Quite simply, he was the best Indian actor of his generation and several more. And a gracious human being.

Chatterjee was the most loved person in today’s twisted Bengal. My mother and mother-in-law, in their 80s, love him. My niece, 22, loves him. His death moves random people to tears. And let’s get done with this “Apu" and “Feluda" and Satyajit Ray business. He was much bigger than being Ray’s alter ego in the films he made with him. He was a poet, a dramatist and a creator in his own right. And charisma? He burnt up the screen in Jhinder Bondi, an adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda, where he played the villain Rupert of Hentzau (Mayurvahan) and took Uttam Kumar to the cleaners.

He was possibly the most handsome Bengali actor ever. Though he claimed in an interview that he was considered the least good-looking in his family. Who cares? A Kashmiri friend watched Apur Sansar, Soumitra’s first film, when she was in her early 20s, and still gasps about it 30 years later: “Oh god, I wanted to marry him; that face, and that voice, I can die for that."

Ageing gracefully is a huge problem that most of us prefer to be in denial of. Chatterjee did it. As he grew older, he became more authoritative and actually better. He remained the most handsome elderly Bengali man. He represented a cultured, evolved Bengal that we have possibly lost. He started enjoying himself, just as Robert de Niro, after three decades of back-breaking hard work. He had no need any more to prove himself . He lived by his own rules, and we knew who he was. That is a life well-lived, Soumitra Chatterjee. Accept our true and pure gratitude.


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