Apu, Amulya, Narsingh, Amal, Ajay, Ashim and Feluda, the hot-shot detective who made him a household name — the actor who breathed life into these characters — is no more.
Soumitra Chatterjee, who captivated Bengal with his luminescent performances on the Bengali silver screen for 62 years, who would have turned 86 on the 19th of January next year, died today after a 40-day struggle at the hospital, battling COVID-19, complications and comorbidities.
He leaves behind a devastated family of wife, son and daughter and their families, and Bengal… In fact, the world of cinema in India and beyond.
His epic lines in his debut film — Satyajit Ray’s “Apur Sansar” — Soumitra Chatterjee, as Apu, speaks about himself in third person and says: “A village lad…poor but sensitive. His father is a priest. The father dies. The boys go to a city. He doesn’t want to become a priest. He wants to study. Is ambitious. His learning, his struggle broaden his mind, he is a rationalist. But he has imagination… he is sensitive. Small things move him, give him joy. He perhaps has the potential to do great things. But he doesn’t do it. But that’s not the end of it. He is not tragic. he is doing nothing great, he remains poor, struggling. But he doesn’t turn away from living life. He is not running away, he is not escaping. The whole point of life is to live it. He loves it. He wants to live.”
A theatre actor. That’s how Soumitra Chatterjee began his career in the late 1950 under the tutelage of the legendary Sisir Bhaduri. He has often said that theatre was his first love. But he brought the screen alive with his first film “Apur Sansar” followed by “Teen Kanya” and “Abhijan” (all Satyajit Ray films).
After that came “Saat Pake Badha” with Suchitra Sen directed by Ajoy Kar. Other movies included “Akash Kusum” with Mrinal Sen and co-star Aparna Sen, “Jhinder Bandi” with Tapan Sinha, “Ganadevata” with Tarun Majumdar and as Amal in the classic “Charulata” in 1964 with an iconic performance by co-star Madhavi Chatterjee.
Bengal and the world of cinema were captivated by this young man with dreams in his eyes. Or rage or scorn or passion, whatever his character needed to reflect.
“Feluda” was different, a hotshot. A cerebral and action-packed detective in films for children primarily — “Sonar Kella” and “Joy Baba Felunath“. But it was a role that made him a household name in Bengal, the hero of the next generation, a character that Soumitra Chatterjee modelled, it is said, on its creator Satyajit Ray.
Soumitra Chatterjee returned to theatre in 1978 with “Namjiban“, “Rajkumar“, and “Nilkantha” — which Satyajit Ray gave high praise. “An unforgettable performance,” he had said.
In 1990, two years before his death, Satyajit Ray said of Soumitra Chatterjee: “Of my 27 films, Soumitra featured in the main roles in 14 of them. This itself will prove what trust I have in him and how I value him as an actor. I do know that to the last day of my artist’s life, my dependence on him will remain intact.”
After Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha, Soumitra Chatterjee continued to be a box office draw, in fact till the end.
Filmmakers started writing scripts in which he could be the central character, like “Sanjhbati” — his last film released in 2019 — “Mayurakshi” and “Bela Sheshe” — films in which he played his age.
His theatre acting continued with the biggest blockbuster “Raja Lear“, a Bengali adaptation of King Lear, in 2010 which was directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay, and played to full house for days.
He wrote poetry, plays, essays and he also painted — exhibiting for the first time seven years ago.
He also featured in advertisements for several products and he was still a celebrity at 85, a member of every household in Bengal.
One of Soumitra Chatterjee’s greatest loves was reciting poetry. A few lines from a poem titled “Some Day” went like this: “Some days, memories become real. Memories turn into truth.”
Soumitra Chatterjee is now a memory.
In an interview not long ago, author Amitava Akash Nag asked the thespian what death means to him. He replied: “I don’t know. But I don’t know the meaning of life as well. The quest continues.”