Soumitra Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray Combi

Soumitra Chatterjee (1935), Veteran actor, breathed his last on 15th November of 2020. The world of cinema lost a lodestar whose worth is even beyond his list of awards. He is an internationally acclaimed legendary actor with immense versatility. His work was pivotal around Bengali Cinemas. He was a popular thespian – playwright, director and an actor on stage and an admired elocutionist. His contributions in the world of literature as a writer, poet, editor and bibliophile are not negligible. He was also an amateur painter. Satyajit Ray, the world famous, film maker, brought him on screen and their collaborations (14 movies) have yielded some of the best made films in the world. Selecting some of Soumitra Chatterjee’s supreme works out of more than 350 movies in his 62 years of career, is a mammoth task. So I begin with some of my favorites from Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee collaborations.

1. Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959):

Soumitra Chatterjee’s first on screen appearance happens with this movie. Apur Sansar is the third and last part of Apu’s triology, directed by Satyajit Ray. The three parts ‘Pather Panchali’, ‘Aparajito’ and ‘Apur Sansar’ are based on a Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. Apur Sansar is story of adult Apu’s life. Soumitra Chatterjee is brilliant as Apu, portraying all the facades of the character intensely. Apu is an unemployed graduate, aspiring to be a novelist. He is forced to get married suddenly and slowly a romantic relationship develops. Apu becomes a father but loses his beloved wife during the delivery of the boy. So he holds the birth of his son, Kajal, responsible for the death of his loving wife. The calm and romantic Apu turns violent and clueless at the same time. He renounces all worldly ties and even throws away the manuscripts of his novel which he had written down over the years. The sheets fly like birds about to rest during sun down. This scene marks the end of Apu’s aspirations and has been internationally recognized. Apu becomes suicidal and leads a life of a vagabond. Much later he meets his son and develops a bonding. . The last scene shows Kajal seated on his father’s shoulders, depicting the responsible Apu and Kajal’s new vast world. Soumitra Chatterjee’s role has remarkable variations and scope. The movie is all about space and dependency in relationships. Pandit Ravi Shankar’s background scores perfectly blend with the flow with the movie. This is one of the best made movies in the world.

2. Hirok Rajar Deshe (In the Land of the Diamond King, 1969):

This is a story of two friends Goopy Gayen, a singer and Bagha Bayen, a drummer. They are invited by the king of Hirok Rajya (Land of diamonds) at a festival. The king is a dictator, exploiting and oppressing the poor villagers- miners and farmers with taxation which the outside world is oblivious of. They are allured by the warm welcome and the apparently glorious state of affairs. ‘Magajdhalai’, a means of hypnotizing anyone who speaks against the ruler, is formulated by the King’s scientist. The King tries to stop education but the teacher, Udayan Pandit, revolts. Soumitra Chatterjee’s character of the teacher in this movie has been reflective of his own strong political or social values. Udayan Pandit happens to meet Gupi Gayen and Bagha Bayen and he plans out a revolution. With their help and the children he taught, he could finally bring down the king and his autocracy. All the characters in the movie have rhyming dialogues except the teacher implying that he is a free thinker. Soumitra Chatterjee has done justice to this epic role.

3. Felu da Series of Satyajit Ray

It is something that kids of Bengal grow up watching or reading. Feluda, Pradosh Mitra, is a Bengali private investigator. Ray has written numerous stories of Feluda and turned two of them into movies. Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1971) and Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979) are extremely well made. The actors surpassed the beauty of the characters in the books. Pradosh Mitra was popular for his ‘magajastra’ which means he used his brain as a weapon. Yes, Soumitra Chatterjee personified ‘magajastra’. The sharpness of the character, his attention to details and the undeniable charisma is what made Soumitra Chatterjee and Felu da inseparable. Sonar Kella was set across Rajasthan and involved rescuing of an eight year old boy who had been kidnapped. The story also involves a parapsychologist, past life regression of the child and fraudulence. Joy Baba Felunath is set across Benaras and is about how a smuggler of antiques is finally exposed and arrested. Both the movies are crisp and gripping till the very end.

4. Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970):

The New York Times described this film as a ‘rare, wistful movie that somehow proves it’s good to be alive.’ Yes, the apparently simple movie stirs up the most complex issues we face in our urban life style. Soumitra Chatterjee is the protagonist who visits Palamau Forest with three of his friends. They try their best to live close to nature and also meet the tribals. However, when they happen to meet another family from the city, they give up. They try to impress them. There is something which is an impediment to their way of trying to be simple. The city dwellers system is imbibed with the complications. They are used to the visages and masks they wear to hide their vulnerabilities and darkness of the mind.

5. Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964):

Satyjait Ray made this movie based on the Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore’s novel ‘Nashtanirh’ meaning ‘the broken nest’. The story is based in Imperial Kolkata during the Renaissance period. The film revolves around Charulata (Charu), the intelligent and beautiful wife of Bhupati who owns and publishes a political newspaper. Bhupati is an upper-class Bengali intellectual with a keen interest in politics and the freedom movement. He loves his wife but hardly has time to attend to her. Sensing her boredom Bhupati invites Charu’s brother and sister-in-law to live with them. Bhupati’s cousin Amal, played by Soumitra Chatterjee, visits them. Amal is young, well groomed, learned, handsome, and intelligent. He shares his interest in art and literature with Charu. Soumitra Chatterjee has played the role with immense charm. Charu starts expecting more out of her and Amal’s friendship while Amal steps back filled with remorse. He feels all the more guilty when Bhupati places all his trust on Amal after being exploited by Charu’s brother. Soumitra Chatterjee is expressive- he is charming, he is friendly, he is intelligent, he is jealous and he is guilty and even at times insensitive to Charu’s feelings. The movie is internationally acclaimed and the first and the last scenes are still spoken of. The first scene shows Charu’s loneliness as she looks through her binoculars at the outside world. The last scene was well praised for the beautiful use of freeze shots in those days. Charu and her husband come close to hold hands when the screen freezes keeping it more modern and open ended. There is something poetic and sensitive about the melancholic charm and the love triangle. Some of the silent shots speak volumes. It is from this movie that Satyajit Ray started directing the background scores for his movies.

Soumita Chatterjee’s Antagonistic Roles Designed by Satyajit Ray

Some of his movies are appreciated for his crude and antagonistic roles too. He plays the role of a rough and cynical Rajput taxi driver in Ray’s movie, Abhijan (Expedition, 1962). In Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984), Satyajit Ray had selected a role for Soumitra Chatterjee where he was cunning, taking advantage of his friend financially and his friend’s wife emotionally. His eyes portrayed the perfect greedy and fraudulent nature of the character. Kapurush (The Coward, 1965) portrays Soumitra Chatterjee as a coward who couldn’t take responsibilities of a courtship when he was unemployed and young. Later when he is successful he by chance happens to meet the lady who is already married to someone else. Then he wants her to run away with him, leaving her husband which she denies.

Some other Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee Combos

In 1961, Soumitra Chatterjee played the role of a handsome young newlywed man in Samapti (The Conclusion), the final story of the movie Teen Kanya (Three Girls), an anthology of 3 stories based on Rabindranath Taagore’s writings. His role in 1960’s Devi (The Goddess) and 1990’s Shakha Prashakha are remarkable. Ray’s Asani Sanket (The Distant Thunder) in 1972 and Ganashatru in 1990 are note worthy. In Ashani Sanket he plays the role of a Brahmin doctor and teacher of a village in Bengal which faces the dark crisis of the Second World War and the hunger and starvation of Bengal famine in 1943. In Ganashatru, Soumitra Chatterjee’s role is one of a strong doctor, protesting and questioning the purity of holy charnamrita from the temple, in spite of facing several bottlenecks and rejections, by locals, politicians and also the media. These are some terrific and strong characters that still leave their marks in our lives and the world of cinema.

Awards and Accolades of Soumitra Chatterjee

In 2004 Soumitra Chatterjee was awarded ‘Padma Bhushan’, a civilian award of one of the highest orders in India. He is the first Indian film personality conferred with ‘Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’, France’s highest civilian award for artists. He has bagged 3 National Awards and 7 Filmfare Awards. He won ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi’ Award in 1998, given by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama. In 2012, he was recognized by the government of India with ‘Dadasaheb Phalke’ Award for lifetime achievement. He has also worked with famous directors besides Ray, like Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and many more. Soumitra Chatterjee has been a pillar of Bengal cinema; the last of the renaissance actor, epitomizing an era himself. He has never failed us; from the age of twenty four to the age of eighty five. From severe roles to light hearted twists; he has won hearts over and over again.
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Dipannita Bhattacherya

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