Soumitra Chatterjee no more: Some lesser-known facts about the acting stalwart

Apart from being a talented actor, Chatterjee was also known for his skill as a playwright, as a poet, a painter and theatre director

Veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee died Sunday, at the age of 85, leaving a heavy sense of loss and sadness in the hearts of many people around the country and in the world, who followed his films and were a fan of his craft. Chatterjee’s oeuvre comprised many different films through the course of his long career — more than 200 of them — with some of his best works with one of India’s greatest filmmakers Satyajit Ray, with whom he had collaborated 14 times.

After a long period of illness, the Dadasaheb Phalke award-winning actor breathed his last today. We remember and honour his legacy by sharing some lesser-known facts about his life.

The actor was born in Mirjapur Street — which is now known as Surya Sen Street — close to the Sealdah Railway Station in Kolkata (then Calcutta), West Bengal, in the year 1935. He was a student of Bengali literature, and graduated from the City College in Kolkata with an honours degree. His association with Ray goes way back. He spent many years in Kolkata, in Satyajit Ray’s old apartment. While he continued to study for his masters in Bengali from the University of Calcutta, he learnt the craft of acting from noted actor-director of Bengali theatre Ahindra Choudhury. It is, however, believed that in the final year of college, Chatterjee saw a play by theatre director and doyen of Bengali theatre, Sisir Bhaduri, that reinforced in him the idea of becoming an actor.

Despite his acting skills, when Chatterjee was 20, he was rejected during a screen test, for the titular role of a 1957 Bengali film ‘Nilachale Mahaprabhu’, which was directed by Kartik Chattopadhyay. The film was based on the life of 15th-century mystic Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. It was Asim Kumar, who later went on to essay the role.

Bhaduri played an important role in Chatterjee’s career. He managed to meet him towards the end of his career when his theatre had closed. Over the course of three years, till Bhaduri’s death in 1959, Chatterjee made him his mentor, even appearing in a small role in one of his productions.

The same year (1959) Chatterjee made his debut with Satyajit Ray movie ‘Apur Sansar‘. He went on to work in several other notable films with Ray, like Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962), Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969), Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973), Sonar Kella (The Fortress, 1974), Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1978) as celebrated detective Feluda, Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980), Ghare Baire (The Home and The World, 1984), Shakha Proshakha (1990) and Ganashatru (Enemy of the People, 1989).

It is believed that Chatterjee had once approached Ray to suggest a name for a magazine founded by him and Nirmalya Acharya in 1961. Not only did Ray name the magazine ‘Ekkhon’ (‘Now’), he even designed the cover for the inaugural issue. Ray is believed to have even illustrated the cover pages after Chatterjee stopped being associated with the magazine. Several of Ray’s scripts were published in this very magazine.

Chatterjee was approached by many directors in Tollywood and outside, to play significant roles in films. He chillingly essayed the lead role in Sujoy Ghosh’s short film ‘Ahalya’, co-starring Radhika Apte and Tota Roy Chowdhury in 2015. He had done two more short films, ‘Baalir Niche Jawler Shabda’ directed by Nilabja Das and ‘The Forlorn’ directed by Saptaswa Basu.

Even though he was one of Ray’s favourites — Chatterjee was celebrated as the director’s actor — he also acted in hit films directed by stalwarts like Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha, thereby giving ‘Mahanayak’ of Bengali cinema Uttam Kumar a real competition.

Apart from being a talented actor, Chatterjee was also known for his skill as a playwright, as a poet, a painter and theatre director.

In 2011, Chatterjee was conferred with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. He was also a recipient of the coveted Legion d’Honneur – France’s highest civilian honour. He never won a National Film Award for acting in the early days of his career. It is said that this was instrumental in establishing his reputation as an actor. In a gesture of protest, he turned down the 2001 Special Jury Award for ‘Dekha’ directed by Goutam Ghose.

In October this year, Chatterjee tested positive for COVID-19. He was immediately admitted at the Belle Vue Clinic, Kolkata. While he tested negative after the second test conducted October 14, his health condition worsened, with complications of urinary tract infection, fluctuations in sodium potassium levels, etc., making him critical.

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