The Essential Soumitra

Apur Sansar:  For Apur Sansar, the final film in the “Apu Trilogy”,  the great director plucked a young radio announcer and small-time theater actor from anonymity to play the titular role. Soumitra Chatterjee. Nurtured by Ray’s genius, Soumitra brought to the world of light and shadows the unforgettable character of Apu, boyishly handsome, romantically intense and poetically fragile, journeying on the lyrical road of life, pushing aside the poverty, despondency and death that he encounters on the way. That last scene  of “Apur Sansar” in which Apu’s face becomes an almost wordless kaleidoscope of sadness, joy, guilt and hope as he reunites with his estranged son Kajal is so heart-wrenching that not even the greatest curmudgeon can prevent the eyes from welling up with tears. It was as triumphant an arrival of a great actor as one could hope for. So sensational was he that would go on to become the exacting Ray’s favorite actor for all time.

Jhinder Bandi
: If the Tamils have their Rajani vs Kamal Hassan, the Bengalis had Soumitra vs Uttam. Who is the better actor? Who is more drool-worthy? The verdict is still divided, just like whether ilish tastes better with shorshe (mustard) or as a patla jhol (thin curry). Tapan Sinha’s adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda, “Jhinder Bandi” pits the two demi-gods against each other in Douglas Fairbankian sword-play, with Uttam as the hero and Soumitra as the anti-hero. Who won this battle of performances?  Many think it was Soumitra.

Abhijaan:  Soumitra would go on to make his career playing the Bangali male ideal. In “Abhijaan”, definitely Ray’s darkest film, he goes absolutely against type to play an angry uber-macho Rajput cab-driver, who lives on the edge—whether it be speeding his cab on unsteady highways, walking on the wrong side of the law or getting involved with risky women. One of Soumitra’s most intriguing roles, purely because of how outside his comfort zone he is, “Abhijaan” highlights one of the most important attributes of a true artist. The courage to take a risk.

Saat Paake Bandha: One of the best non-Ray Bengali films of the era, sitting perfectly at the cusp of popular and arthouse, Ajoy Kar’s “Saat Paake Bandha” is a fascinatingly mature deconstruction of the break-up of a marriage . Cast opposite the legendary Suchitra Sen, a formidable actress herself and the one given the meatier part, Soumitra still manages to steal the show as the vulnerable, unyielding husband, too proud to compromise, even as the beautiful relationship he has his with his wife dissolves . Possibly, his most nuanced performance in a non-Ray film, he makes you feel for him and his internal conflict.

Charulata: Satyajit Ray’s greatest work. Soumitra plays a character modelled on Rabindranath Tagore, and if that is not challenge enough, the focus of the film is firmly on Charulata (played by Madhabi Mukherjee), the bored wife of an emotionally unavailable zamindar, whose lonely life is thrown into emotional tumult by the arrival of her husband’s brother, “Thakurpo” Amal. Playing a somewhat self-absorbed lhomme fatale, nonchalantly unaware of the effect he has on women as he flits poetically about with dreams of Mediterranean in his eyes, this is yet another tour d’force from the master thespian.

Akash Kusum: A tragi-comedy about the lies we say for love, a show-case for freeze-frames and other Truffaut-inspired cinematic techniques considered “edgy” for the times,  and an extended Marxist metaphor for class-struggle, Mrinal Sen’s “Akash Kusum” is an eternal favorite for Soumitra-fans. Here he plays an urban, lower-middle-class Bengali man who borrows the trappings of affluence from his rich friend in order to impress the girl of his dreams. Many of you have seen the comparatively feeble Hindi re-make, “Manzil”, that finishes with Amitabh Bachchan reading a book titled Physics and winning back the object of his love. More bleak is the Bengali original wherein the tragedy of a man, trapped by birth and circumstance and yet brave enough to reach for the sky and accept the reality of his glorious failure with a last longing look, is brought out brilliantly by Soumitra.

Kapurush: An under-appreciated Ray classic, Soumitra plays a largely unlikeable hero, spineless and timid with a streak of absolute selfishness, who abandons his strong-willed girl-friend once and then, after a chance encounter, tries to win her back. It is a very difficult role, as Soumitra, like a master painter, takes the stereotype of the Bengali romantic hero and daubs it with strategic strokes of grey. A must-watch.

Teen Bhuboner Paarey: A rather standard issue story of the curative power of love, this is essential for the Soumitra experience purely because of how effectively he discards his cerebral serious image to embrace pure commercial cinema. One of his biggest commercial hits, it had amazing music, sizzling chemistry between him and Tanuja and Soumitro essaying the role of a wise-cracking chengra chele” (rough translation: bad boy). And yes he also dances the twist. He would go on to do a few more light frothy romantic comedies like this (“Basanta Bilaap” comes to mind where “Miss 1976” Aparna Sen sings seductively about her “statistics” while Soumitra goofs around disguised as an old man), ,making out-and-out commerci al movies another vital part of his oeuvre.

Sonar Kella: Soumitra plays Feluda, the iconic Bengali detective. He plays it so well that he essentially kills the character—none of the actors who have tried to play Feluda after him could fill his shoes. The original is just too overpowering. Here the g reat man is timing personified—whether it be his significant silences, the sarcastic wisecrack thrown carelessly, the contemplative arch of the eyebrow or the whipping out of the pistol. Sonar Kella is all fun, and there are many fine reasons for watching it, none greater than of course Soumitra’s rugged suavity.

Aatanka: “Apni kichu dekhen ni”. You have not seen anything. A hellish vision of urban dystopia in modern-day Kolkata, Tapan Sinha’s terrifying “Aatanka” has the finest of Soumitra Chatterjee’s later performances. As the idealistic school-teacher whose family is plunged into an unending nightmare after he witnesses a political murder committed by an ex-student, Soumitra’s character becomes a metaphor for the Apu-generation, old and disillusioned in the 80s, their post-independence optimism replaced by bewilderment at a world whose unrelenting evil they can scarcely comprehend. Truly an acting masterclass.

[This post also appears here at IBNLive]



21 thoughts on “The Essential Soumitra

  1. IBNLive link not working !

  2. rightly deserving….

  3. Great list. I’ll write the same thing I wrote on the IBN Live site though. Where on earth is Ghare Baire? 🙂

  4. Khub sundor likhechho, & as usual, to the point.

    He did have a few misfires as well, such as ‘Pronoy Pasha’, the last film of Mrs. Sen, but this post is about his [some of] the ones that hit the bulls-eye. Uttam-Soumitro competition niye arekta likhbe ki??

  5. Oh, by the way, ‘Ganashatru’ & ‘Shakha-Proshakha’ deserved a mention, as did ‘Basanta Bilap’ [a more detailed one & not just in passing].

  6. Anirban and Shan,

    Never quite liked “Ganashatru”, “Shakha Prosakha” or “Ghare Baire” as films (in comparison to the rest). And so they would not fall into my list of “Essential Soumitra” viewing. :-). There are others I left out for reasons of space. I loved him in “Aranyer Din Ratri”.

  7. dada,

    the list and the writing is,for lack of a better word, typical “you”… nostagic and personal, yet distinctly informative. what impressed me more is that you have included so many non-ray films in his list, which the non-bongs would not be too aware of. obviously, soumitro is known mostly for his Ray classics, but he had more to him than just ray!

    w.r.t uttam vs soumitro, most bongs still agree to disagree, but for me, soumitro was a notch above simply coz of his more versatile roles over the period. if i may put it in present perspective, Soumitro is the Kamal Hasan to Uttam’s Rajni… a well deserved phalke award..long overdue…

  8. Great list. Atanka is quite possibly his greatest work IMHO. That was movie I connected with immediately. Growing up in Kolkata in the 80S, we all had felt that sense of helplessness that was portrayed so vividly in the film.

  9. …No Aranye Din Ratri !!!!!!!!!!!! ….seriously !

  10. …. BTW you should watch Soumitra at his comic best in “Laxmaner Shoktishel” …. a drama written by Sukumar Ray and performed at Rabindra sandan. I think Doordarshan Calcutta had a video .

  11. a true great actor… would like you to do an essential Uttam too!

  12. Great list. I guess it is very difficult to pick top 10. Others that might follow would be Samapti (tin konya), kshudito pashan, Hirak rajar deshe & ganashatru. Bakso badal was also nice. He did a Hindi movie in late 90s where he was an astrologer. Can’t remember the name, but he did a great job there except the dialogue delivery.

  13. Atanka would have been a better movie if Soumitra’s makeup had not been so horrible. I prefer Kony where a very fit Soumitra excels in a movie also outside his comfort zone. It is remarkable that so many of his best movies had a much stronger female lead (Charulata, Devi, Kapurush, Aranyer Din Ratri, Saat Paake Bandha), yet he held his own. An award long deserved! Special mention should also be made about Sansar Simantey, a movie by Tarn Majumdar that not many have seen and Baghini.

  14. Liked your crisp analysis of Soumitra’s portrayal of the characters.

  15. Nice…the feluda statement could not be truer…no one else has come close to getting that character…for us i suppose Soumitro will always be Feluda…no one else comes close

  16. It’s really difficult to create a complete list for such a versatile actor. I would like to add “Agradani” to the same.

  17. ‘Tapan Sinha’s adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda, “Jhinder Bandi” ‘
    – wasn’t ‘Jhinder Bandi’ a novel by Saradindu Bandhopadhyay which was of course “adapted from” prisoner of Zenda?

  18. Wonderful Post !!!

  19. i was watching basonto bilap, a few weeks back. and i find his timing (pretty much like dravid) his genius. Soumitra is pretty much my favourite… i cannot deny uttam his charm, but soumitra is a sheer wizard with the camera.
    I recently got to know that he used t have a temper problem for a very long time. And also that he is really unwell these days.
    A very good post.

  20. what would I know April 23, 2012 — 5:48 am

    He’s my favourite, my only complaints- some of his hairstyles in the later days, and the way he nodded his head sometimes.

  21. Firstly, you need to get your comparisons right! It should have been Sivaji Versus MGR rather than Kamal Versus Rajani when you compare Uttam and Soumitro, given the time period of these two actors. Having said that, it is futile to compare Soumitro with Uttam. Uttam was a class apart, a self made actor who could pull out marvelous performances at the drop of a hat all by his own. Soumitro on the other hand was more of a Director’s actor. He forever needed Ray to guide him and morph him into the character he had in mind. And your take on Soumitro having won the battle in Jhinder Bondi over Uttam – well to each one his own!

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