I have never met Soumitra Chatterjee. I did see him once, at the Kolkata Lit Meet, when I sat in the audience and he was, well yards away, on the stage. I had gone to the event for one reason and one reason only. Him. I wanted to say, in a silent way, “thank you” to this stranger, the flesh and blood embodiment of so many characters that I had grown to love, and aspired to be, from Apu to Amal to Pheluda, and I am glad I did, despite the dissonance of it all, of a silent word to a stranger who I seem to know better than some people I really knew, not him really, not quite him, but his projections on a screen in shadow and light, brought to life by the real person, Soumitra Chatterjee, best in his craft as one could be.
Soumitra Chatterjee played a set of characters that, to me and to generations that came before and after me, captured, in a way by no other, the essence of what has come to define the Bengali man. With Apu, he captured the imagination and sensitiveness of the poet-Bengali, a tumult of emotions, careening in the head-winds of fate and yet somehow maintaining his compass throughout. With Amal, he is the homme-fatale, always out of reach, as Charulata observes him through the binoculars, a creature not really of this world, but of the imagination. In Saat Paake Bandha, he is the unyielding, unbending Professor Sukhendu Datta, stiff and drunk with the idea of his own nobility, who would let his marriage break to a woman he loves, rather than change the person he is. As Amulya in Samapti, he is the archetype of the Bengali mother’s pet. In Kapurush, he is the coward. In Teen Bhubaner Paare and Basanta Bilap, he is the smart-taking, chanygra chele, with an edge and a twist-dance-step. As Asim in Aranyer Din Ratri, he is the uber-cool, hyperconfident, arrogant cad who when confronted with a woman better than him, gets intimidated and runs. As Phelu-da, he is the Bengali action-hero, quick with the gun and with the wit, and heartbreakingly handsome while he is at it. And as the harried Mastermoshai in Atanka, he is the every-man, caught in the vice-grip of the terror that was CPM rule in the 80s.
These are not just characters in movies. They were all personal. We all aspired to be this super-human agglomeration of personalities that represented the sum-total of Soumitra on screen. In our imagination we would be winning the hearts of Nandinis and Miss Calcutta 1976s with our charm and wit, and foiling nefarious schemes of Hajar Hajar Hajras, and writing a masterpiece, which we then, like Apu, would destroy with our own hands, because the greatest Bengali man is one who could have been great but chose not to, and then, on hot lazy afternoons, float away into a world, where with Kishore Kumar as our voice, we would sing “Ami Chini Go Chini Tomare”, becoming a character that represents no less than Rabindranath Thakur, with Satyajit Ray behind the camera, becoming, within ourselves—Rabindranath, Satyajit and Soumitra, the holy Trinity of Bengali intellectualism. Of course, we never came close. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t try, or convince ourselves that we had succeeded.
There will be of course no more characters played by Soumitra Chatterjee. The tragedy of our lives is mortality, that there always will be an ending-line. But when you are an artist, of the kind that Soumitra was, the end gives a strange poignancy to what we have of his work, because it makes what we have even more precious now, because though the gentleman I saw in Kolkata Lit Meet is no more, his characters will live, not just in old film stock, but in the collective conscience of all of us who grew up with Soumitra on our minds.
Good night, Mr. Chatterjee. Good night, Pheluda. Good night, Apu. Good night, perfection.