Soumitra Chatterjee was Satyajit Ray’s bona fide Bengali

From his breakout as the grown-up Apu in Satyajit Ray’s great trilogy, Soumitra Chatterjee – who has died of Covid–19 complications aged 85 – channelled the Indian filmmaker’s emotional authenticity across another 13 films, and acted in over 200 in total.

The World of Apu (Apu Sansar, 1959)

For Satyajit Ray’s 70th birthday in 1991, Soumitra Chatterjee sent me a few lines about Ray as his contribution to a celebratory book.

“Before shooting a film, Ray reads his script aloud to the actors,” wrote Soumitra. “It always seems as if the entire work is already there. So where does the actor have something to contribute? I think the most important contribution an actor can make to a Ray film is to provide the character he is playing with an emotional authenticity. This grows out of Ray’s scripts. They are such a true depiction of our people’s lives that they evoke a spontaneous emotional reaction in the actor’s mind.”

Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu in The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959)

How true those words seem today – of Ray and of one of his most emotionally authentic actors. Now both of them have left us in person. But they will never be forgotten around the world.

Chatterjee is indelibly linked with Apu, the struggling, intensely romantic, Calcutta-based youth born in rural poverty (first encountered in Pather Panchali), whom Chatterjee portrayed in The World of Apu (Apur Sansar), the third part of Ray’s Apu Trilogy, made in 1959 – his first role for Ray.

The young Chatterjee, like many Bengalis, strongly identified with Apu. “We were to a great extent Apus of our time,” he told me when I was researching Ray’s biography in the 1980s.

Even Apu’s snap decision to get married to a complete stranger – when requested by his friend in the middle of the night to take the place of a bridegroom who is mentally ill – did not strike Chatterjee as strange. “What is after all so extraordinary about it? It’s nothing but an extension of a normally negotiated marriage, except that that takes a little more time. Apu had to give his consent on the spur of the moment.”

Ray and Chatterjee (as Gangacharan) filming Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973)

As Ray himself remarked, Chatterjee needed to empathise strongly with a role to give of his best: “Given bad material, he turns out a bad performance, because his distaste for the material shows.”

From the 1950s, Chatterjee acted in more than 210 films, as well as being a playwright, theatre actor and poet. Throughout, Bengal remained his milieu; he was never drawn to working in Bollywood cinema, no doubt out of his distaste for its material. “Soumitra is the finest actor in the land today, but totally unheard of outside Bengal. It’s a loss for India, Bollywood and I guess, a bit for Soumitra,” remarked the Indian poet, journalist and filmmaker Pritish Nandy in 2012.

Chatterjee (as Sandip) and Ray filming The Home and the World (Ghare Baire, 1984)

For Ray, Chatterjee made 14 major films (and also read Ray’s commentary for his documentary about his celebrated nonsense-poet father, Sukumar Ray). Following The World of Apu, he appeared – either in a lead or key supporting role – in Devi (The Goddess, 1960), Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961), Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962), Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), Kapurush (The Coward, 1965), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970), Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973), Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1975), Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1978), Hirak Rajar Dese (The Kingdom of Diamonds, 1980), Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984), Ganasatru (An Enemy of the People, 1989) and Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree, 1990).

Four of these films are generally regarded as classics, both in Bengal and beyond Bengal: The World of Apu, Charulata, Days and Nights in the Forest and Distant Thunder. In addition, The Golden Fortress and The Elephant God are much loved in Bengal, because of Chatterjee’s portrayal of the detective Feluda, a character created and illustrated by Ray in his many detective novels beginning in 1965. When Chatterjee met Ray after reading the first Feluda novel, he told him: “Manikda, I think you have modelled Feluda on yourself? The illustrations look a bit like you!” To which Ray replied, laughing, “But no, many people have come to me and said it looks like you!”

The diversity of characters in these six films is an extraordinary tribute to Chatterjee’s versatile acting and his sympathy for Ray’s direction. He could play a village-born youth in pre-war Calcutta, a Victorian would-be writer, an affluent 1960s Calcuttan semi-intellectual and a caste-ridden Brahmin village priest during the 1940s Bengal Famine, not to mention a shrewd, charming, up-to-the-minute detective – all with equal conviction, appeal and humour.

Ten faces of Soumitra Chatterjee in Satyajit Ray’s films

Devi (The Goddess, 1960)
  • Soumitra Chatterjee, 19 January 1935–15 November 2020.

Andrew Robinson is the author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema and The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray and the Making of an Epic.

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