The essential Soumitra

07 Apr

From my TOI blog : Freeze Frame

Apurba Roy. Amulya. Umaprasad. Mayurvahan. Narsingh. Ratan. Indrajeet. Sukhendu. Amal. Asim. Amitabha Roy. Ajay Sarkar. Montu. Gangacharan Chakravarti. Prodosh Chandra Mitra aka Feluda. Debdas Mukhopadhyay. Sandip. Khitish Sinha aka Khidda. Prashanta. Don Durgaprasad. Prodyot. Magician Kuhak.


These are only a few of the masks that his face has donned through his career that has spanned five decades, in more than 300 movies, some classics, some memorable and a few forgettable. The tall, lean physique, sharp, laughing, talking, sad, deep eyes, an aquiline nose, thin lips that part to flash a charming smile and curl up in anger when the character demands it and a chiselled, almost stubborn jaw. I know his strapping stature, his broad shoulders, his intelligent, piercing gaze and his boyish smile. I know the fingers that hold his favourite Charminar, one arm folded as the other supports it, the furrows on his forehead and the twinkle in his eyes.

And the face changes to an older, rugged, grease smeared Rajput’s face, poised between whether he wants to stay on the right path or should he embrace the easy. The same man is a different man again: a bespectacled married man caught between his principles and his marriage vows. A new mask, that of Mayurvahan, the cunning, conspiring minister of Jhind, masterminding the overthrow of the crown prince, in the heart of Madhya Pardesh. Yet another mask, that of an anti-hero, who is not the hero nor the villain but embodies both, an antithesis to the idea of the hero that has been imprinted in our minds; he lies, he is a coward, he is a thief, he is also Montu – an aimless young man of the late 60’s; Sandip, the selfseeking, self proclaimed revolutionary with anything but revolution on his mind; Chiranjib, the golden hearted hooch smuggler, living on the wrong side of the law and flirting with danger; Khitish Sinha, an aging swimming coach looking fo his next champion; Pradyot, an aging, reclusive thespian who is drawn out of his exile, to enact yet another role. Remember Shyam, from Basanta Bilap, who locked horns with the residents of a women’s hostel in his neighbourhood? Or pandit Gangacharan Chakravarti, in a pair of black-rim spectacles, a black umbrella firmly tucked under his arm, who scrambles to survive the great Famine of 1943 and exploits fellow villagers for his own surival? And of course, Prodosh Mitter aka Feluda, the private investigator who weilds his ‘mawgajastro’ to fight foes like Maganlal Meghraj, Amiyanath Burman and Mandar Bose?

Every time the lights in the vast theatre would dim and darkness would surround the audience, a man emoted, laughed, cried, fretted, fumed, despaired, repented, loved or looked back in silent anger, time after time, in various frames as different characters. The same man but every time a new face that changed colours like the chameleon, in the shades that coloured that character. A legendary thespian – essentially Soumitra. In one of his interviews, Soumitra modestly attributes this vast array of characters portrayed on screen to his fear of becoming stereotyped. I attribute it to his sheer genius and a rare honesty that he breathed into each of the characters he transformed into, on screen. That is what made him an essential ‘star’ element in the strange alchemy of movie making. And to us, his viewers, the essential alchemist.


Soumitra’s journey had almost ended before it began in 1956, when he was rejected at the screen test of Neelachale Mahaprabhu. It finally dawned in 1959, a period when Bengali cinema was already heading towards its golden era. Satyajit Ray, whose contibution to Bengali cinema is often considered to be the greatest, had opened the doors of the silver screen to him. With Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar, the twenty-four year old Soumitra suddenly became a household name and the new promising star of Bengali cinema. The auteur’s new apprentice has had no reason to look back. By the late masetro, Ray’s, own submission, Soumitra had gone on to inspire many roles that Ray etched and executed in celluloid. The unmistakable charisma of Soumitra in 14 of Satyajit Ray’s 31 feature films, somehow seems inevitable as the apprentice over time carved out a niche for himself as a master of his craft. This creative niche and his natural intellectual aura allowed him to work with other great directors of the sixties and the seventies in the likes of Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar as much as with a new generation of directors in the new millenium. The playright-poet-actor, to my mind, is still an essential part of both mainstream and parallel Bengali cinema.

Being from Calcutta, a tryst with theatre is inevitable and I remember sitting in the darkeness of Bijon Theatre, watching a middle aged Soumitra as Rajkumar on stage for the first time. His baritone voice cut through the cold, dark silence. The desire to watch him live on stage, again and again, was the only reason that I kept returning to watch theatre, even if it meant playing truant to hop across to Rabindra Sadan and Academy of Fine Arts. The legendary Shishir Kumar Bhaduri had been his mentor in thetre, an association that, dated back to his days in college, and had only strengthened his resolve to become a professional actor. As I watched him in awe, I often found myself wondering whether it was theatre that had made him the actor he is.

And yet I could not reconcile myself to the fact that beyond the mid-eighties, with the downward spiral of the Bengali film industry, his body of work, mainly in mainstream cinema, seemed to decline sharply in quality. But, in time,  he stepped out from under the arclights and retired to the role of a character actor, where he continued to do what he did best – take every opportunity he could to turn in a performance of his lifetime.

A genius is often recognized last at home. This has indeed been the story of his life as well. It was only after being honoured by the French Government’s Officier des Arts et Metiers and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Italy, that he was offered the Padma Shri award from the Indian government in the 1970s, which he chose to decline. Instead in 2004, he accepted the prestigious Padma Bhushan. However, in 2001 he turned down the Special Jury Award for Best Actor as a mark of protest against the bias of the National Film Awards Committee in awarding popular and mainstream cinema over art films. And, on 9 June 2008, he was awarded the 2007 National Film Award for Best Actor.

Is his attitude toward national awards a reflection of his indifference toward the industry of which he has long been a part or his inflated sense of self? He put all doubt to rest, in an interview in 2007, shortly after he was awarded the National Award for the Best Actor – “I have long since lost all interest in these awards because they have so often been given to someone who does not deserve it or to someone who isn’t really worth naming. It’s not attitude or ego problem, it is simple, reasonable thinking. I feel I have worked in 14 of Mr (Satyajit) Ray’s films and I was not considered to be the best actor in any one of them.”

Well perhaps the industry finally got things right when on 21 March 2012, he was declared the recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for lifetime contribution to Indian Cinema. But is this too little too late? It does make you wonder.The septagenarian actor, who lives and breathes movies and theatre for the sheer joy and love of the profession, is also battling Cancer. But he does not want to hang up his shoes yet. Perhaps, the adrenalin rush of grease paint, clap sticks and the arclights is something he cannot close his mind to completely, not as yet.


Interview excerpts courtesy :;;;;;;;;

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Posted by on April 7, 2012 in Uncategorized


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