But his prowess didn’t remain confined in celluloid. His genius reigned supreme on stage, too. Every time the lights in the vast theatre dimmed and darkness surrounded 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. He is none other than the legendary thespian Soumitra.
In one of his interviews, Soumitra modestly attributes this vast array of characters portrayed on screen and on stage 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 theatre. And to us, his viewers, the essential alchemist.
I remember reading an interview of the thespian. 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 contribution 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 maestro, 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 millennium. The playwright-poet-actor, to my mind, is still an essential part of both mainstream and parallel Bengali cinema.
While talking about his love for theatre, Chatterjee says, “The deep influence Sisir Bhaduri left on me is unforgettable. I loved to act even as a child. The home environment was not against these things then. My grandfather was the president of an amateur dramatic club and we grew up hearing his anecdotes from that life. My father acted in plays produced by a similar group. And he was brilliant at one other art – the art of reciting poetry. He won prizes at recitation competitions held by the University Institute in Calcutta. As children, we would often put up our own ”plays” at home, based on small booklets of children’s plays that could be bought from the market. I recall having ”staged” Tagore’s MUKUT at home, improvising the stage, using bed sheets for curtains, getting help for props and costumes from my parents. The neighbours and elders in the family would form the audience. We got a lot of encouragement from our parents. When I was in Std. V, I did a role in The Sleeping Princess for a school function. I loved the very feeling of acting. I found it fascinating. The praises, the back-patting, kept me going on to do more.”
As I watched him in awe, time after time, on screen and on stage, I often found myself wondering whether it was theatre that had made him the actor he is.
“Acting in theatre is acting in real time. It is continuous, sequential, chronological. The rehearsals for a play take care of the actor’s preparation for his role. The response too, is immediate. Cinema however, is not acting in real time. It is discontinuous, not sequential and not chronological either. There are no rehearsals for cinema. So, it is very important that the actor prepares for his role through discussions with the director, by reading and re-reading the draft of the script,” explains Chatterjee.
And while I write this small article on my favourite actor, I eagerly wait for 7th of July, the evening when I’ll be sitting among the audience in a darkened theatre, watching him embody Raja Lear.
“Maharaja, tomare salaam!”
Image courtesy : rottentomatoes.com