A filmmaker remembers is a thirst quencher for the incurable cinephilia – Art-and-culture News , Firstpost
In most of Suman Ghosh’s films, Soumitra Chatterjee has played characters who had no choice but to look at their own mortality and memory. So it makes sense that Ghosh wrote a book about Chatterjee that is ultimately a dig in memory.
Soumitra Chatterjee won her first National Award in 2008 for Suman Ghosh’s Podokkhep (2006), nearly five decades into his illustrious acting career spanning over 300 films. The achievement reads as both consolation and joke.
Chatterjee, one of India’s greatest cultural icons, knew it himself, famous remark back when he won the award for a performance that was one of his best but was certainly not the best performance of his career. After all, he’s an actor who debuted with a magnetic turn in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959), forging a deep working relationship with the filmmaker, with whom he worked on 14 films. Although his Ray filmography continues to be fetishized in the media, Chatterjee’s early work is also replete with vital performances in films by renowned Bengali filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and Ajoy Kar. Failure to recognize Chatterjee’s artistry at a time when he was operating at the peak of his abilities exposed the hypocrisy of awards in India.
At the time he won the national award, the actor, who died in November last year, didn’t think much of the awards. In 2001, Chatterjee turned down a Special National Jury Prize for her role in Goutam Ghose. Dekha (2000) in protest, unhappy with the inherent lobbying that dictated their release. For example, Anil Kapoor won the National Best Actor award that year, given for an immensely forgettable film and a performance that was unremarkable. Deka, on the other hand, in which Chatterjee plays a blind and disenchanted poet, remains one of his most complex and intricate roles.
In Soumitra Chatterjee: a filmmaker remembers, filmmaker Suman Ghosh, who directed Chatterjee (he calls it Soumitra-kaku) in five films, including the National Award-winning Podokkhep, argues for the versatility of Chatterjee’s artistry in the second half of his career. That is to say, Chatterjee was an actor who not only defined countless childhoods but someone who also aged on screen, putting a face to mortality. Any examination of Chatterjee’s legacy is incomplete without a thorough examination of the fact that he delivered some of his most moving and emotionally arousing performances past his 60s.
Ghosh makes an attempt in a similar direction. By structuring the approximately 160 pages of his book primarily around his memories of working with Chatterjee, Ghosh paints a portrait of the gaming legend as a dedicated artist and a generous human being.
Always, Soumitra Chatterjee: a filmmaker remembers is not a definitive account of the actor’s legacy, nor can it serve as an instruction manual for film criticism. Instead, Ghosh sees the book as a thirst quencher for an incurable cinephile. In this, the book offers an intimate account of Chatterjee’s acting process, his relationship with art, and how the actor chose to live his life when the cameras weren’t rolling. What makes the case immensely fascinating is that it is told from the perspective of someone who demanded the absolute truth of Chatterjee on camera.
Divided into nine chapters, including add one sessions Ghosh remembers having with Chatterjee, the book feels like one long personal essay. The prose is interspersed with treasured stills of Chatterjee on set as well as photographs of candid moments between acting captions (one image captures Chatterjee rehearsing his lines in the dark and Aparna Sen turning on her phone torch to aid the process) . Much of the easy, unassuming prose emphasizes Chatterjee’s self-awareness, mental agility, and ability to recognize brilliance.
During his ten-year collaboration with Chatterjee, Ghosh worked with the actor in five films: lead roles in Podokkhep (2008), dwando (2009), Safe Haven (2016), and Basu Paribar (2018), and a small role in Nobel Choir (2012). Like any self-respecting Bengali, he was a fan of the actor long before he became a filmmaker. “Bengalis of our generation don’t even remember when we first became aware of such figures as Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee,” Ghosh writes in the book. “It’s as if they were infusing us at birth. Feluda by Soumitra Chatterjee was part of our psyche growing up.
Either way, Podokkhep, dwando, Safe Haven, and Basu Paribar — the four Ghosh movies in which Chatterjee starred — all revolved around the cruelties of aging.
In each of these films, Chatterjee played characters who had no choice but to look at their own mortality and memory. So it makes sense that Ghosh wrote a book about Chatterjee that is ultimately a dig in memory.
Much of the book, which has a foreword by Chatterjee co-star and friend Sharmila Tagore, revolves around the transformative effect Chatterjee ended up having on the people around him, especially Ghosh. The filmmaker argues that Chatterjee exhibited all the qualities of a “Renaissance man”, someone who “showed his intrinsic humanism through his writings, his paintings, his theater and, of course, his cinematic performances”.
He remembers him as a disciplined artist with an incurable appetite for curiosity, someone who treated his craft like ascetics with a view to meditation. In his presence, Ghosh could see himself sinking into the depths of his creativity – Chatterjee was always up for a challenge and boasted of delivering monumental performances even in films that didn’t deserve them. But more importantly, Ghosh casts Chatterjee as someone who was acutely aware that the movie was always bigger than him.
Almost every anecdote Ghosh provides in Soumitra Chatterjee: a filmmaker remembers allow for a deeper engagement with Chatterjee as an artist – how much he enjoyed his craft and how much he went out of his way to make sure Ghosh realized the sanctity of cinema. But there is one brief anecdote that stands out as a testament to Chatterjee’s incomparable legacy.
In Nobel Choir, Ghosh had the opportunity to throw Mithun Chakraborty and Chatterjee in front of each other. Chatterjee had a small role in the film, not that the limited screen time ever deterred the actor from stealing scenes. Ghosh writes that Chatterjee prepared for the role – he was playing a village school teacher in Nobel Choir — as if it were the most important film of his career. As a person who has an incredible ability to master different Bengali accents, he had already managed to master the Bolpur accent.
This was not the case of Chakraborty who had difficulty with the dialect. Eventually, he decided to speak without an accent, instead enunciating certain words in a way that “gave a rustic feel”. When Chatterjee noticed it, he decided to sacrifice his own authenticity and lose the accent. Had he continued with his accent, it would have been another display of the actor’s range and mastery of his own craft, but it would have undermined the film. And if there’s one thing Ghosh has learned from a decade-long friendship with the actor, it’s the fact that there’s nothing better for a movie than having Soumitra Chatterjee in it.
Soumitra Chatterjee: A Filmmaker Remembers is published by Om Books International.
Poulomi Das is a writer, critic and film and culture programmer. Follow more of his writings on Twitter.