Quite aptly said, regret is easier than gratitude. I am perhaps not yet quite ready for all that is going on right now or is going to happen in the near future, all that is being talked about, and so much more to come my way! I am not left with any choice but to accept that Soumitra Chattopadhyay is not with us anymore.
I cannot really recall the first moment I shared with him, precisely, since it has been quite a long time. Way back in 1956-57, when Soumitra babu visited our home for the first time, we were staying in 31A Lake Avenue in South Kolkata. Father (Late Satyajit Ray) was working on Aparajito (1956) back then and Soumitra was too old for the character of Apu, unfortunately. Father remarked, “You are fine but you are very old for this part. Maybe, in the future, if I decide to make Apur Sansar, I will give you a call!” Later, when in 1959, after making quite a reasonable number of movies, father actually started working on Apur Sansar, he remembered Soumitra kaka (that is what I used to call him) and he was summoned eventually. I was only six years old back then, so the entire episode is a little blurry to me.
By that time, we had shifted to Trilectarpur road, in South Kolkata itself, in the very vicinity of Lake Avenue. He had come over and the collaboration was finalised. I happen to recollect faintly some parts of the set, Apu’s house which we apparently shot in the technician’s studio in Tollygunge.
Later in my life when I got the opportunity to watch Apur Sansar, I was absolutely stunned! It was his debut in the industry and he was unthinkably fantastic - his performance was extremely striking. It moved me deeply. This, in fact, was the foundation of our association. The relationship we all shared with one another was never really a formal actor-director exchange, it was way more than that.
At a later date Soumitra kaka decided to formulate his very own magazine, called ‘Ekkhon’, after a series of discussions with father, who, in fact, contributed to the name of the magazine and went on to make all the covers of the magazine himself. It turned out to be a fantastic cultural magazine, not merely limited to cinema and direction. The work was inclusive of literature, poetry, and more. Father’s early screenplays made way into this magazine, some extremely interesting and important fictions that father wrote were also a part of ‘Ekkhon’. This, quite obviously, made the intimacy between the two take a very unique and beautiful course, way beyond an actor-director agreement. More movies were made, with inputs based on these interactions, memories of which, yet again, are faintly adhered to me. For example, the Chrysler (car) which we used in Abhijan (1962), followed by some of the locations, we had to shoot in. The location of Jalshaghar at Nimchita in Murshidabad, which was actually a location for many of our shoots, like that of Samapti (1961) which was the third part of Teenkanya. Soumitra kaka was a part of it and it was Aparna Sen’s first film!
That brings me to another interaction. I think this is the most memorable recollection of mine. The outdoor ventures from the shooting of Ashani Sanket (1972-73). The dedication and the focus, Soumitra kaka would put along with his extreme professionalism, which I could fortunately witness as a first-hand experience, turned out to be extremely beneficial to me. He played one of his favourite characters in the movie, the role of Gangacharan and did so fantastically. He used to maintain a diary for his constant shooting records, to keep a track of his daily work. He was present through the entire production. Even on the days when he did not have a shoot, he would always be on the set, observing with extreme dedication and involvement. Apparently, Ashani Sanket stands as the first legitimate and close interaction I could have with him. I was just polishing my hands at photography back then. I would also help father on the set sometimes. That was my figuring out, who he really was.
Soumitra kaka’s ability to observe so widely, almost made him a flaneur. Most of the times we would spend outdoors for a shoot, I would find him with a “thirst” for observation. He would mostly stare right through the people present there, would absolutely feel the essence of the place, would take it all in. One beautiful condiment of being outdoors was the fact that we all were always in the vicinity of one another, in touch constantly, which did not really happen when we were shooting inside the studio. The outdoor shoots helped me to look at him beyond the boundaries of the set. He would never rest. After an entire day of shooting, when all of us would try to relax a little, he just could not stay away from work. He would still go through the script time and again, would rehearse, and prepare notes. Although he was very much a talker, he would be a pivot in all our addas! But he was extremely efficient in keeping a balance and was an expert with the notions of time-management. His dedication was unparalleled, he would ask about the upcoming scenes for the next day, if there were any changes made to the scenes at all, would consult everything profusely with father.
Among all the other excellent factors about him, his commitment towards a fit and fresh livelihood was quite exemplary. He would be very disciplined about his health. A regular pattern of exercising might not be his cup of tea but his morning-walks were unfailingly regular.
It was a self-enforced habit. He actually looked after himself, even regarding his eating habits which were under solemn control.
Quite needless to comment on his physical appeal and his good-looks, and all his personal charm that added to his personality. Initially he suffered an unexpected deficit of a conventionally heavy and deep vocal quality. He had a very thin voice, nasal sometimes, which he eventually worked on and cultivated to give us the ‘Soumitra’ we loved. Later he excelled additionally as a reciter who would awestruck the audience with his reading of poetry on the stage! His impact was boundless, to be precise. He was never “just” an actor - he was a theatre enigma, he was an editor, a poet, an elocutionist, and as we found him in his later life, a painter too, brilliantly successful in all his fields of interest. Such artsy multi-culturalism did not really happen very consciously, they occurred to him with extreme naturality, spontaneously and he glided on through them. I remember the time when he caught an ear for the Western Classical Music. My father was a wizard in this department, Soumitra kaka would come to him for recommendations and would ask “Manik da! What exactly should I listen to, where shall I start and train myself?” Father’s influence on Soumitra kaka was a good one, which led him to using Kheror Khata (The Red Notebook), where he would, just like father, rough up his intentions - his scripts, his poems, his nurtures with the sketch of the costumes for the films, keep a record of all the set-designs and much more. Those records were a testimony to his will and enthusiasm, never really an entitlement of the ‘Soumitra Chattopadhyay’ he actually was. He was an automaton without a machine!
Cinema inspires society and social happenings inspire cinema. Soumitra kaka’s contribution in influencing social behaviour was noteworthy. He was, if I may put it this way, obsessed with serious cinema. Not necessarily the ones which essentially deliver a message, but something that only a handful of the ideal audience would be able to absorb, which father was also in agreement with. Although, he had to be a part of the commercial “masala” movies for professional compulsions, but he was extremely aware of what constituted him, his environment, and had a sharp political eye. He was transparently excited about films like Heerak Rajar Deshe (1980) which would very subtly and discreetly leave a thin message on the note of reformation. Although his role was an ephemeral one, it was extremely significant and interestingly popular - a meaningful character in that political a film, extremely hard-hitting indeed.
Soumitra kaka’s role in Sonar Kella (1974) was a foresighted one. Although, he did not think of doing it initially, neither did my father, but it eventually happened. He thought this could be an easy and significant opportunity to understand the younger layer of the audience, and it turned out to be a springboard! He, now, became a source of noise among the child audience, for the very first time. And children actually were a great source of merriment for him. His age never really hindered him from interacting with younger people. Be it the little urchins or young directors of the industry, he was always cordial and joyful around them. He would share his own inputs and consider the newer visions of young minds and the techniques they were working with. Thus, getting a grasp on this totally new set of audience made him realise that Sonar Kella was indeed an important inclusion in his set of masterpieces! He was significantly blown away by his new identity as Feluda, and the swarm of little fans that would gather around him to take his autograph. It was almost a euphoric epiphany for him and it continued with Joy Baba Felunath.
Something unfortunately obvious about cinema is that, it cannot really change the political pragmatics of the society. It can wonderfully make people aware of their social and political habitats but any literal modification or resolution is not really an option. It would become extremely propagandist otherwise! Directors of such movies, including my father, never really wanted to impose any change. All they could do would be something like a proposition, while the rest of it absolutely proceeded with the sentiments of the audience – maybe get them to think! This is what Soumitra babu also adhered by - movies which could present the glitches of our existence as social and political beings, which would be ambiguously perceived by the audience. Next, they would be free to draw their own conclusions and if they, as individuals, would feel it necessary to change anything about the scenario with real efforts, they were always welcome to do so.
Pertaining to how personal and evidently inseparable was the equation between us, especially that of father and Soumitra kaka, I do not really allow myself to think that it was a very random or easy one, nor anything was needed to be reformed in our professional spaces either. This equation had taken time, over moments and experiences. And this was extremely beautiful when it came to the professional rendezvous too. There was an air of independence with the actor from my father’s end, there were places for free improvisations and convenient inputs, no strict restrictions on dialogues. There was an exchange of freedom between the two. But, like everything else plays well in moderation, so there were exceptions as well. In films like Hirak Rajar Deshe, father was strictly determined not to change even a comma in the script! He had ‘warned’ Soumitra kaka about how calculated the script was and for this it was mandatory for him to abide by the script unfailingly. The chemistry between them had taken a divine form, which actually stayed till the end. They became complementary to each other, a synchrony was born between them - if something good would happen to one, the other one would respond equally. How interesting is that!
Soumitra kaka’s erudition was one of the biggest parameters of the bonding between him and father. Endless discussions on a prism of discourses would happen between the two. Father even discussed such movies with him of which kaka was not even a part. But the discussion would turn out to be a fulfilling one. Both of them would gain something out of the interactions. I remember, how he was extremely interested to be in the clothes of Gupi for Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen (1969), to which father out rightly disagreed. The character needed someone younger. Soumitra kaka did not hesitate a bit before appreciating Tapen Chattopadhyay’s (who played Gupi in the film) absolutely marvellous performance. He was extremely honest about realizing and admitting how unsuitable he would have been for such a role. He never really showed any tendency of superficial duality, his words were one with his inner thoughts and opinions. He was transparent in his conduct; that led to a smooth functioning for all kinds of exchange with everyone around him.
With his growing expertise in technicality, Soumitra kaka, indeed, became a technical artist himself. His deep-rooted sincerity would help the assistant directors immensely. Even in other technical areas like camera, lenses, continuity and costumes, he remembered the tiniest of details like how many buttons were to be done on the shirt or the direction of folding of the muffler! This would make the assistant directors happy. Little unrealized efforts like these gained him immense love and affection from everyone present at the set, including the spot boys to whom he was a hero of a different dimension and measure! He was warm, affectionate and extremely concerned even about the minutest inconvenience happening to anyone in his presence.
Mother’s (Bijoya Ray) cooking was essentially a prized possession for Soumitra kaka. During our long script-reading sessions at home, after father was completely satisfied with the script, when serious performance-related facts were being checked off, and father was running everyone through the script properly, and giving demos himself, we would get intermediate breaks in between and those were the opportunities to feast on the delicious snacks my mother would make for all of us. The chops, and most importantly the biscuits she would make! The show-stealer would be the nolen-gur (newly harvested jaggery) sweets which Soumitra kaka was extremely fond of, but considering how aware he was about his health, his portions were limited. One important aspect of these events were that, they inspired Soumitra kaka a lot and he would actually observe minutely, father’s way of looking into the characters, in the way he would narrate them during the script-reading. Kaka would say he could hear father’s ‘performance’ during the shoot.
If I have to pick a personal favourite among Soumitra kaka’s wide range of records in the world of cinema (excluding his works with father), it would range from the regular entertaining performances filled with music and fun, typical comedies like Basanta Bilap (1973) or Pratham Kadam Phool (1969), and then Saroj Dey’s Kony (1984) or Tarun Majumdar’s Sansaar Simante (1975), in which he was fantastic and his roles were impactful.
The interesting medium Soumitra kaka has worked on is an ever-lasting one. It is going to stay alive if governed by proper and safe hands. You have to maintain cinema to keep it breathing. Unfortunately, we have lost the prints of some of the masterpieces like Sansaar Simante (1975) or Balika Badhu (1976), they are gone due to the inefficient maintenance of their negatives. Quite thankfully, father’s movies have been kept safe, and are restored and so are Soumitra kaka’s with extreme care. Added to this, are the innumerable photographs and the benefits of the digital medium which will make this stay even more firm. So quite obviously his impact will last, his works will stay for posterity. His immense contribution even to the world of poetry and recitation will make his posthumous tenure, a permanent one. On a lighter note, he is, in fact, having a gala time up there! Shooting has begun at a tremendous rate already, they all are together now - father and his favourites, from every corner of the unit!
He was born to face the camera. His impressions and reverberations will resonate forever, through the critiques of the endless number of generations yet to come in the future. He will stay, his voice will stay, Soumitra Chatterjee will stay! His afterlife will be as glorious as his art.
Film director and music director Sandip Ray is the son of legendary cultural icon, Shri Satyajit Ray and has had a long association with Late Shri Soumitra Chattopadhyay.
Transcripted & compiled from Tell Me Your Story’s interview with Shri Sandip Ray by Megha Mazumdar
Megha is currently a student of English Literature, pursuing her Master’s from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, India. She has always had a knack for writing and is also a part-time content writer and proof-reader. She has been writing poems since her childhood and her major turning point in life have been Keats’ trance romantic poems. Megha also takes a keen interest in learning new languages and she’s declarant about her fluency in 7 different languages as of now! She also extends her reach to learning about multilingual poetry, her current area of interest being Spanish Imagist poetry. Megha is published in several national and international journals, including The Criterion.
Buy the Full Volume of Artists & Afterlives (Amazon India link here, available in other countries too.)