BENGALURU: When Satyajit Ray’s Ghare- Baire (Home and the World), based on a Tagore novel was released in 1984, the Bengali audience was outraged. They hated to see their favourite hero, in whom they had invested so much love in the last more than two decades, playing the role of an unscrupulous nationalist who violates his friend’s trust.
In the films that Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020) did with Ray – starting from his debut in Apur Sansar (1959), the third of the Apu trilogy, he exuded a combination of idealism, sensitivity and a certain vulnerability that appealed to successive generations.
Ghare-Baire was a new and disturbing experience for them. Soumitra Chatterjee’s association with Satyajit Ray is a part of cinema lore. They worked together in 14 films and gave us some of the best films in the annals of Indian cinema. Whether it’s the idealistic dreamer in Charulata (1964), an arrogant city-slicker in Aranyer Din Ratri (1969) or the rebellious teacher in Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980), he managed to connect to his audience with his suavity and innate goodness, combined with good looks.
The role that catapulted him to an iconic status is Ray’s popular serial-detective – Feluda. Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1974) and Joy Baba Felunath (1979) showcase him as an icy cool, cigarette-smoking sleuth who could rise beyond his bhadralok avatar to wield a pistol if the need arose. He had a prodigious career outside of Ray films too, and carved out a distinct style that set him apart from the greatest star of the times in Bengali cinema – Uttam Kumar.
Together they did Jhinder Bondi (1961), a period piece directed by Tapan Sinha in which he played a swashbuckling villain and held his own against Uttam Kumar. In the decades to come, he would go on to work with some of the best directors in the business - Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Ajoy Kar and Salil Sen.
In the 1980s, as age caught up with him, he graduated to character roles and continued to make his mark with new-age Bengali filmmakers who started making films in the late ’80s like Raja Mitra, Goutam Ghosh, Aparna Sen, and later, Anjan Das and Rituparno Ghosh, endearing him to a new generation of viewers. Alongside, he wrote, directed and acted in plays that received both critical and commercial acclaim. In the ’80s, he also edited a literary magazine and has several books of poetry to his credit.
In a career spanning 60 years, he steadfastly refused to work in Hindi films like his Bengali contemporaries, turning down offers from the likes of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani. In 2012, he received the highest cinematic honour of the country – Dadasaheb Phalke Award. The French government awarded him the coveted Chevalier of Legion of Honor, its highest civilian award in 2017. But no amount of awards could replace the outpouring of grief at his death and the love that they had for him. They will never make the likes of him anymore.
(The author is a Mumbai-based film-maker and writer)