Review: Soumitra Chatterjee – A Filmmaker Remembers Suman Ghosh

When a filmmaker embarks on a journey down memory lane to write a book about a great actor, the challenges for the critic are many. The first is to overcome the fear with which the author approaches his subject. It’s understandable given that author Suman Ghosh writes about Soumitra Chatterjee, one of the greatest actors in Indian cinema. The second challenge is to find out if the author could objectively see his subject, who died before the start of this project. The third is to determine if a sentimental nostalgia has permeated the story. Fortunately, although the book is deeply moving, it still presents a complete picture of Soumitra Chatterjee.

159pp, ₹595; Om Books International

As is usually the case when one eminent person writes about another, the reader is actually reading two books at once – one about the writer and the other about him. Soumitra Chatterjee – a filmmaker remembers, which charts the director’s journey with the actor he still worships today, is no different. Divided into nine chapters, it includes many illustrations, photographs and even Chatterjee’s translation of James Joyce’s monologue The deadwhich was part of Ghosh Basu Paribar.

Ghosh first made the news with his directorial debut, Podokhep, which won the national award for best feature film in Bengali, and also won the award for best actor in Soumitra Chatterjee. In it, Chatterji plays Shasanka Palit, a lonely old man who lives with his unmarried daughter and steadily regresses to childhood even as he is haunted by the fear of death. “The film opens with a shocking symbol of death. The Palit hanging from the strap inside a moving subway stares in fear at himself waiting outside on the platform, having failed to catch the train. The Palit inside the moving train may be walking away from life. The Palit on the platform summarizes the memories and experiences of his life. This scene repeats itself when Palit really looks outside the subway train and is shocked to find a frightened and confused Trisha standing on the platform,” Chatterjee said in an interview with this writer.

The comedian starred in four other Ghosh films, including his second feature dwando (2009), his third, Nobel Choir (2012, guest appearance), Safe Haven (2015) and Basu Poribar (2019). The director’s oeuvre also includes his fourth film, the eponymous Kadambaria fictionalized and loosely structured account of Tagore’s relationship with his sister-in-law, a much-loved short titled Shyamal Uncle turn off the lightsand a long documentary on Amartya Sen.

In 13 years of fruitful collaboration, the relationship between Ghosh and Chatterjee has grown from that of a young professional directing a legendary actor to a deeply personal one. Ghosh admits he considers Chatterjee his mentor, an adoptive father from whom he learned a lot, not only about movies, acting and directing, but also about life and its various manifestations, including death.

“He was by far the most dynamic person I have met. His thirst for life knew no bounds. Whether through literature, through poetry, through cinema, through his interactions with people, through theater, it was as if he wanted to perpetually soak up the delirium of life and bathe himself in all its beauty. His mind was like a blank canvas, ready to be painted with colors,” writes Ghosh whose book abounds of anecdotes.

Particularly interesting is the one detailing the author’s anxiety about pairing Mithun Chakraborty and Chatterjee in Nobel Choir, even though the latter only had a guest role. Luckily, the two actors blended into their characters and grew into each other as if they were born to make the movie together.

Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore in Apur Sansar (1959) directed by Satyajit Ray. (Photo HT)

The filmmaker, who is also a professor of economics at Florida Atlantic University, explained how he ventured into cinema: “I was always interested in cinema but I didn’t have the technical faculty. I had come to Cornell University to do my doctorate in economics. During my stay there, I decided to pursue film studies in the department of theater, cinema and dance. It was about the theory and art of filmmaking from scratch. I didn’t do a course, but I took all the basic courses for a master’s degree in film studies. I finished my doctorate and found a job. Then I made a documentary about Amartya Sen, my first film. After that, I had the opportunity to assist Gautam Ghosh for Dekha in Calcutta. I wanted to create my own feature film.

Director and author Suman Ghosh (ANI)

Ghosh’s fluid narrative introduces the individual beyond actor Soumitra Chatterjee’s on-screen persona. He uncovers the layers of fame to reveal the father, husband and grandfather he was. The reader discovers Chatterjee’s many talents as a poet, writer, stage actor and singer, as well as his less publicized talent as a painter. We also learn of his role as a storyteller who could entertain film crews with jokes during filming breaks.

While a good read, it could have done without the long list of mentions at the start. A director of Ghosh’s caliber doesn’t really need it. Still, it’s a book that should find a place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in film.

Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist. She lives in Kolkata.

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