Soumitra Chatterjee is one of Bengal's most famous and versatile actors. Best-known for his roles in Satyajit Ray's legendary films, Chatterjee made his debut in 1959 with the classic Apur Sansar. CNN-IBN's Anuradha SenGupta speaks with the actor about being labelled a Satyajit Ray actor, his body of work and the liaisons - or the lack of them - with his female co-stars.
Anuradha SenGupta: Congratulations on the National Award. I know you don't feel it has any value but as a fan, I must say that better late than never. And it doesn't matter what film it is.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Besides, at my age it hardly matters what I get. It is much more important that people who have loved me, tolerated me and nurtured me with their love for 50 years are happy that I am being decorated or whatever you wish to call it.
Anuradha SenGupta: If you let us peek into your mind, it makes no difference whether you have it (the award) or not?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Not really. Because I have long since lost all interest in these awards because they have so often been given to someone who does not deserve it or to someone who isn't really worth naming. It's not attitude or ego problem, it is simple, reasonable thinking. I feel I have worked in 14 of Mr (Satyajit) Ray's films and I was not considered to be the best actor in any one of them. (laughs)
Anuradha SenGupta: It's a bit of a joke. You are right.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes, it's a joke.
Anuradha SenGupta: You made your debut as an actor with Satyajit Ray, right?
Soumitra Chatterjee: That's where it all started.
Anuradha SenGupta: I believe you went for screen test in 1956 for a devotional film and got rejected.
Soumitra Chatterjee: How do you know that?
Anuradha SenGupta: I did some amount of homework.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes, it was some kind of a devotional film. I too have forgotten the name...
Anuradha SenGupta: Neela Chole Mahaprabhu
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes! That's right. I was given a screen test and was found not suitable...
Anuradha SenGupta: Thank God!
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes, thank God. I was very closely associated with the great Shishir Kumar Bhaduri and so it was almost pre-destined that i should be an actor. I made up my mind when I was doing my graduation. But to be very frank, I never thought I would be a very famous filmstar. In fact, before witnessing the revolutionary change in Indian cinema with Pather Panchali, we had a snobbish kind of disdain for cinema. I did not like the Bengali cinema of those days although I was an avid cinema fan.
Anuradha SenGupta: In fact, your mentor, Shishir Kumar Bhaduri, was offered a role by Satyajit Ray in Mahanagar and he turned it down saying - and I am quoting him - 'In films, the actor doesn't act, only the director does'.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes, that was his idea.
Anuradha SenGupta: So you don't agree with him on this count, I am sure.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Not totally. It's ultimately the director with whom lies the responsibility of making the film. He is the captain of the ship. But he needs so many other people. And in a work like this where strange kind of alchemies come up, where the star may be the greatest factor in the film. Generally speaking, it's the director to whom the film belongs. That I agree with.
Anuradha SenGupta: I don't know if it's a fair question but in the body of work that you've done with Satyajit Ray, how much do you think you contributed to those films? Would be able to put a percentage to it?
Soumitra Chatterjee: No. I have never thought of it that way. But certainly, I have contributed many times. It was a collaboration - my work and his work. Had the director not been a great artist like Satyajit Ray, I wouldn't have been able to perform as well.
Anuradha SenGupta: What's your sharpest memory of shooting for Apu Sansar which is where your film career began?
Soumitra Chatterjee: There are quite a few. I must say the first day's shooting. After I was selected by Satyajit Ray, I was plagued with a lack of confidence in myself, particularly about my looks...
Anuradha SenGupta: One second, you thought you were not good looking?
Soumitra Chatterjee: At least not so photogenic.
Anuradha SenGupta: What are you saying? We have grown up believing you are one the best-looking men around.
Soumitra Chatterjee: I have been told that quite a few times later but before I joined films, I grew up in a family where there were a number of very good-looking persons and I was considered an ugly duckling. So I grew up with an inferiority complex. But it helped me in my acting. I thought since I am not so good looking and photogenic, it's the director's and cameraman's headache. I will not think of my looks. I will concentrate on what I have been given to do -- acting. So, that sort of took away a lot of self-conscious time for a beginner and his headache with the camera. The first day of shoot was August 9, 1958. We were taken to a location where Apu was looking for a job and is shown a labelling and bottling factory where people are working like machines. He can't just accept the fact that he'll have to be one of them. So, the first day, the very first shot was an okay shot. There was hardly any trouble for me the first day and I thought I had found my vocation. This is the place where I belong and I should be here for the rest of my life.
Anuradha SenGupta: You've done mainstream films like Baksho Bodol and Babu Moshai for instance were radicaly different from the work you did with Ray. How do you balance the two. I can imagine if you were snobbish before you came into the movies, once you started working with Satyajit Ray and were acclaimed, you wouldn't want to do these.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes I wouldn't have, probably...
Anuradha SenGupta: Was it the money?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Money, yes. And I also had to take it as my profession. And a professional actor has to all kinds of work. I was prepared for that. But sometimes, I realised more how great a director he was. When I started working with other directors, I realised they were not so competent and did not have the same vision. So I sometimes would not take the films too seriously. In one section, if i were standing with my back to camera, I was just smiling, because the camera would not capture that. Mr Ray saw that film. When he met me the next time, he asked me, 'Why were you laughing?'
Anuradha SenGupta: He knew from your body language?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes. I said, 'What else to do. This is such a stupid film. There is no meaning'. he was furious with me. He said, 'You should never do that. You are a professional actor. You must believe in reality of that scene in that moment and discharge your duties as an actor. That's wrong'. I had always been a quick learner and i never made that mistake again in my lief.
Anuradha SenGupta: I am quoting something he said about to in relation to Uttam Kumar who Bengal likes to call mahanayak. He sais, 'Uttam could produce exceptional acting from bad material just by playing himself whereas Soumitra, who is much more intelligent, who if given a bad material turns out a bad performance. Because his distaste for the material shows'. He knew you.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Totally true. May be he said this keeping in mind some of my films. May be I had a fight with the director or something. But generally I never did that. Otherwise I wouldn't have survived in the mainstream. That's the proof that this is not totally true.
Anuradha SenGupta: Has your association with Satyajit Ray overshadowed your other body of work?
Soumitra Chatterjee: To an extent and for quite some time.
Anuradha SenGupta: Do you mind that?
Soumitra Chatterjee: I used to mind that. I could outgrow that. I had to fight for that by establishing my capabilities in other director's films, I could outgrow it a little. And my substantial work in the theatre established that I am not just Satyajit Ray puppet.
Anuradha SenGupta: Did it bother you when you did not act in Nayak and some other films that he did?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Well, it did bother me. He was a shrewd director as far as casting was concerned. When he chose Uttam Kumar for Nayak, I thought I should have done it. But I also realised - I had so much respect for his power of casting - that there must be something in the role which only Uttam Kumar could justify.
Anuradha SenGupta: Did you feel that after you saw the film?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Oh yes, I did.
Anuradha SenGupta: Satyajit Ray says and I quote, 'Certainly the intelligent section of the crowd, particularly the Presidency College girls would prefer Soumitra to Uttam but they were in a minority, I am afraid'. Does the statement also bring out the fact that while you have been one of Bengal's best-known actor-stars, you were more niche than Uttam Kumar. Correct?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes, the popularity of Uttam Kumar is yet to be paralleled. Even today, he has remained an icon.
Anuradha SenGupta: Did you want the craze and adulation he got as a star?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes, sometimes. Because it was the same kind of thing I was enjoying too. May be not to that extent. Yet.
Anuradha SenGupta: You are 73. It's great that you are so busy. But don't you wish you were resting a bit more? Or do you enjoy the adrenaline that comes from working?
Soumitra Chatterjee: I do enjoy. But I feel tired too. Age is catching up and I feel I need a little more rest. I am choking now because I have rehearsing a play, shouting at the top of my voice the whole day, I've lost my voice to an extent. i need at least two-days' rest to recover and I know won't get it. I will have to rehearse tomorrow morning. Without some space, rest and silent hours, your creative mood disappears. I would have been happy if I could give a little more time to myslef. But this industry has no other old actor who can replace me. You need old me.
Anuradha SenGupta: While you started out with an interest in theatre and you acted a bit, it's only in the laste-70s that you started a full-fledged theatre career. Do you find that challenging than the movies?
Soumitra Chatterjee: It's is slightly more satisfying for me from one point of view. In theatre, I write and direct my plays. Sometimes, I even compose my music and that gives me control over the whole thing. But if you ask if I enjoy acting on stage on in cinema, I would say I enjoy both.
Anuradha SenGupta: A lot of people who followed your work and are big fans are not terribly happy with the kind of work you are doing these days. What do you say to that?
Soumitra Chatterjee: I would rather not do those films if I had an option. But this is my bread and butter. And not just bread and butter, you need some jam too. So I have to go o n earning. Calcutta industry is not that big that you can earn a lot and keep so much money for children that three generations go astray. You can't do that here. You can do that in Bollywood, not here. You are right. Those films - particularly some of them - are detestable. There are some serials which I hate. But end of the day, I keep my eyes shut and they give me the money.
Anuradha SenGupta: You've worked with some very wonderful women. I've never heard of any associations with them. Why's that? You still have complexes about being photogenic but let me assure you, you are very, very charismatic and talented.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes, I have worked with some very beautiful women. May be we have been discreet (laughs). No, I have admired them a lot. The most beautiful woman I have worked in films with is Waheeda Rahman. And recently, in Park Avenue with Aparna Sen. Of course there was Suchitra Sen - three films with her. But while working, I did not find it convenient to get involved with the beautiful women. There had been some of them who were very good friends of mine and have remained so because of some kind of affinity. Like Tanuja and Sharmila (Tagore). We still are in touch and I admire them a lot.
Anuradha SenGupta: This is the perfect cue to get you to recite a poem. And if it's one of yours, I wouldn't mind.
Soumitra Chatterjee: One of mine, I don't remember. But I can go on reciting Tagore for the whole night. I will recite one small sonnet by Jeebananda Das.
Recites the sonnet - Ruposhi Bangla.
Anuradha SenGupta: You are an extremely nice man, aren't you?
Soumitra Chatterjee: I don't know but I would like to remain so.
Anuradha SenGupta: Soumitra Chatterjee, we hope you remain so. We wish you great work, work that keeps you challenged and makes you happy.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Thank you for that and I wish you the best and also to all the viewers who've been listening to this.