- He was 23 when he started playing
- He breathed life into Ray’s most powerful characters
- He has also worked with Bengal greats Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar
When the legendary Satyajit Ray met the skinny young actor in 1958 for a role in his movie, he exclaimed “Oh my God, you turned out to be way too tall.” Ray was looking for someone to play an adult Apu – the little boy from his classic movie Pather Panchali. In the end, the height – 5 feet 11 and a half inches – didn’t bother. Soumitra Chatterjee debuted as Apu in 1959 in Apur Sansar.
Today Bengal has lost its greatest superstar.
Soumitra Chatterjee passed away on Sunday, weeks after admission to hospital with COVD-19. He was 85 years old. He was 23 when he started playing, playing Apu or Apurba Kumar Roy in Apur Sansar, the third in Satyajit Ray’s great trilogy. He breathed life into Ray’s most powerful and complex characters and Ray molded him into what he believed to be one of the best actors in the world.
Fourteen films – this is the number of times Satyajit Ray directed Soumitra Chatterjee in the Charulata Abhijan and Aranyer Din Ratri at Devi, Ganashatru and Gharey Baire.
Other Bengal greats – Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar – have written it down again and again. Even in his 80s, the thespian was the star of the Bengali big screen. The Bengal filmmakers wrote scripts centered around a character that only Soumitra Chatterjee could play. Until the end he was big at the box office with Bela Sheshe, Mayurakshi, Sanjhbati – all successful films.
The Dada Saheb Phalke award came in 2012, the Padma Bhushan in 2004. Soumitra Chatterjee had rejected the Padma Shri twice before that because, it is said, he felt they had arrived too late and not for his best work. In 2018, France awarded him the Legion of Honor.
Soumitra Chatterjee didn’t just act in movies. He rides the theater, plays on stage, directs and writes plays, essays, poetry. He paints. He elevated the recitation of poetry to an art that has delighted Bengal for years.
His most beloved – the poems of Rabindranath Tagore.
With the passing of Soumitra Chatterjee, it’s not just an actor that Bengal lost, it’s not just Satyajit Ray’s muse alone – Bengal lost a little of himself, of what it meant to be Bengali .
Perhaps, in the mold of Tagore and Ray, his latest Renaissance Man.
A great man.