Parambrata Chatterjee’s biopic of Soumitra Chatterjee, Abhijan, aspires to be an account of the great actor. It tries to portray a collage of events through flashbacks interspersed with Soumitra playing himself at the very end of his life. Shot as one of the very last films of his, Abhijan is much awaited. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag doesn’t attempt a formal review of the film. Rather, he tries to gauge what the film tries to explore and why it falls short of his expectations.
Later in his life, Pablo Picasso once confessed, “I no longer want to see new faces. Why should I? But I am always here to my friends…And their visits are that much more precious to me because I live in seclusion, like a prisoner. I would not wish my celebrity on anyone, not even my worst enemies. I suffer from it, physically. I protect myself as best I can. I barricade myself behind doors that are kept double locked night and day.” Pablo Picasso pursued an art, which thrives on isolation, in murmuring the recurrent pathos of the inner self flashing on the inner eye. A film actor, that too a star who had loved the adulation and adoration for more than sixty years, seclusion is a luxury, a novelty a star may aspire for but will seldom be allowed. Hence, the above words, which suit Picasso, will not, if ever, be uttered by Soumitra Chatterjee. No, he never did so, probably.
Yet, calming evenings that follow sweltering afternoons have been a witness to multiple times when he wished to have some solitude, when poetry washes off the drudgeries of day. Still, Soumitra Chatterjee is one who puts his face towards the Sun, to the light, to the external letting his shadows grow bigger, taller and mystique as the years went by. In my many interactions with him, it crossed my mind once or twice but maybe I forgot the opportune moment to ask the question. Maybe, the moment was there but I felt it to be a cruel question to ask. Watching Parambrata Chatterjee’s biopic of the man, Abhijan, the question passed my mind like a whiff, once again. When did Soumitra Chatterjee understand, he is shedding the cape of a star for the bigger shroud of an icon?
Shortly into the film, when the wrinkles of our dresses started to cling on to our bodies like faithful pets, Soumitra, in the film asks his biographer the focus of the biopic. The biographer tells him, with all good sense, that it is to know the man better. Soumitra smiles, one of his most benign ones and says, “Not easy.” That is in a sense, the essence of the task at hand. A biopic on a man who weighs so heavily on the Bengali psyche and that too, who is so near, so vibrant not so long ago, is indeed difficult. The director hence takes a shortcut. He tries to draw a portrait with events. And more so, the ones that adorn gossip magazines. Only in a distant few, mostly when Soumitra plays himself in the reel-real, we get a glimpse of a mind in action. The majority of others are in recollecting a past, which is still enlivened in our collective consciousness with such vividness that even a body double would have been redundant. Forget, Jissu Sengupta, who as the young Apu looked way over Soumitra’s age and weight in 1958 and quite a bit young as him after Satyajit Ray passed away in 1992. The flashback scenes follow the millennial trend of Bengali cinema, of nostalgia, repeatedly, at times garish, at others outlandish. What if nostalgia doesn’t bring in memories, irony, and farce? Good portraits must always include shadows. These shadows enhance the portrait further, firmer.
As he aged, like most elderly people, an apparent fear of death lurked in Soumitra’s inner depths. Coupled with tragedies at home, the miseries piled up on him like ants. The evenings are unfathomable, unliveable alone, he once told me. He needed a file of younger men and women to help him avoid facing the solemn realities of aging. He had a multitude of vision. He was extraordinarily immobile in his memories and translucently supple in his present. This gave Soumitra the edge to be so ruthlessly loyal with people half his age, literally.
The film questions Soumitra – why he remains so nonchalant to accolades. It is a puzzle he has answered more than the roles he played. The other being how come he agrees his inner self to act in mindless films that way outnumber the ones we will remember. He has always reasoned how acting in films is his profession, and how he seeks his mind out in poetry and even theatre. Yet, if we read his writings, watch his choice of roles, follow his temper we will probably understand his paternal feelings for his acted roles so long as they remained between “Action” and “Cut”. To him, the art of acting was a sea of possibilities until the shot is over. Then it is gone, out of him, beyond his touch, it is no more his.
I have always comprehended that to understand an artist of such magnitude and variety, the better way is to read his writings. Because such minds generally do write and through their writings emanate the true spirit of a multifarious cognizance. The same question is raised in Abhijan as well in the beginning when Soumitra tries desperately to understand why the biopic is planned, for whom? The director tells him that no one reads books anymore. What an irony, he also probably didn’t try that route, so many answers to the persona are hidden therein. Or maybe, it is a conscious ploy to gorge a self-oblivious race with anecdotes involving demigods. The moment the focus wavers, the arrow misses.
Making a biopic on Soumitra Chatterjee is a humongous task. Any attempt will be inconspicuous by omissions and at times information that doesn’t follow from facts. Families, friends, relatives, and acquaintances who all have had a glimpse of him, or maybe more than that, will find these aberrations glaring. For the commoner, it satiates the hunger. Yet, what haunts is that question of purpose and focus. Soumitra Chatterjee had trenchant comments on everything from cricket to politics. His enormous curiosity is matched by his elephantine memory. Dabbling in different forms of art his productivity in all of them is breath-taking because not only does he try to understand the world in his own frugal ways, but he also tries to foresee it in his art. That is why, perhaps, on his passing, the Bengali mind feels rudderless, nomadic.
In falling prey to a temptation to tug at a collage of events and stars of yesteryears, the director missed the mosaic that attests Soumitra Chatterjee’s extraordinary awareness – an immaculate mind behind the art his life was dedicated to.
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