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Book Review: Beyond Apu Brings Out the Versatility of Soumitra Chatterjee

April 19, 2016 | By

The twenty selected films and their socio-historical analysis, coupled with anecdotes from the actor himself, help to trace the progression of Soumitra Chatterjee. A Book Review of Beyond Apu – 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee.

Beyond Apu – 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins India (26 January 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9350298619
ISBN-13: 978-9350298619

Soumitra Chatterjee, one of the living legends of Bengali cinema, needs no introduction. There is no dearth of books on him in Bengali language. However, Beyond Apu 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee is the first ever book written by Amitava Nag, an independent film critic and author, on the actor in the English language. The book not only explores Soumitra Chatterjee’s contribution to Bengali cinema but also paints a holistic portrait of this great personality. The hitherto unexplored facets of his persona are revealed as the readers are introduced to an artist – a cine star, a theatre personality, a poet, as co-editor of Ekshan and a painter. The idea for this book germinated in the mind of the author when he had a chance meeting with Catherine Berge, who was making a documentary Gaach (The Tree) on Soumitra Chatterjee.

Soumitra singing ‘Ami chini go chini’ in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata

It is difficult for any author to bring the works of such a legend into one canvas. Soumitra Chatterjee himself is not fond of biographies but the author received immense cooperation from the actor as he explored twenty of his favourite film roles. The twenty selected films and their socio-historical analysis, coupled with anecdotes from the actor himself, help to trace the progression of Soumitra Chatterjee from a novice in Bengali film industry playing simple, naïve roles to that of a versatile actor evolving as an artist.

Amitava Nag and Soumitra Chatterjee at the book launch (Pic: Koushik Chattopadhyay)

Amitava Nag and Soumitra Chatterjee at the book launch
(Pic: Koushik Chattopadhyay)

Acting is debunking one-self and getting moulded in a role, then breaking off into different roles. The twenty films selected by the actor himself bring out his versatility in such diverse roles as romantic hero, subaltern priest, a villain, as well as an intellectual bhadralok. The cover photograph of the book aptly symbolizes the different roles enacted by this legendary actor.

Soumitra Chatterjee remains unparalleled as he straddled artistic and commercial cinema and simultaneously navigated the world of theatre brilliantly. The book documents how well he carved his own niche in an era when Uttam Kumar reigned in the hearts of Bengali audience. The anecdotes about Chatterjee’s preparation for different characters by watching taxi-drivers for Abhijan and learning calligraphy for Charulata is an interesting read for future actors and film scholars.

‘Legechhe legechhe Agun’ from the film Basanta Bilap

One of the salient features which emerge from this book is the relationship between a mentor and his protégé – Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee. In the world of celluloid, they remain incomplete without each other. Ray not only groomed Soumitra, but provoked him to think which eventually helped him to mature as an actor.  However, as avid followers of Chatterjee’s films, the exclusion of Ganashatru and Sakha Prasakha, both directed by Ray, is quite surprising. Soumitra as Prashanto in Sakha Prasakha living as a social recluse after an accident, spending time listening to western classical music is brilliant. Ray made brilliant use of Soumitra’s facial expression, coupled with monosyllable. It would have been interesting to find out how Soumitra prepared himself for the aforesaid role.

In Jhinder Bandi as the rakish villain Mayurbahan

In Jhinder Bandi as the rakish villain Mayurbahan

The book also presents the camaraderie that Chatterjee developed in the course of his acting career with other directors such as Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and others. The actor has spoken in minute details, about his preparation for the role of Mayurbahan in Jhinder Bandi. He paid special attention to subtle gestures such as lifting of eye-brows, loud cynical laughter, etc. The portrayal of villain as flesh and blood human beings captures the heart and soul of the audience for generations. This book however, does not shed any light on his acting experience with Uttam Kumar in this film.

Soumitra Chattopadhyay in Benarasi, produced by Ruma Guha Thakurta, directed by Arup Guha Thakurta.

Soumitra Chattopadhyay in Benarasi, produced by Ruma Guha Thakurta, directed by Arup Guha Thakurta.

A cinema is a director’s narration of a story to be told to the audience within a definite time and space.  As informed audience we are curious to find out Soumitra Chatterjee’s experiences with contemporary directors and their methodology of direction. The book mentions three films namely Samapti, Aakash Kusum, Baksho Badal where Chatterjee acted with Aparna Sen. It would have been an interesting read if Nag had tried to explore his experiences of acting with Aparna Sen in these films and, later in Sen’s directorial ventures 15 Park Avenue and Paromitar Ekdin. While the book has a chapter entitled ‘What Others Have To Say’ where opinions of famous actors and directors on Soumitra Chatterjee are mentioned, but Madhabi Chakraborty (his co-star in the classic movie Charulata) and Aparna Sen’s views are not mentioned in Nag’s book.

The chapter called ‘In Conversation with Soumitra Chatterjee’ gives a sneak peek into Soumitra’s views on theatre vis-à-vis cinema;  contemporary actors (such as Prosenjit); his association with Ray; his experiences of vocal training in Germany; and his opinions on acting schools. The chapter reveals Chatterjee’s depth of knowledge about films, his sense of humour as well as his strong presence of mind. But a volley of questions remains unasked. Soumitra does mention his financial insecurities and a dilemma regarding whether he should go to Bombay, yet the author does not pursue this line of questioning. Acting in mainstream Hindi films offers a better pay package and an exposure at a pan-Indian level rather than regional Bengali cinema. Bengali cinema had leading on-screen romantic pairs such as Uttam-Suchitra and Biswajit-Sandhya Ray. Soumitra Chatterjee did play romantic leads in innumerable films but the reason behind non-emergence of such on-screen chemistry between him and other actress also remains unprobed.

The last scene of Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar – and the beginning of Soumitra Chatterjee

Though Nag has devoted a full chapter on Soumitra’s passion for theatre, yet as a reader felt disappointed that the actor’s views on Marathi theatre in comparison to Bengali theatre, his opinion on the future of Bengal theatre and stage actors were not explored and elaborated.

Nag’s analysis of Chatterjee’s acting and contribution in non-Ray films such as Kony, Atanka, Wheel Chair and others deserve appreciation. It can be concluded that the author has tried his best to present different facets of this creative genius and has succeeded to a considerable degree.  His language is brilliant, simple, yet aesthetically delightful. The book has opened the floodgates of further research on Soumitra Chatterjee and it is hoped that Nag’s work will spark further interest about the actor in future film scholars.

More to read

Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee Launched

Beyond Apu – the Genius of Soumitra Chatterjee 

Pramathesh Barua, Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee: A Brief Insight into Concepts of Masculinities

Saluting Indomitable Human Spirit: Tribute to Tapan Sinha

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Tumpa Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor in Sociology, Women’s Christian College, Kolkata. An alumnus of Presidency College, University of Calcutta and Jadavpur University, she completed her doctoral studies on Women in Police in India. Her areas of research interest are Gender Studies, Police and Prison Studies. She is invited to deliver lectures at different Government institutes including the police academies. Her book Community Policing in India: A Sociological Perspective was published by Progressive Publishers, Kolkata in 2006. She also co-edited a book Indian Prisons: Towards Reformation, Rehabilitation and Resocialisation published by Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi, in 2014.
All Posts of Tumpa Mukherjee

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