Dadasaheb Phalke award winner and living legend Soumitra Chatterjee is known for his amazing versatility in playing any and every kind of role with élan in cinema and on stage. Perhaps what is not talked about much is the memorable music that graced his films in the earlier part of his career. Antara takes you on a trip through those golden songs.
As a kid, the first image that used to pop up in my mind when someone said “Soumitra” was of the tall, strapping, handsome and supremely confident Feluda. Feluda could see what others could not, Feluda could catch a deadly scorpion with an overturned glass and not even blink, Feluda could ride a camel and fight goons on a train. Feluda was my capeless superhero.
As I grew up, Apu emerged as my alter ego. I could not be the rebel he was, but his irrepressible hopes and dreams were infectious. He was the face and the voice of the characters I loved – be it Tagore’s Amal in Charulata or Sarat Chandra’s Naren in Datta. It was easier for me to visualize the stories I read while in school, I would not have to imagine what Naren looked like. Soumitra slipped into Naren’s shoes as if he had never been out of them. He was a burst of fresh breeze like Amal. He was one of us.
Living in Delhi our brush with Bengali cinema happened only through Doordarshan, Durga Puja and an occasional charity show in our local club Vivekanand Vihar or a retrospective or Bengali film festival in Savitri Cinema, Mavlankar Hall or Pyarelal Bhavan. Whatever little we saw of his films stayed and became part of the psyche. While Uttam Kumar was the gorgeous charismatic hero, the eternal romantic singing immortal songs on screen and sending our hearts aflutter, Soumitra was the grounded, real slice of daily life guy, sans the trappings of flamboyance or mush. If he was the suave, rich and confident Asim of Aranyer Din Ratri, he was the vagabond turned scholar Subir in Teen Bhubaner Paare, the evil yet dynamic Mayurbahan of Jhinder Bandi, the rugged Narsingh of Abhijan, the compassionate Jayanta of Atal Jaler Ahwan, the shy do-gooder of Kinu Gowalar Gali, the simpleton Gokul of Baikunther Will, the stoic teacher of Atanka, the indomitable handicapped doctor of Wheelchair…the list goes on. The felicity with which he moved from one character to another saved him from getting typed or cast in an “image”.
The 14 films with his mentor Satyajit Ray have been much talked about and personally for me, each one of these has been a textbook of cinema. I have lost count of how many times I have watched Aranyer Din Ratri, Apur Sansar and Charulata – each time finding something new. My colleague and dear friend Amitava Nag’s thoroughly enjoyable and informative video lecture series on Ray films offered yet another set of fresh new perspectives and I woke up to unseen aspects of Ray’s films, and needless to say Soumitra Chatterjee’s performances.
But today, as I look back on how this actor, has subtly been an inextricable part of my childhood, adolescence, youth and now grey-haired days, I am at a loss at even trying to attempt to chronicle the aspects of his craft that affect me so deeply. He never seemed to be there because he was playing a role. He was the character. Period.
Let me thus rewind to something that stays in my mind, like an endless long playing, even when the film is over – the music. Many of Soumitra Babu’s films had exceptional music and it started with the first of them – Apur Sansar. You may wonder, but Apur Sansar doesn’t have songs! Yes, it doesn’t. But can you forget the Rabindra Sangeet Jodi taare nai chini go sheki that Apu plays on his flute as he leans against the door of their little one room barsati apartment and watches Aparna go about her chores on the terrace, stoking coal in the small clay oven? It’s a beautiful romantic moment that tugs at your heartstrings. No need to prance around the Swiss Alps to express love.
Ray picked Kishore Kumar to sing the Rabindra Sangeet Ami chini go chini tomare, an unusual choice of voice for a Tagore song but when the energetic Amal breaks out into a song, playfully teasing his sister in law Charu, the youthful voice of Kishore Kumar sits pat on the boyish exuberance of the young Soumitra. You can’t help smiling through the entire song.
Ami chini go chini tomaare (Charulata, 1964) Rabindranath Tagore / Kishore Kumar
Soumitra and dance? Umm… rare. But he did attempt a twist in Teen Bhubaner Paare. The song became a cult song for the youth. Remember Ke tumi Nandini, aage to dekhini – a flirtatious song so unlike the true blue gentleman image he had. The film also had an exceptional love song Hoyto tomar i jonyo, again by Manna Dey.
Soumitra, paired opposite Tanuja, in Teen Bhubaner Paare was an adept representative of the rudderless city youth. Together they also did the path-breaking Pratham Kadam Phool, which had that amazing Kon shey aalor swapno niye but that was shot on Tanuja.
Jibone ki paabo na (Teen Bhubaner Paare, 1969) Sudhin Dasgupta / Manna Dey
Soumitra’s association with Hemanta Mukhopadhyay (known as Hemant Kumar in Bombay) gave us many immortal songs. Their association started with the Asit Sen directed Swaralipi (1961) and 29 films in which Soumitra acted had music by Hemanta. Unforgettable songs dotted several of these films.
Sample Stree, the film in which Soumitra shared screen space with Uttam Kumar with music scored by Nachiketa Ghosh. There were four songs by Hemanta, each one a gem and all four were lip-synced by Soumitra on screen (not by Uttam who was practically synonymous with Hemanta’s voice)! I especially love Hajar takar jhar baatita and Khirki theke singhadooar.
Khirki theke singha duar (Stree, 1972) Nachiketa Ghosh / Pulak Bandopadhyay / Hemanta Mukhopadhyay
Another song I love is one of buoyancy – a song of the youth, of hopes, of giving wings to dreams and a celebration of the beauty of nature. Soumitra with his friends including Dilip Roy cycle through the countryside as the baritone voice of Hemanta uplifts the spirits with a verve-filled O akash sona sona. Ajana Shapath had another exquisite song Natun natun rong dhorechhe sonar prithibi te, again sung by Hemanta for Soumitra and this one too is rich with imagery of the wonders of nature.
O aakash sona sona (Ajana Shapath, 1967) Hemanta Mukhopadhyay / Miltu Ghosh / Hemanta Mukhopadhyay
While on the subject of Hemanta, how can we forget the semi-classical gems from Manihar? Soumitra with a tanpura, teaching music to a pretty Sandhya Roy, gave wonderful expression to Hemanta and Lata’s ethereal duet. Soumitra perfectly fitted the role of the quiet lover who could not voice his feelings. Hemanta’s Aami hote parini akash is another immortal song filmed on Soumitra in Monihar as he charms the audience at the recital with his music.
Ke jaino go dekechhe amay (Monihar, 1965) Hemanta Mukhopadhyay / Mukul Dutt / Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and Lata Mangeshkar
Soumitra Chatterjee with his tall and lean physique, sharp features and a literary disposition made perfect material for the characters of our literary classics. Sarat Chandra’s stories from Devdas to Parineeta, Baikunther Will to Datta found their prime characters get the ideal expression in Soumitra. I can’t think of anyone else playing the simple and forthright, no frills attached Naren against the imposing and dignified Bijoya played by Suchitra Sen in Datta.
And of course, Tagore’s Kshudita Pashan, adapted on screen by Tapan Sinha. Though Soumitra, playing the central character Srijit did not sing in the film, the songs playing in the background were picturised on him. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s music coupled with Tapan Sinha’s evocative cinematography created an ethereal aura.
As he moved into character roles, the songs of Soumitra too receded into the background or on to the lips of others. Some films did have songs for him, such as Chena Achena.
Amay rakhte jodi apon ghare (Chena Achena, 1983) Rabindranath Tagore / Hemant Mukherjee
The songs may have moved to the lips of others but that baritone voice has continued to wow audiences with his exemplary recitation. Soumitra Chatterjee has in his repertoire a few hundred CDs/Cassettes of recitation – ranging from poetry of Tagore and Jibanananda Das to nonsense rhymes of Sukumar Ray and modern poetry, to name just a few. His stage shows of recitation are full houses, needless to say.
Not surprisingly, several filmmakers used his recitation in cinema with memorable impact. For example, Goutam Ghose had him break into Shakti Chattopadhyay in Abar Aranye (the sequel to Ray’s famed Aranyer Din Ratri that practically had the same cast). Basu Poribar, the Soumitra-Aparna Sen starrer released last year concludes with Soumitra’s recitation of his own poetry in the last shot.
Bir Purush Recitation By Soumitra Chatterjee
And can’t help but adding this amazing advertisement where Soumitra sang in his own voice.
Soumitra Chatterjee singing Nutrela Mustard Oil Jingle
Among his later films, the one song that touches me most (and that’s not only because this Rabindra Sangeet has been an inspiring powerhouse ever since I sang it in my primary school choir) is the prayer Anandaloke Mangalaloke. Srikanto Acharya’s voice matches Soumitra wonderfully well. And perhaps these immortal words he sings on screen amplify how his films will continue to enrich generations to come, with new perspectives, in a ceaseless flow.
Bohe jibono rajani dino chiro nuton dhara
Karuna tobo abishramo jonome morone
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