Soumitra Chatterjee is a maverick genius who dabbled the different streams of performing and creative arts with ease and a rare poise. For six decades he remained a harbinger of hope for Bengalis all around the globe. He was a way of life, a pride in the collective racial identity. Only his mentor Satyajit Ray and the universal gurudev Rabindranath Tagore precede him in adoration and reverence.
But Soumitra Chatterjee was never a star in the glamour sky. He was a daily sustenance in the mundane. Firmly rooted, in his private spaces he was a curious mind free of inhibitions. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag had the privilege of engaging with him in numerous discussions over months and years. Not interviews in the formal sense. But exchanges – of ideas, experiences and reflections.
Blue Pencil is set to release a short and succinct account of those interactions as the book Murmurs: Moments with Soumitra Chatterjee, on 19th January 2021 to celebrate the legend’s 87th birthday..
For every Sunday till then, there will be individual episodes of the book.
Giving up any addiction is always a question of belief and a solace of the nonbeliever. In the Granada series Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett as the famous detective proclaims profoundly in his most laconic way, ‘My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.’ I guess most of us who are addicted, in some form or the other, crave for the mental exaltation lacking otherwise.
On the many times that I left smoking, I tried thinking what it gave me. Why is it so inanimately personal then, at least till the time mobile phones took over?
To me, smoking is never a crutch. Leaving it never made me feel like a martyr nor a sacrificial lamb. Whenever I return, I tend to think if it is a slaver.
‘I left it overnight, almost, after doctors advised me post my illness,’ he is referring to his malignant phase. A heavy smoker in his days he would turn packets into smoke. Rather burn them.
‘I tried cigars for some time when I was young. I was told that smoke of cigar makes the voice slightly coarse, a bit heavy,’ Soumitra-babu reclines in his wooden chair. He did have a light voice in his youth, sweet and melodious.
He once told me earlier how he would do voice training with basic classical vocal rendition, to keep his voice in tune.
‘For an actor, it is important that his voice is trained and tuned. Whatever base it is, a controlled voice is a harnessed harpoon. You may throw it at different depths as the need be.’
I have been contemplating switching over to smoking pipes. I will then, like my array of fountain pens, possess a fleet of smoking pipes. All feel different, look unique and if I wish, smell varied.
‘I did have pipes as well. My father-in-law gave me one, and a few friends. I loved smoking pipes.’ He pauses to take his glasses off and wipes them slowly.
‘But, maintaining a pipe is an arduous task. Quite time consuming. And where do I have that?’ the question is to the vacant air in the room.
I try to visualize the on-screen heroes dangling a pipe or a cigarette with effortless ooze – from Bogart to Cooper to the Clint Eastwoods or our own Uttam Kumar and Rajesh Khanna. All look suave, prim, gorgeous.
‘Now, I can’t stand the smell of anyone smoking before me. I would leave the place or ask the person to leave.’
This is quite true. Not only for ex-smokers or non-smokers, the active ones as well don’t like another people’s smoke. That is why smoking lounges in airports become so claustrophobic, almost unbearable.
He has seen me smoke a few times, outside his house, before coming in. Afterwards I take in mints so that my breath resumes freshness.
‘How long have you been smoking?’ he asks.
‘A long while now. More than twenty-five years,’ I don’t believe it is that long already. Most of my friends, who were die-hard smokers, strongly devoted to the white stick with whom we pledged never to be separated with have first scattered out all over the globe, and now successfully moved on to the “non-smoker” terrain –one with false hopes and drowsy dreams.
It doesn’t make me happy that the group of long-time smokers in the world is sharply diminishing much to the glee of pharmaceutical companies. But I presume that is more nostalgia than any logic.
‘You know Amitava, cigarettes understand better than lovers. You need not say a thing, the stick knows it all. And most importantly, it doesn’t demand an answer, and never questions as well,’ he twinkles at me.
‘But poems do as well. Don’t they? But unfortunately, they elude when we look for them, don’t they?’
‘Yes, but do you need anyone to know you more than yourself?’ he is throwing questions that are gruelling.
‘After a time, you will not need it,’ he smiles nondeviantly, ‘not for any health problems or anything. You may be bored of it. The same smell, the same habit, the same repetition of monotony.’
I have been to him after the Durga Puja. To offer my wishes and seek blessings. It is festive time in Kolkata. The festivals – religious, social, cultural, all mingle at this time of the year.
There is a silent breeze that hangs emotions with the aggression of a wild cat.
I stand outside his house. Outside of me. And, light a cigarette.
Catherine Berge’s Gaach (The Tree, 1998) is a rare documentary on Soumitra Chatterjee. Silhouette is grateful to Catherine and producer James Ivory for providing permission to make it available to the Silhouette readers.
More to read on Soumitra Chatterjee
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