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: Silent Steals 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.
‘There are no dialogues here,
Even soliloquies are silent,
No expression, facial manners, twitching of eyebrows –
It is natural that one draws moments and fragments of one art to another. Experiences link arts. And life.
We are discussing poetry. The darkness of evening is becoming deeper and sombre each passing minute. I am facing some problems in understanding the connotations of a few words in his verses that I have taken up for translation.
‘I think a language-to-language translation makes it difficult to express. Each language has its own fragrance and charm,’ I have always imagined translations to be tough. More so, with poems. Added to it is my eternal doubt about my grasp on both the languages I have, for long, set out to write.
‘But don’t you think that is what you should do, at least initially,’ he is a bit hesitant to support my view.
‘Do you think, I, as a poet, will bring in my vision instead, without at times even knowing?’ I am trying to understand his slight mistrust at my idea. For so many years on several occasions whenever I have written on him or transcribed interviews, he has seldom spoken about them. ‘You don’t have to show me what you have written. I know it will be good,’ he has always embarrassed me such.
‘When I was young, in theatre, I loved to do makeups,’ he suddenly went on a different track leaving me clueless even more.
‘But in Nam JIban and Rajkumar you didn’t have makeups, did you?’ I haven’t watched his initial productions. I was too young at that time.
‘There were, though minimal. That is because I wanted the characters to look like me, why else,’ he chuckles.
His Tiktiki was based on Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth which was filmed back in 1972 with Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in the lead. I have watched the film and liked it immensely though felt that his theatre on stage was a notch higher.
‘I have a couple of auto-biographies – one of Sir Olivier and the other of Michael Caine. And in both they write, more than just a passing, on Sleuth and its shooting,’ I find him stretching a bit forward with an intent as I utter these words. Every accomplished person in any field probably feels a gush of tensed anxiety hearing about another great, a rival if not directly but surely through work, in posterity.
‘Sir Olivier was rusty in the first few days leading to the shooting. During rehearsals he was forgetting his part. Was a bit restless as well. It so transpired later, as per Caine’s account, that Sir Olivier was then having a very rough patch with London’s National theatre of which he was in charge. He was expelled quite unceremoniously a week or so back and during the shooting of Sleuth he was already on pills, fighting to forget the pains of rejection.
On the second day of the shooting, he would tell all – “I have found a solution to the problem I have. Will let you all know tomorrow.” He returned the next day with a moustache. “I need this to go behind the mask of the character. Otherwise, it is too much me.” There were no more problems after that.’
He sits there, still with a wry smile faintly disappearing at the corner of his lips.
‘These are a few gimmicks may be, of great actors. And we don’t even know if these are true. I find Caine better than Laurence Olivier in Sleuth,’ he finally said as I forced him with my silence. He wanted to film Tiktiki as well long back with Uttam Kumar. Strange that it may seem now, he could never convince producers to cast just the two of them in a film bereft of songs and heroines.
‘You know, when I sit before the mirror and wait for makeup, it is my transformation time. I stare at the mirror to trace my transformation in front of me. To me that is the most crucial part of my preparation before any performance on stage. When I find any actor spending less time there, I get nervous. All my day’s other work, all my busy schedules are slowly removed from my mind and the character’s imprint slowly resurfaces. That is how I focus,’ he tells all in one spree. Then coughs drily and waits to gasp breath.
‘Now as well?’
‘Now? Now I don’t like to do makeup at all. I wish to be as natural and probably wish to be over with it as early as I can.’
I look at him sitting on his chair, books and paintings on the background and see how tired he feels drudging his aged body with a not-so-aged mind. The mind draws the body like a snow-dog hauling a sledge in a fiercely inclement weather.
‘The role of a translator is the same as that of a makeup. It translates the artist to deeper meanings. Not to provide with one of its own. Just a medium, the best makeup is the natural skin, to be unnoticed, to remain so,’ I can suddenly understand his implications of bringing me around these stories, holding my hand in showing his view of the world.
Soumitra Chatterjee nods now, in affirmation.
‘Yes, Amitava. In life and in art, try to be as unobtrusive as you can. Not easy. But as far as I know you, I think, you will remember me for saying this.’
I leave him humming from my translation of his poem –
‘I decorate me with a new dress
Each day – Hamlet, Karna, Neelkantha,
And, so many more.’
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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