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.
It was an old story about a wealthy merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the fruit market to buy fruits for the evening. Soon the servant returned panting and huffing. ‘What happened to you? Why you look so pale?’ asked the merchant. The young servant shivered, ‘Master, in the market I came face to face with Death. He was tall, weaning a long flowing robe that covered him completely. But I saw his eyes fixed on me. I have served you for so long with my utmost dedication Master. Now I beg you to lend me your best horse so that I can ride away fast and quick to Samarra to avoid Death.’ The merchant lent his servant his best horse, and the servant mounted it, and galloped out of Baghdad. Still unsure of his servant’s apprehensions, the merchant went down to the fruit market to find out for himself. He roamed around for a while and finally could spot a slender, tall figure draped in a black robe. He came near and asked, ‘So here you are, Death. Why did you frighten my servant a while back?’ Death remarked, ‘That was not a threatening look at your servant but that of utter surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’
I first heard this story from my cousin who is a doctor. He was told this by his patient Mr Taradas Bandyopadhyay, writer and son of Bengal’s one of the finest novelists of all times, Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay. Junior Bandyopadhyay was not keeping well to understand that his days were numbered. My cousin, for whom he had affection more than a mere professional acquaintance, assured him of his recovery. It was imminent to be otherwise and Bandyopadhyay knew deep down that his body had gone against it.
‘The soul is willing, the spirit reaches for the stars, but the flesh is weak.’ Soumitra-babu once told me as he described why he faltered twice recently that resulted in falls every time.
‘Every month for quite a few years now, I have to hear news of passing away of someone or the other. This tears me down. I can’t take death anymore. I don’t visit grieving families. I don’t find the mental strength to face grief.’
I think we all have different ways of dealing with death and grief. He does as well. Maybe he is shy in opening up his mind.
I am stretching my legs in the evening. This is end of March and there is a nip in the air even now. Winters in Kolkata these days have sadly been shortened, like the bites of a fallen star, the marks fade but they are unmistakably hidden behind the camouflage of decay.
I have just completed a very intimate essay on Max von Sydow who is famous as Ingmar Bergman’s main face for decades. Sydow passed away a few weeks back and I couldn’t gather myself to write on him in between. The emotions have been raw, intense, scintillating.
And now we are, at Soumitra-babu’s den reminiscing cinema and Sydow. He has watched quite a few of Bergman’s films, definitely The Seventh Seal which has the remarkably contentious sequence of the Knight (played by Sydow) playing chess with Death.
Knight: Who are you?
Death: I am Death.
Knight: Have you come for me?
Death: I have walked at your side for a long time now.
Knight: That I know.
Death: Are you prepared?
Knight: My body is afraid, but I am not.
Later, shortly after this encounter the Knight’s squire Jöns enters a church and finds a rather strange man painting a mural to remind people of death in order to scare them since, according to him, a skull is more interesting than a naked woman. Only when one is scared, he starts to think, the painter tells Jöns.
Bergman is my all-time favourite along with Andrei Tarkovsky. Both speak of reflections, foresee death as an extension of unfaithful desire. Dangling between departures and returns, life brushes off with death – of the spirit and then the body.
I have recently listened to one of Sydow’s interviews in youtube where he mentions how he was a true atheist at the time he played the role of Antonius Block, the Knight with such conviction and then as a medieval landlord whose daughter was raped and killed in The Virgin Spring. Sydow continues, ‘Ingmar Bergman used to tell me that you won’t believe in God and the spirits but let me tell you that there are things beyond our comprehension but they do exist and I will communicate with you when I will be no more.’ The lanky figure of Max von Sydow droops, hanging his unusually stone-walled face and half closed eyes – ‘Yes, we have communicated after Bergman died. But I will not reveal you what.’
Soumitra-babu folds his legs back, the muscles in his face stiffen up a bit, ‘These are individual beliefs. But yes, I do remember Satyajit Ray often. Not a day passes when I can’t but think of any conversation, discussion or advice that I received from him. Actually, when I started off as an actor, more than acting tips, he helped me shape up my intellect, my persona, my aesthetic tastes.’
Throughout his better films Bergman challenges God, questions Death and talks of transcendence to life from death and the immanence of God. Because, even though Death sets out to hold us captive it is in life only that we may escape him through our soul.
When asked what about death does he fear most, Soumitra-babu regularly tells now that he doesn’t wish to leave at a time when his family is going through its most excruciatingly critical and crucial time. I hear him pause, look aside, clear his throat and say, ‘And the most, that I have to be dependent on others for my each and every need and wish. That will really be quite pathetic.’ One of the finest actors that the silver screen has ever seen feigns a smile. And, he looks vain.
After all, death is nothing but a nostalgia of the young, and nostalgia is the death of the old.
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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