Amitava Nag, editor, Silhouette was engaged in a small conversation with Catherine Berge, the director of ‘Gaach’ (‘The Tree’ 1998) – the documentary on Soumitra Chatterjee. Gaach, a Merchant Ivory production is one of the first documentaries on the thespian and is now showcased on Silhouette’s official YouTube channel. Silhouette presents extracts from the conversation that took place in 2012.
Amitava – How did you come up with the concept of Gaach?
Catherine – In 1992, I was graduating from the Columbia University and my professor asked me to prepare a paper on Satyajit Ray (following Ray’s demise earlier that year) and I researched Ghare Baire. I developed a deep interest in Ray and discovered that in film after film there is this hero who always plays Ray’s protagonist. So I naturally became interested in him.
In 1995 a friend visited Calcutta and I told her “If you love me, get me Soumitra Chatterjee’s number”. I was heartbroken in a small village near Paris and then one evening I received a fax from my friend with the phone number of Soumitra. I mustered the courage to call him the following year and asked if he minded having a documentary made about him, to which he replied, “You have to come to Calcutta for that.” A few days later, quite accidentally, I met Ismail Merchant in his Paris office when I went to meet a friend. Merchant Ivory had already been planning to celebrate the 50 years of Indian independence, but as yet had no specific project in mind. Ismail and I discussed my idea of making a film about Soumitra to which he readily agreed, and in January 1997, we started filming in Calcutta.
As far as the link between Gaach and the films of Satyajit Ray, the whole story is linked together. I met Ismail and James Ivory during the same period that I was planning the film about Soumitra quite coincidentally. I knew that Merchant Ivory had restored a number of the Ray films and I was also interested in the way Ray and Soumitra had grown up together over the 30 years that they worked together as director and leading actor. It was serendipitous to find producers who had themselves been formed by Satyajit Ray, who had been their “guru”, according to James Ivory, so in a way it was passing from one guru to another. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory had Ray as their guru and I had Merchant Ivory as my gurus, which was invaluable, as they had such a close relationship to Ray, as well as to his actors and technicians.
Above all, the story of Gaach is more a story shared by Soumitra, Catherine and Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. In the case of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, the important aspect was their personal relationship to Ray who had helped them from their very first film, The Householder. You cannot mention Gaach without mentioning Merchant Ivory. Ismail and Jim loved the project because they had always admired Soumitra. I was interested in Soumitra because he had made so many films with Ray, from 1958 to about 1990 – they had grown up together. Ray was a genius – he knew how to do everything except act, so Soumitra became Ray’s voice.
My story cannot exist without Merchant Ivory. I was able to make the film with Merchant Ivory’s support.
Amitava – How did you find a producer for Gaach?
Catherine – I had read in the newspaper that Merchant Ivory had restored Ray’s films, and it happened that they had an office in Paris and were shooting two films in France at that time. It was very easy to meet Ismail Merchant and, as he and James Ivory were great admirers of Soumitra Chatterjee, which I hadn’t known in advance, that’s how it went so fast.
Amitava – Gaach shows clips of Soumitra in the Ray films. Don’t you think that is a fractured representation of Soumitra as a film actor?
Catherine – No. I wanted to show mainly Soumitra and his interaction with Satyajit Ray in the latter’s films. So I was not too keen to show Soumitra as a cinema actor in whole. It is however true that I haven’t seen all Soumitra’s other major films with other film directors.
Amitava – You had always been interested in theatre I know. Did you know of Soumitra’s theatre perspective when you initially thought of making Gaach? Or you evolved your script as you proceeded to know him more as a creative person?
Catherine – I was not sure of his theatre stint. When I came to Calcutta to meet him before the shooting I had long interviews with him and then I saw Tiktiki and a few other aspects of his theatre personality. Yes, I do love theatre and theatre actors. To find it in my favourite cinema actor is a bonus and I used that to the advantage of my film.
No, I did not know, but when I arrived the first time in Calcutta in 1996, Soumitra immediately asked me to come to see him performing on stage and I really appreciated what he did as a playwright and his adaptations of plays from all over the world, making them more Bengali. And now so many years later I’m returning to Calcutta, mainly to see him perform in Raja Lear. And I was extremely fortunate in having the opportunity to see two other plays that Soumitra was appearing in during my visit. During Raja Lear, I sat with a Spanish scholar and I was extremely impressed by Soumitra as King Lear. Many, many years ago, I saw Sir Laurence Olivier on stage in London as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and now, years later I am seeing Soumitra Chatterjee in Raja Lear in Calcutta. I do remember that the British audience stopped breathing when Sir Laurence appeared on stage, and it was the same level of emotion in the theater when Soumitra appeared in Raja Lear.
Amitava – Have you seen his theatre productions of late?
Catherine – Yes I have seen Tritiyo Onko Otoeb, Chhari Ganga and of course Raja Lear. I was so moved by Raja Lear – nearly 2 hours on stage and it’s so taxing both physically and mentally. I saw it on two back to back evenings and was spellbound. I wonder where from does he get this energy and vivacity to play these challenging roles even now.
Amitava – Tell something about the project which you will embark soon and how you want Soumitra to be involved in it?
Catherine – Ten to twelve years ago, I sent Soumitra a story I had been working on for a feature film about Romain Rolland and the period when he was living in Switzerland with his sister and welcoming all the major Indian personalities who were building the foundations of India, among them Nehru, Gandhi and of course Rabindranath Tagore. I immediately thought of Soumitra for the part of Tagore, and Ismail Merchant agreed with enthusiasm. Then, dramatically, Ismail passed away and unfortunately, it was never possible to make that film.
But a few of years ago, I was in the region of Champagne and a friend from the Merchant Ivory crowd who lives there told me about something which would take place in the Champagne and Rheims area and I immediately thought of Tagore’s visit to a French pacifist, Albert Kahn. One year later, I won a prize for that story. In September 2011, at the UNESCO conference, it was announced that Soumitra Chatterjee would be performing in Raja Lear and when I heard that, I knew I would have to go back to Calcutta to see Soumitra again.
Amitava – What about the other cinema related work that you have done so far?
Catherine – After making my first film, a documentary on the Hollywood director King Vidor, I lived in the United States for ten years, during which time I earned an international journalism degree at Columbia University. As you know, with the support of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, I directed the film Gaach (“The Tree”) in Calcutta, collaborating with the Bengali actors who had appeared in the films of Satyajit Ray. In addition, I have made numerous film portraits of writers (including Eudora Welty and Richard Ford) and artists (including Josephine Ann Endicot and Tim Robbins).
Amitava – How did you find Calcutta now?
Catherine – My friend Chinmoy Guha, recently named Vice Chancellor of Rabrindranath Tagore University, welcomed me at the airport. The first thing I did when I arrived in Calcutta was to go back to the Fairlawn Hotel which is a landmark in Calcutta on Sudder Street and here there was still Mrs. Smith, now 91 years old, and I immediately felt at home again.
I was surprised in Calcutta to see women wearing trousers and jeans. I never saw this 15 years ago. It was a funny thing to see Soumitra with a backpack.
Amitava – Will you be back to Calcutta soon? Tell us about your plan of filming the city.
Catherine – I hope very much to be back in Calcutta soon. In one week I saw 3 plays by Soumitra Chatterjee, and I saw Raja Lear twice. I could not believe he was able to be on stage for that long, 2 hours or more each time. I admire and cherish him. I’m very lucky to have met Soumitra, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and I’m very proud to know Soumitra Chatterjee. I can talk for hours with him about theater and poetry- talking with someone from a very different country and continent about theater and poetry is a very rare thing these days – I feel very lucky and privileged.
I thought it would be essential to see him in his first Shakepearean part and in Raja Lear.
I returned to Paris last week and noticed that there is a Tagore exhibition ending this week and that in the first week of March they’re screening Charulata and The Home and the World. I come back to Paris and what is the first thing I see, but Soumitra at the Petit Palais. If I come back to Paris and see Soumitra, I’ll definitely return to Calcutta to see Soumitra on stage.
Amitava – Catherine Berge, Thank you and looking forward to meeting you again in Kolkata.
Catherine – Thank you and same to you.
(First published Sunday, April 1, 2012)
(All pictures are courtesy Catherine Berge)
Catherine Berge’s Gaach (The Tree, 1998) is a rare documentary on Soumitra Chatterjee, a Merchant Ivory film. 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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