Among Many Things I’ll Miss Soumitra’s Sense of Humour: Aparna Sen

Veteran actor and filmmaker Aparna Sen recalls her memories of Soumitra Chatterjee.

9 min read
Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen.

He has gone. Irrevocably.

It has only just begun to sink in. For the last forty days of his life, even an atheist like me had secretly been praying for a miracle. I had been tight lipped about him during that entire time, refusing to write or say anything to any journalist for fear of being a harbinger of the inevitable. Unreasonable? Superstitious? Perhaps. I would quietly call his daughter every two or three days to inquire after his health. But now there is no getting away from it. He has left us.

What I cannot fathom is the depth of despair I feel with his passing, my sense of loss, of nothing ever being the same again. It is akin to what I felt when Ray passed away in 1992 or when my parents left us...Ma in 2010, and Baba a year later, or Mrinal Sen a few years ago, and Nabaneeta Deb Sen soon after...

But this time there is a difference. There seems to be almost no one left of the world that I once knew...a world made up of certain sensibilities, certain value systems both cultural and moral, the idea of a different (less mediocre?) Bengal, of a different (less reactionary?) India that is vanishing slowly, but surely, with the passing of these people. Their childlike, even foolish, disregard of money and material things; their genuine indifference to brands and luxury items; the positivism with which they embraced fresh new ideas; their faith in humanity despite all that human beings around them were doing to destroy that faith; the remnants, if you like, of what was known as the Bengal Renaissance. Soumitra's holistic approach to life, his many artistic pursuits like writing poetry, sketching, painting, co-editing the prestigious literary magazine 'Ekkhon', writing and directing plays while continuing to act in many mainstream films (plus a few worthwhile ones for which he didn't get paid more often than not!) was, I like to think, a part of being the last few of the Renaissance men and women.

We did not meet often. Not socially. Not unless we were in a film together or doing a joint recitation or event. But I knew he was there. I knew that I could always dial his number and hear his voice at the other end. I knew that I could always rely on him to rise to the occasion with his intrinsic humanism to protest against atrocities that were taking place in the country. Yes, he was very much one of the infamous 49 who had written that open letter to the prime minister against lynching. He had agreed without a second thought while so many other much younger people had held back for reasons beyond my understanding. Fear? Too much at stake? Who knows? Why judge?

Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen.
Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

I just realised that I have known Soumitra forever. I was only 14 when I met him. Was it the summer of 1960 or earlier in the year? I can't remember exactly, but the details of that first meeting are startlingly clear still. I was sitting alone in the huge river-facing verandah of the old palatial mansion in Neemtita village where the unit had been put up. Hearing the creaking sound of wheels, I looked up from my book and down through the grilled bannister. Some distance away, a bullock cart was approaching down the earthen road. On it, under a shade of woven straw, sat Apu! I was in class VIII then. All the girls in our class were in love with him after seeing Apur Sansar and I was no exception. And there, right below, was Apu himself! He was looking around curiously. As soon as he saw me, I ducked. I was at that awkward early-teen stage when girls like to feel invisible.

Later that evening, we were formally introduced while I tried desperately to become more invisible still. He was so strikingly beautiful! Like a young demi-god. He was also newly married and couldn't stop talking about his bride Deepa. All evening, while other unit members sat playing cards or carrom in the great hall that had become our after-pack-up common room, he sat in a corner writing letters to his wife. My mother would tease him about it and soon he and she became good friends. He started calling her 'Boudi' (Bhaabi/sister in-law). As for me, being the youngest in the unit, I used to call everyone 'kaka' (uncle)... Manik-kaka (Satyajit Ray) or Bansi-kaka (Ray's Art Director Bansi Chandragupta), and so on. To my great disappointment Soumitra styled himself 'kaka' as well! I would have called him anything but that, but was too tongue-tied to protest.

Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen in a still from <i>Aparichita</i>.
Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen in a still from Aparichita.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

So Soumitra-kaka he became, and remained that way even after we started getting paired romantically in mainstream films. He and his wife had become friends of my parents initially, and visited our home in Palm Avenue quite frequently for 'adda'-s. They would be there for Holi celebrations along with much older friends of my parents like the poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay and ad filmmaker Shanti Chaudhury. Soumitra would recite poems or sing Rabindrasangeet lustily while his wife Deepa glowed with pride. In those days, I was dismissed as a youngster or teased rather mercilessly about my budding romances.

Later, after I started going to college, got married, and generally got older, Soumitra and I began to act more and more regularly as a romantic pair. The 'kaka' was dropped - at his request according to me; at my request according to him - and I switched straight to addressing him by his first name. When he protested that I should call him 'dada' at least, I retorted, much more confident now, that no one could turn from a 'kaka' into a 'dada!' So that was that. Interestingly, I have never addressed any of my leading men as 'dada' even though many were much older. Uttam Kumar, old enough to be my father, was always Uttam Babu. And Soumitra Chatterjee remained, until that fateful afternoon of 15th November 2020, simply 'Soumitra.'

Aparna Sen and Soumitra Chatterjee.
Aparna Sen and Soumitra Chatterjee.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Gradually we became what is known in Bengali as a juti - much like the Hindi word jodi. Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar were the legendary juti of Tollywood. Soumitra and I came a not-too-close second. Neither of us was much bothered by that though. I think we preferred to be actors rather than stars. We were both very zealous about our independence and our mobility and didn't wish to hide behind dark glasses the whole time. Soumitra frequented the College Street Coffee House (our favourite haunt during our college days) even after he became a very big star. He would sit there with his intellectual friends, many well-known poets and authors among them. They would drink endless cups of coffee and discuss everything under the sun from poetry to football, politics to painting. People got so used to seeing him there that they stopped staring after a point.

I liked that about him. I liked his sensible, no-nonsense approach to everything. Life was too short and too precious to waste on being a 'star!' In fact, without either of us quite realising it, he had become a mentor of sorts for me. I was deeply impressed and inspired by his ability to keep his head above water and not sink into the kind of morass that long involvement with the formula fare of mainstream cinema often leads to. He was not simply a film actor; he was so much more! And he read. While most of the others just gossiped between shots, Soumitra read books. In fact, one of our great pleasures was to discuss the books we had just read. Also, he carried a large, red, cloth-bound note book with him at all times. In this he would jot down lines of poetry, points about the characters he was playing, or sketch costume and set designs of some upcoming play while continuing to chat and laugh with us, as we waited to be called for the next shot. Among his many qualities was a highly-developed sense of humour. That is one of the things that I will miss for a long time. His presence while alive was so strong, that in death his absence will be too.

A still from <i>Bohomaan</i>.
A still from Bohomaan.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

There was so much he taught me in passing. "Never let machines come in the way of your acting," he told me once, "The camera, the lights, the microphones are all your friends, not your enemies! One half of your brain must be aware of them at all times. You must let the mikes catch your voice, take the lights as instructed, and present the required angle of your face to the camera. The other half must forget all about them and emote spontaneously." I am sure I would have got there by and by. Most actors do. But having it pointed out so succinctly at that early stage helped. He also showed me the importance of footwork for an actor. That is not as complicated as it sounds. After the director has choreographed or 'blocked' a scene, the actor must take the various positions required of her effortlessly, without appearing to be looking out for them. That can only happen if she knows when, where and how to manoeuvre her feet during a shot. This lesson has stood me in very good stead as a director too. Having mastered it myself, I can immediately tell when and why an actor is having a problem with his position and can demonstrate how to do it. This is purely technical stuff of course, and has nothing to do with emoting. But once such basics are out of the way, emoting becomes that much easier.

Even though he acted in more films than he cared to count, Soumitra’s first love was the theatre. I saw his maiden production ‘Naam Jibon’ and was struck by its emotional depth.

Without being overly intellectual, it was realistic and compassionate in the best traditions of Ibsen or Chekhov. Yet it was a commercial production, not group theatre. He had married art with commerce quite brilliantly. Years later, I would see Soumitra playing King Lear in Suman Mukherjee's play Raja Lear and be deeply moved by his understanding of that iconic Shakespearean character. Seeing the old king in a wheelchair reminded me of my father in the last years of his life and reduced me to tears!

After I started directing films myself, I practically stopped acting. Soumitra acted in two of my films. Paromitar Ek Din and 15 Park Avenue. He was a director's delight and put an end to all my trepidations about directing such a legend on the very first day . I feel that his performance in Paromitar Ek Din as a romantic, but failed lover remains one of his best to this day. And yet, he said to me jestingly, but with a hint of wistfulness in his voice, " Now that you've started directing, I'm in a soup! Our 'juti' is broken!" Except that it wasn't. Not really. At 80-plus, his box-office draw was such that roles were written especially for him! And sometimes I would be cast in those as his wife or lover. Two such films were Suman Ghosh's Basu Paribar (an adaptation of James Joyce's The Dead) and Anumita Dasgupta's Bohomaan. These were made in the final years of his life. His doctors didn't allow him to work for more than four hours a day, but we still managed to complete and release the films in time. And audiences flocked to see them!

Soumitra's talent, we all know, was recognised both at home and abroad. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan, won National Awards, and received France's highest award - the Legion of Honour like his mentor Satyajit Ray before him. But all this was like water off a duck's back, failing to affect him. He remained the quintessential Bengali intellectual without the slightest trace of arrogance in him.

There will be no more films from our 'juti' more discussions about literature, politics and poetry. All that we are left with are memories...memories that must be cherished and celebrated, just as his life must be celebrated even as we mourn his passing.

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