Beyond Apu & Feluda: Soumitra Chatterjee, the Matinee Idol
Lovers of Bengali cinema need no introduction to Soumitra Chatterjee, who was conferred the Legion d’Honneur on 31 January - 30 years after Satyajit Ray. Our beloved Apu, and for a few generations, the one and only Feluda, has not only been a favourite with Ray, who discovered him, but with the Bengali audience as well. His immense and continuing body of work continues to capture our imagination and hearts as does the age-old squabble of who’s the better actor - Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee.
But going beyond the Dadasaheb Phalke awardee’s off-beat work in Ray’s films or those of another contemporary master Mrinal Sen, the actor has a formidable oeuvre as the leading man in mainstream cinema. From romantic hero to villain, comic roles to that of the rebel - he did the whole works. And that with the elan and trademark intellectual brilliance that set Chatterjee apart from his peers - beyond acting (on screen and stage), he is well known as a poet, writer, and elocutionist, and even founded and edited a literary magazine Ekhon for many years.
Now is as good a time to pay homage to Chatterjee’s performances in mainstream films, which did much to showcase his indisputable skills as an actor to the masses. While his work with Ray won over the world, it’s these films that won him that forever place in the hearts of the Bengali audience and made him what they used to call a “matinee idol”, and we call “superstar”.
We look back at five of his most memorable performances in mainstream cinema:
Jhinder Bondi (1961)
One of the earliest films to pit Soumitra Chatterjee and Uttam Kumar together, Jhinder Bondi saw the former playing the bad guy in this adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda - the latest was Salman Khan’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. Chatterjee is natural as the conniving, evil Mayurvahan, lusting after the kingdom and the princess alike.
Much before the angry young man became fashionable in Bollywood, Soumitra Chatterjee portrayed one with generous doses of local flavour. He plays Chiranjib, a Robin Hood-esque character who ditches a bright career to deal in illegal hooch in a bid to rebel against the system and help those in need.
Teen Bhubaner Paare (1969)
One of his most layered roles in the commercial ambit, Chatterjee plays Subir, a road romeo who falls in love with an educated girl from the upper echelons of society. They marry and under her austere guidance, he builds himself up as her equal. Then comes the attraction of another woman. Powered with mighty performances and songs that remain evergreen, this one is a must-watch.
Stree portrays the mindless excesses and blindness of the zamindars through the degenerate Madhab Datta (Uttam Kumar). As he falls headlong into debauchery and squanders away a fortune, he sees neither the changing world outside (the British era is coming to an end) nor his home, where his wife (Arati Bhattacharya) is trying to get close to her ex-lover Sitapati (Chatterjee). Chatterjee’s Sitapati becomes a commentator of sorts, who observes the dissipation objectively and anticipates the end, even as he himself partakes of it. As complex as it gets.
Basanta Bilap (1973)
A rom com around the war of the sexes, Basanta Bilap, like Chhutir Fnade, showcases Chatterjee’s impeccable comic timing. Co-starring formidable actors like Aparna Sen, Rabi Ghosh, Anup Kumar, the film revolves around the rivalry between a group of girls living in a hostel and the boys of the neighbourhood. Good fun till the end.