The Youngest 84-Year-Old: Actor Riddhi Sen Remembers Soumitra Dadu

National Award winning actor Riddhi Sen pens down his thoughts on the late Soumitra Chatterjee.

Updated
Indian Cinema
7 min read
Riddhi Sen with Soumitra Chatterjee.
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“I am extremely lucky to have worked and interacted with him several times, we shared the screen together in a film called Samantaral in 2017. I will never be able to share our interactions, it’s too personal, but for me, whenever he commented on my acting, it meant more than any award and appreciation for me.”
Riddhi Sen

The importance of silence at times is extremely necessary, heavy, the sound of it becomes unbearable, yet, one cannot help but, reside in it. Words seem too shallow to express the void attached to the beginning of Soumitra Chattopadhyay’s journey to an alternate world. Amidst the new found fashion of writing a short form of Rest in Peace and expressing grief with colourful mourning emoticons and garishly red broken heart symbols, amidst ten other photographs and statuses on subjects varying from "which restaurant I visited today" to "my favourite meme" , expressing grief for a celebrated person has two sides, one - a social responsibility, a duty where one feels the responsibility that the mourning should be visible, two - a category of people who need to row the boat in the opposite direction of the current.

On the very day of a demise, few people need to hold the deceased accountable for his/her imperfections and flaws and throw arrows of questions on the social media court, forgetting the idea of ‘genuine grief’ and the notion of ‘when to criticise’, both parties’ aim often become a situation of trying to gain importance on social media by using a death. Thus, it’s immensely difficult for me to encapsulate my feelings in words for someone whose first identity to me was that of my grandfather’s . My grandfather Shyamal Sen, who was a giant in the world of theatre, who had a huge contribution in the renaissance of Bengali theatre, passed away much before I was born. He left too early, without achieving half of what he deserved. His untimely demise still bothers me, I have only heard his stories from my parents (Reshmi and Koushik Sen) and my grandmother (Chitra Sen).

One the closest persons I had in my growing up years was my maternal grandfather, Dwijen Bandyopadhyay, until his demise in 2017 left me shaken, leaving with me the understanding of the most relative concept in the world, ‘time’. The only grandfather I had till 2020,15th November was Soumitra dadu. I was born in a family of actors, thus from a very tender age I was exposed to the world of theatre and cinema. I have been immensely privileged to see, interact and learn from masters like Mrinal Sen, Joy Goswami, Shankhya Ghosh, Rudraprasad Sengupta and so many giants from the world of literature, theatre, cinema and music. From people, who never bowed down to the increasing wave of mediocrity.

A young Riddhi Sen with Soumitra Chatterjee.
A young Riddhi Sen with Soumitra Chatterjee.
(Photo Courtesy: Riddhi Sen)
Whenever Soumitra dadu visited our house, for a long time I was oblivious of his eminence, for me, he was like my grandfather. He had one of the longest associations with my parents. My father started working with him in professional theatre from the age of nineteen, he directed him in several plays and worked under his direction too.

Soumitra dadu became the first president of our 28-year-old theatre group Swapnasandhani, under which, one of the most celebrated and timeless theatre productions of Bengal, Tiktiki got staged. Tiktiki was an adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth, it was adapted and directed by Soumitra dadu with a cast consisting of him and my father, the play was performed more than a hundred times and created history.

After that, till 2019, my father and he worked together in several plays, films and recitations, leaving me with an opportunity to watch this human being and artist very closely. His body of work is so dense that it’ll take me a lifetime to know him properly, but whatever little I observed, couldn’t help but make me fall in love with him unabashedly.

There are much more able people than me who can talk about the sheer genius and incomparable versatility of this man, but for the youth of 2020, I would like to focus on a completely different aspect of him. We all are aware of his gargantuan acting prowess, his extraordinary sense of rhythm, his enormous body of work as a poet, his unforgettable recitations, his unstoppable strokes of paintbrushes and his voice of protest, but above all these, we need to recognise the philosophy which drove this man, a philosophy which is losing its relevance everyday in a world full of jellyfish and compromises, we need to understand why he was the last of whom we refer as the ‘greats’, the fearless individual who used fear as his weapon, not as his weakness.

In order to be the complete artist, what we need is to learn is his philosophy towards life. A life driven by values, unfaltering simplicity and childlike inquisition towards life itself which is absolutely lost in a world full of gimmicks. Often when we refer to someone as a living legend, we forget to look beyond this term, our mind sight gets limited within the self responsibility and heaviness of the word ‘legend’, we become unable to trace back and study the philosophy behind the path he has walked.

This is something which Soumitra dadu disliked, he never wanted anyone to stop themselves from questioning him because of the shield of this word called ‘legend’. He never rested, he found his rest in poetry, in acting, in expression. He embraced the paradox of hiding and expressing himself at the same time in his performances and writing, he never believed in the dumb concept of differentiating our ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ life, his personal experiences reflected in his work and his professional experiences became a guiding light in his path of privacy.

He had the power to accept criticism with dignity and he criticised with knowledge and education in times when criticism has lowered down to abuse and personal vengeance. He proved the word ‘façade’ wrong, without exception every single time.

As a star, he never covered his face behind the black windows of a car, as an intellectual he never shaded himself behind dark glasses and remained unburdened from the ego of being a ‘thinking actor’. His step towards every art form he inhabited was initiated by honesty, not by creating a gimmick for the sake of showing off his prowess of being a multi-talented individual.

Soumitra dadu enjoyed tea from a roadside tea-stall and warm shingaras (samosas, one of his most favourite) not for a Facebook post, he never sold his simplicity, something which we have learnt to do from a very early age.

When he got admitted for COVID-19 at the Belle Vue hospital last month, the first thing asked for was his pen and diary, so that he could continue his writing. He signed the petition against the rise of intolerance and communalism in India and stood by the students of Presidency University during the anti-NRC and anti-CAA protests at the age of 84.

Increasingly we are becoming strangers to the concept of voicing a political opinion without being party to a particular colour. He will always remain an example of how an individual can be active in politics without taking sides. His life reflected his belief in Marxism, which was never narrowed down and constricted within a political party, the meaning of politics for him was beyond the notions of any party, it was a responsibility and sensibility which every artist needs to have.

In the span of 84 years of his life, we only notice the shining gems but we forget to recognise his insane ability to not give in to pain. At a time when we give up easily, when we get depressed because we didn’t get enough likes on an Instagram photo, he never stopped working even in the worst of times. He didn’t accept defeat and stood strong after his grandson Ronodeep Bose met with a fatal accident. He kept the windows of his mind open, learning, writing, adapting and re-creating, being oblivious to a frequently met word ‘frustration’.

In totality, he became a face, an individual, which every generation connected to. Thus, we are mourning the loss of not only an ocean of talent, but a person whose philosophy needs to be a guiding light for a world surrendering to mediocrity, where actors learn to make a diet-chart and an Instagram account before they learn to act, where everybody dissects a poetry on Facebook, where many producers and filmmakers are interested in turning cinema and actors into products, where the word dignity in politics is lost and freedom of speech is slaughtered, where we are always looking for a short cut. In such a world, we can't constrict Soumitra Chattopadhyay with the word ‘legend’, we need to look through this word so that we, the youth, get to learn from one of the youngest 84-year-olds, who refused to age.

I am extremely lucky to have worked and interacted with him several times, we shared the screen together in a film called Samantaral in 2017. I will never be able to share our interactions, it’s too personal, but for me, whenever he commented on my acting, it meant more than any award and appreciation for me.

In my first interview I mentioned, "I will always be a fan of Soumitra dadu and I love his acting more than my father’s" and the interview was printed with the caption that “Soumitra dadu is my most favourite actor”, he kept that particular newspaper away with him and showed it to everyone beaming with happiness and pride, it is one of the memories which will always make me smile.

Almost the entire city came to Rabindra Sadan and walked till Keoratala cremation ground in the walk arranged by Chief minister Mamata Bannerjee. As we walked with candles and posters in hand, I noticed so many elderly people standing on the balconies of my old city, like distant stars who were burning out, staring at their hero for the last time through eyes soaked in tears and disbelief. I heard so many people of my generation howl in tears for this octogenarian dreamer, I saw TMC, CPI(M), BJP and Congress members walking in unison keeping their political differences aside, I saw Poulomi Bose , one of the strongest fighters I have ever seen, the daughter who fought beside her friend, her father till his last breath and all of it reminded me of a poem, which reflected the life of this man called Soumitra Chattopadhyay . As the first smell of winter and flowers paved the way for my hero’s farewell, it reminded me of:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

(Riddhi Sen is a National Award winning actor.)

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