Soumitra Chatterjee interview: ‘What keeps me going is my sense of obligation towards my audiences’

The Bengali thespian is toplining the family drama ‘Posto’ – only the latest movie that rests on his unwavering ability to reel in audiences.

We met actor and poet Soumitra Chatterjee at a delicate point in his life. The octogenarian, who acted in 14 Satyajit Ray films, is toplining Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy’s Posto as a grandfather who battles his daughter and son-in-law for the custody of his beloved grandson. In a tragic coincidence, Chatterjee’s grandson Ronodeep Bose, an upcoming actor and musician, has been in a coma since a biking accident in March.

After the initial days of shock wore off, Chatterjee was back on his feet and ready to talk about the May 12 release – yet another film that rests on his unwavering ability to reel in audiences. In a career spanning six decades, Chatterjee has been a prolific performer, sometimes averaging four films a year, besides appearing in plays and lending his gravitas to recitations and book readings. The 82-year-old thespian spoke to about the difference between a career and a calling, the joys of learning on the job, and the lessons imbibed from Ray.

Since your debut with Satyajt Ray’s ‘Apur Sansar’ in 1959, you have acted with child actors. What is the secret to getting along with children?
I am afraid I never felt it to be a difficult task. There are a lot of people who feel uncomfortable working with children. I never felt that way. I have always drawn from my experiences while playing a father, a grandfather. My relationship with my children when they were growing up, earlier my relationship with my father when I was growing up, helped me while acting with children.

Also, I had been mentored by a personality in whose films every child actor’s performance and presence have been immortalised. You will not find a single film by Satyajit Ray where children have not displayed special talent. Whenever Ray mingled with kids, he did not treat them as incomplete individuals, but always as complete personalities, and it showed in the way they responded to him. I used to observe how he never took a stern, serious tone to lecture the children. In fact, he never lectured anybody that way. He would give specific instructions and get the required performance from his child actors. It is something I tried to imbibe while doing my bit as a co-actor.

Posto (2017).

Are children more confident than before – and does it show when they face the camera?
I don’t think so. The camera is a very special place. I will share a small anecdote in a slightly different context. In one of my films, there was a character of a sex worker, which was to be played by a woman who held a leadership position with an NGO. A former sex worker, she was a very confident, spirited, articulate person. But when it came to acting, she simply could not do it. Even though it required her to play herself. Eventually the filmmakers had to get a professional actor.

Acting is vidya [knowledge]. You need to be able to gain it. Initially, you cannot tell if a person is absorbing the learning. But maybe somewhere the process begins. Unless the process of absorbing begins, acting cannot be taught.

But you have trained to be an actor.
Not at all.

You started with theatre. Didn’t that prepare you for films?
It is very different. My initial years on the stage did not really help when I started acting in films. I learnt on the job by observing other actors, filmmakers. As I said, acting is a vidya that cannot be taught. But if any individual wants, then only he/she can learn it.

Has anyone ever approached you ever to learn the art? Maybe from among the younger crop?
No. Never. No one has ever come up to up saying they want to learn from me.

What is it about ‘Posto’ that appealed to you?
I look around and see how the old structure of joint families is falling apart. Family members are living scattered lives, living all over the world, looking for job opportunities. The children keep coming back to their parents as and when their individual circumstances permit. Once a year. Once in six months.

But sometimes, there is a miscommunication, a lapse, resulting in misunderstanding, hurt. In this case, there is a little boy who is being brought up his grandparents who are so involved with raising him that over time, they feel they have a right over him. This right could be seen as somewhat undesirable, questionable too. The film is about this conflict and the dilemma and how it is resolved. And I found it extremely relevant.

Shesh Belay from Belaseshe (2015).

You have often expressed your inability to relate to most of the younger filmmakers. This is your fourth film with Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy after ‘Aleek Sukh’, ‘Belaseshe’ and ‘Praktan’. What is it about their approach that brings you back each time?
They acknowledge the fact that they have an obligation to entertain the masses. There are different ways to fulfill this obligation. They do it by dealing with social-familial issues. In the process they also use tearjerkers. But the overall packaging is quite acceptable. Also, since they work as a team, it has its advantages. If one person misses something, the other points it out. They complement each other well.

Is a new generation rediscovering your work through the internet – such as Sujoy Ghosh’s web film ‘Ahalya’, which you were a part of?
I have never felt the need to be rediscovered. Fortunately, even today, every Bengali kid’s first film is Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. As they get older, they watch Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath. Thanks to my directors, not just Ray but also Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen, my work has always been relevant and an intrinsic part of every Bengali’s life.

But yes, I realised that thanks to technology, it is gaining a much wider audience than before. Because of the digital medium, every film buff now has a collection of Ray and Mrinal Sen’s films, or gets to watch them several times a year. Appreciation has always been flowing for me.

Sonar Kella (1974).

You have 250 films in your repertoire. And yet you are still best-loved for your portrayal of Feluda, Ray’s iconic private detective. Does it bother you?
Honestly, it did. When I first portrayed the character of Feluda, I was happy and proud about the fact that I had finally done a film for my children, who were young adults at that time. A film they could watch, their friends could watch.

But eventually I realised that despite acting in so many different kinds of films, every time I went out, people addressed me as “Felu.” I felt a bit disappointed. I kept asking myself, is this all there is to my work? But then again I told myself, maybe I was wrong. It was my mistake. If for generations you are remembered and loved for one film and one role, that in itself is a blessing. What more should an actor want?

Veteran actors face ups and downs, turnarounds and comebacks. Is any of this applicable to you?
None at all. Fortunately my career has always been about gradual progression. I guess it has something to do with my desire to entertain my audiences with variety. I played a Rajput driver in Abhijan and a villainous character in Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi. I recite, I write and I do theatre. Yes, there were phases when some film or the other did not do well. But that was just a temporary setback, because there would soon be something else.

You were also an influential youth icon. You portrayed a young, reckless character in ‘Teen Bhubaner Pare’, in which you danced the twist to the popular song ‘Jibone Ki Pabo Na’.
Yes, that and the romantic song Hoyto Tomari Jonno became extremely popular. Like Salil Chaudhury, Sudhin Dasgupta [the composer of these songs] wrote his own lyrics and set them to tune. They had a different kind of gift – to be able to catch the pulse of the generation.

The character too was inspired by a real life one. All of us knew such people at that time – reckless, adventurous. I tried to capture the spirit of our times with the body language, the style. I guess it worked.

Hoyto Tomari Jonno from Teen Bhubaner Pare (1969).

You are synonymous with William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ on stage. Have you ever thought of portraying any other character from Shakespeare?
Initially, I wanted to do Hamlet. I spent a lot of time researching, working on translations. But somehow or the other, the production did not work out. One day I realised I was too old to play Hamlet. I felt bad – will I never be able to play any Shakespeare on stage? That is when I decided I could never be too old to play Lear.

What keeps you motivated?
It is quite complicated actually.

You see, I have zero sense of self achievement. There comes a point in your life when you wonder, what exactly is your purpose in life? What have you contributed towards your society? If things were conducive, I would have ideally given up everything, like Albert Schweitzer, and served in a labour camp. But I cannot do that. But then I realised, if I can at least bring joy to people’s lives, even if for a few hours, that is also service in some way.

What keeps me going is this sense of obligation towards my audiences. My desire to entertain the people who come to watch me, hoping for something different and something they can carry back with them. They pay to watch me. Whatever I have is thanks to them, not my producers.

I could have gone to Bombay, made a lot of money. I chose a modest life over a glamorous, more commercially successful career. Because I believe there is a difference between a career and a calling. Acting for me is a calling. My performances are my service, my contribution towards the people who have given me so much love and respect.

Soumitra Chatterjee in Charulata (1964).
Soumitra Chatterjee in Charulata (1964).
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.


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