“All of us here are proud and possessive about him. Everybody has his or her own Soumitra story to share. He was the rajputra (prince) of Bengali films, the last of the Mohicans,” said actor-director Arindam Sil, who moderated the event — Soumitra Chatterjee, Glowing Memories — organised by the St Xavier’s College Calcutta Alumni Association in collaboration with the Film Federation of India on Monday evening.
The participants were Sandip Ray, Atanu Ghosh, Suman Ghosh, Goutam Ghosh, Koushik Sen and Gargi Roy Chowdhury.
“He will live forever amongst us… for representing the complete life cycle of a deeply sensitive person with a unique perception of life,” Father Dominic Savio, the principal of the college, said in the keynote address.
Director Sandip Ray described Chatterjee as a family member, because of the actor’s three-decade association and 14 films with his father, Satayjit Ray. “With him (Chatterjee), we have lost an extremely important character actor,” said Sandip Ray.
But for all his prowess as a character actor, there was one character that Chatterjee refused to play on screen.
When Sandip Ray was making Feluda films, Chatterjee was too old to play the sleuth. Sandip Ray had offered him the role of Sidhu jyatha (Siddheswar Bose, Feluda’s uncle with an encyclopaedic knowledge and a photographic memory).
“He refused to play Sidhu jyatha’s role on the big screen. He said: ‘I cannot share the big screen with (another) Feluda,’” Sandip Ray recounted at the Zoom session.
Gargi Roy Chowdhury, actor, spoke of the dry humour that never left Chatterjee. When his turn came, director Atanu Ghosh, who has worked with Chatterjee in films like Rupkatha Noy (2013) and Mayurakshi (2017), reaffirmed that.
Ghosh remembered the first time he saw Chatterjee as a kid — at a pharmacy in the area Deshapriya Park, his mamabari’s para. He had gone to the store to buy some medicine for his maternal grandfather. Chatterjee walked into the same store and bought some pills. Ghosh was awestruck and kept watching till Chatterjee walked out of the store and drove away in an Ambassador.
Years later, when the two were working together, Ghosh had reminded Chatterjee of the incident. “Do you remember what medicine did I buy? Must have been something for a headache, which is inevitable in this profession,” Ghosh remembered a poker-faced Chatterjee telling him.
Ghosh also talked about Chatterjee’s passion for cricket. “He was like an encyclopaedia on cricket. With eyes closed, he could reel off statistics like how many times Sunil Gavaskar opened the bowling for India,” he said.
Koushik Sen, actor who helms Swapnasandhani theatre group, remembered how Chatterjee offered him a chance to follow his passion at a critical phase of his life.
The year was 1986 when Sen’s father had been bedridden following a cerebral stroke. Sen, whose passion was acting and the stage, was forced to work at a private firm to help sustain his family. He had “resigned to the fate that I would not be able to become an actor” when a letter from Chatterjee reached his father.
Chatterjee was gearing up to stage a play at Star theatre. “I want your son for a role. Can I get him?” Chatterjee had asked.
“The letter allowed me to quit my job, earn something every month in a professional theatre group and follow my passion. It was a huge opening for me,” said Sen.
The two have had a long association on the stage, with Tiktiki being one of their most successful collaborations. The edge-of-the-seat thriller was based on Antony Shaffer’s play, Sleuth, adapted for the big screen with Sir Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine.
Chatterjee had scripted the successful stage adaptation for the Bengali audience. “The two of you outshone Olivier and Caine,” Sandip Ray told Sen on Monday.
Suman Ghosh, a Miami-based economics professor and filmmaker, said Chatterjee would be happiest in the company of books.
His directorial debut, Podokkhep (2008), in which Chatterjee had acted, was “loosely based on” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where an ageing man starts behaving like a kid. “He needs an intellectual stimulus… I gave him the book to read… He would be very happy to get things to read,” he remembered.