When the legendary Satyajit Ray met the gangly young actor in 1958 for a role in his film, he exclaimed “Oh dear, You have turned out to be much too tall.” Ray was looking for someone to play a grown up Apu – the little boy of his classic film Pather Panchali. Eventually, the height – 5 feet 11 and a half inches – did not get in the way. Soumitra Chatterjee debuted as Apu in 1959 in Apur Sansar.
Today, Bengal lost it’s tallest superstar.
Soumitra Chatterjee died on Sunday, weeks after he was admitted to hospital with COVD-19. He was 85. He was 23 when he started acting, playing Apu or Apurba Kumar Roy in Apur Sansar, the third of Satyajit Ray’s great trilogy. He breathed life into Ray’s most powerful and complex characters and Ray moulded him into what he believed was one of the world’s finest actors.
Fourteen films – that’s how many times Satyajit Ray directed Soumitra Chatterjee in film from Charulata Abhijan and Aranyer Din Ratri to Devi, Ganashatru and Gharey Baire.
Other Bengal greats – Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar – signed him up again and again too. Even in his 80s, the thespian was the star of the Bengali silver screen. Bengal’s filmmakers wrote scripts centred around a character that only Soumitra Chatterjee could play. Till the end, he was big at the box office with Bela Sheshe, Mayurakshi, Sanjhbati — all hit films.
The Dada Saheb Phalke award came in 2012, the Padma Bhushan in 2004. Soumitra Chatterjee had rejected the Padma Shri twice before that because, it is said, he felt they came too late and not for his best work. In 2018, France bestowed upon him the Legion of Honour.
Soumitra Chatterjee did not just act in films. He straddled the theatre, acting on stage, directing and writing plays, essays, poetry. He painted. He raised the recitation of poetry to a fine art that entranced Bengal for years says Udai N Goswami.
His most beloved – the poems of Rabindranath Tagore.
Paying his richest tributes Udai N Goswami says : With Soumitra Chatterjee’s passing, it’s not just an actor Bengal has lost, it is not just the muse of Satyajit Ray alone – Bengal has lost a little bit of its self, of what it meant to be Bengali.
Perhaps, in the mould of Tagore and Ray, its last Renaissance Man.
A tall man, May MAHADEV Bless His Soul
penned by Udai N Goswami