Mar 23, 2012 at 12:28pm IST

Arnab Ray's column: The essential Soumitra

Apur Sansar: For Apur Sansar, the final film in the Apu Trilogy, the great director plucked a young radio announcer and small-time theater actor from anonymity to play the titular role. Soumitra Chatterjee. Nurtured by Ray's genius, Soumitra brought to the world of light and shadows the unforgettable character of Apu, boyishly handsome, romantically intense and poetically fragile, journeying on the lyrical road of life, pushing aside the poverty, despondency and death that he encounters on the way.

That last scene of Apur Sansar in which Apu's face becomes an almost wordless kaleidoscope of sadness, joy, guilt and hope as he reunites with his estranged son Kajal is so heart-wrenching that not even the greatest curmudgeon can prevent the eyes from welling up with tears. It was as triumphant an arrival of a great actor as one could hope for. So sensational was he that would go on to become the exacting Ray's favorite actor for all time.

Jhinder Bandi: If the Tamils have their Rajani vs Kamal Hassan, the Bengalis had Soumitra vs Uttam. Who is the better actor? Who is more drool-worthy? The verdict is still divided, just like whether ilish tastes better with shorshe (mustard) or as a patla jhol (thin curry). Tapan Sinha's adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda, Jhinder Bandi pits the two demi-gods against each other in Douglas Fairbankian sword-play, with Uttam as the hero and Soumitra as the anti-hero. Who won this battle of performances? Many think it was Soumitra.

Arnab Ray's column: The essential Soumitra

Author Arnab Ray picks his 10 favourite performances of actor and Dadasaheb Phalke awardee Soumitra Chatterjee.

Abhijaan: Soumitra would go on to make his career playing the Bangali male ideal. In Abhijaan, definitely Ray's darkest film, he goes absolutely against type to play an angry uber-macho Rajput cab-driver, who lives on the edge—whether it be speeding his cab on unsteady highways, walking on the wrong side of the law or getting involved with risky women. One of Soumitra's most intriguing roles, purely because of how outside his comfort zone he is, Abhijaan highlights one of the most important attributes of a true artist. The courage to take a risk.

Saat Paake Bandha: One of the best non-Ray Bengali films of the era, sitting perfectly at the cusp of popular and arthouse, Ajoy Kar's Saat Paake Bandha is a fascinatingly mature deconstruction of the break-up of a marriage. Cast opposite the legendary Suchitra Sen, a formidable actress herself and the one given the meatier part, Soumitra still manages to steal the show as the vulnerable, unyielding husband, too proud to compromise, even as the beautiful relationship he has his with his wife dissolves. Possibly his most nuanced performance in a non-Ray film, he makes you feel for him and his internal conflict.

Charulata: Satyajit Ray's greatest work. Soumitra plays a character modelled on Rabindranath Tagore, and if that is not challenge enough, the focus of the film is firmly on Charulata (played by Madhabi Mukherjee), the bored wife of an emotionally unavailable zamindar, whose lonely life is thrown into emotional tumult by the arrival of her husband's brother, Thakurpo Amal. Playing a somewhat self-absorbed l'homme fatale, nonchalantly unaware of the effect he has on women as he flits poetically about with dreams of Mediterranean in his eyes, this is yet another tour d'force from the master thespian.

Akash Kusum: A tragi-comedy about the lies we say for love, a show-case for freeze-frames and other Truffaut-inspired cinematic techniques considered "edgy" for the times, and an extended Marxist metaphor for class-struggle, Mrinal Sen's Akash Kusum is an eternal favorite for Soumitra fans. Here he plays an urban, lower-middle-class Bengali man who borrows the trappings of affluence from his rich friend in order to impress the girl of his dreams. Many of you have seen the comparatively feeble Hindi re-make, Manzil, that finishes with Amitabh Bachchan reading a book titled Physics and winning back the object of his love. More bleak is the Bengali original wherein the tragedy of a man, trapped by birth and circumstance and yet brave enough to reach for the sky and accept the reality of his glorious failure with a last longing look, is brought out brilliantly by Soumitra.

Kapurush: An under-appreciated Ray classic, Soumitra plays a largely unlikeable hero, spineless and timid with a streak of absolute selfishness, who abandons his strong-willed girl-friend once and then, after a chance encounter, tries to win her back. It is a very difficult role, as Soumitra, like a master painter, takes the stereotype of the Bengali romantic hero and daubs it with strategic strokes of grey. A must-watch.

Teen Bhuboner Paarey: A rather standard issue story of the curative power of love, this is essential for the Soumitra experience purely because of how effectively he discards his cerebral serious image to embrace pure commercial cinema. One of his biggest commercial hits, it had amazing music, sizzling chemistry between him and Tanuja and Soumitro essaying the role of a wise-cracking 'chengra chele' (rough translation: bad boy). And yes he also dances the twist. He would go on to do a few more light frothy romantic comedies like this (Basanta Bilaap comes to mind where 'Miss 1976' Aparna Sen sings seductively about her "statistics" while Soumitra goofs around disguised as an old man), making out-and-out commercial movies another vital part of his oeuvre.

Sonar Kella: Soumitra plays Feluda, the iconic Bengali detective. He plays it so well that he essentially kills the character - none of the actors who have tried to play Feluda after him could fill his shoes. The original is just too overpowering. Here the great man is timing personified - whether it be his significant silences, the sarcastic wisecrack thrown carelessly, the contemplative arch of the eyebrow or the whipping out of the pistol. Sonar Kella is all fun, and there are many fine reasons for watching it, none greater than of course Soumitra's rugged suavity.

Aatanka: "Apni kichu dekhen ni". You have not seen anything. A hellish vision of urban dystopia in modern-day Kolkata, Tapan Sinha's terrifying Aatanka has the finest of Soumitra Chatterjee's later performances. As the idealistic school-teacher whose family is plunged into an unending nightmare after he witnesses a political murder committed by an ex-student, Soumitra's character becomes a metaphor for the Apu generation, old and disillusioned in the 80s, their post-independent optimism replaced by bewilderment at a world whose unrelenting evil they can scarcely comprehend. Truly an acting masterclass.

(Arnab Ray is a popular blogger who writes under the name the Greatbong and is a published author of two books May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss and The Mine.)

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