Monday, November 23, 2020

In Memoriam: Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020)

Soumitra Chatterjee in Charulata (1964).

Soumitra Chatterjee – the name of the Bengali actor who left us on November 15, at eighty-five, of complications from COVID-19 – will be unknown to you unless you’re fortunate enough to be familiar with the films of Satyajit Ray. Chatterjee starred in fifteen of them, a little less than half of Ray’s entire output; Ray (who died in 1992) was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and Chatterjee was his muse, just as Lillian Gish was D.W. Griffith’s. The critic Pauline Kael once referred to Chatterjee as Ray’s one-man stock company, and no phrase could be more apt, since he had such an astonishing range that it hardly seems plausible that one actor could have so many profoundly different characters in his repertoire. He wasn’t a physical chameleon. Olivier prided himself on changing his look so radically from one movie to another – a new face for Richard III, a new loping gait for Othello – that he was all but unrecognizable each time he stepped into part. With Chatterjee the alterations are entirely in the character, in the psychological profile, the emotional make-up, the way he is in the world. He’s buried so deep in each of the men he plays that the spirit that looks out at the camera through his handsome, elegant, movie-star face – the intelligence, the vision, the doubts and sorrows – seems to belong entirely to the character and never to the actor who has taken it on. You never say about a moment in a Chatterjee performance that it’s reminiscent of the way he played another revelation, another romantic scene, another betrayal.

Chatterjee’s first movie role, in 1959, was the post-collegiate Apu in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), the third film in Ray’s glorious bildungsroman The Apu Trilogy. It’s still difficult to believe that Ray had never made a movie before the first entry in this saga, Pather Panchali, and equally hard to fathom how Chatterjee could have given a performance of this caliber in his debut picture. He was twenty-four.  Pather Panchali takes Apu through his early childhood in a tiny village and culminates in the death of his older sister from pneumonia. In the sequel, Aparajito, he loses his father, an itinerant priest and aspiring writer, and then his mother; in between these two losses his intellectual gifts win him a scholarship to attend school in Calcutta. Chatterjee seizes the part after Apu has left university without completing his final degree because he has run out of funds. He’s working on a novel but he hasn’t found his place in the world and feels restless and alienated. His best friend Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) invites him to the arranged wedding of his cousin, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), on an estate in the countryside, but disaster strikes when the groom turns out to be insane. Aparna can’t marry him, of course, but not to wed on her auspicious day would be a scandal and a bad omen, so Pulu begs Apu to step in and save her and the family. On impulse, Apu agrees, but as he and Aparna stand with the wedding bed between them in her parents’ luxurious home he regrets it – they don’t know anything about each other, and he’s a poor young man who believes he has nothing to offer her. He takes her back to Calcutta, and a miracle occurs:  they fall deeply in love with each other and she transforms his life into an earthly paradise. When she dies in childbirth, he’s so devastated that he can’t even look at his baby son; leaving the boy to be raised by his in-laws, he runs away. Pulu tracks him down, working in a mine, and draws him back to the son he’s abandoned – but only, Apu thinks, so he can make arrangements for the child’s education. Then the second miracle happens: a reconciliation between father and son that is, I often think, the most moving scene in the history of movies.

Apur Sansar operates like a Shakespearean romance, tumbling into chaos so overwhelming it doesn’t seem that the protagonist could ever find his way out of it and then, for reasons too mysterious to unravel, ending in the restoration of order. And it’s impossible to separate out what Ray brings to the movie from what Chatterjee does; they seem here – and in all of their subsequent collaborations – to be two halves of the same creative force. Chatterjee’s performance contains so many indelible moments that tracking it is indeed like working your way through one of the performances Gish gave for Griffith, in Broken Blossoms or Hearts of the World or Way Down East. There’s the scene that follows Apu’s Calcutta homecoming with his bride, where he lies in bed watching her prepare the fire on the balcony of their tiny apartment with a look – grateful and proprietary, emotionally and sexually contented – that charts precisely how his life has changed over the months Ray has telescoped. There’s the horrifying scene where his brother-in-law comes to see him to relay the news of Aparna’s death and Apu knocks him down. There’s the moment in a forest – Apu has gone effectively to the ends of the earth in a vain attempt to find peace – where he scatters the pages of his novel to the winds. And there’s the scene where, his face conveying a joy he never imagined he could ever feel again, he walks along the beach with his little boy (Alok Chakravarty) on his shoulders.

Of the first four movies Chatterjee made, three were by Ray; the others are Devi (The Goddess), from 1960, and the 1961 short-story anthology Three Daughters (released in North America as Two Daughters, but Criterion has restored the second section). In “The Conclusion” from Three Daughters he plays a young man who shocks himself by falling for and marrying a tomboy (Aparna Das Gupta) he used to find merely an annoyance. It’s another story – though much smaller in scale and completely different in tone – about the journey from marriage to marital happiness. In Devi, a film of extraordinary daring and psychological complexity, he plays Umaprasad, a young man in nineteenth-century India whose education has distanced him from the traditional ways of his father (Chhabi Biswas), a devotee of the goddess Kali; while he is away from home, his father is convinced by a dream that Umaprasad’s wife is the reincarnation of the deity. Devi is, among other things, a reverse Oedipal story in which the father cancels his son’s independence by depriving his bride of her sexual identity. And it reunites Chatterjee with the exquisite Sharmila Tagore, with whom he made one final movie for Ray, Days and Nights in the Forest, not quite a decade later. His other great female co-star is Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays the lonely wife of a newspaper editor who is drawn to her husband’s visiting cousin (Chatterjee) in Charulata (1964) and then, the next year in The Coward and the Holy Man, the college sweetheart Chatterjee’s character finds again by chance when his car breaks down in the countryside and her husband offers him shelter for the night. The movie is composed of two short stories; The Coward is the one that stars these two actors. At seventy-four minutes, it’s startlingly dense emotionally, the chronicle of a man’s recognition, too late, that he threw away the one thing that might have brought him happiness. (It’s comparable to Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle.”) After you’ve watched the film it’s hard to get out of your head the look of mixed horror and anguish on Chatterjee’s face when his hosts take him out for a picnic lunch and he sees her hand on her husband’s shoulder as he drives.

Perhaps the most unusual piece of acting Chatterjee ever gave in a Ray picture was in the 1984 The Home and the World, set in 1907 Bengal. Victor Banerjee plays a liberal prince, Nikhilesh, who gives his wife, Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee), a western education and encourages her to come out of purdah and develop an intellectual independence. He seals his own doom: when he introduces her to his best friend, Sandip (Chatterjee), a charismatic revolutionary working to liberate Nikhilesh’s people from British rule, she falls under the spell of Sandip’s rhetoric and also his romantic charm. Chatterjee is as authentic in his portrayal of this seductive, spoiled, self-indulgent firebrand as he is, say, in Ray’s 1973 Distant Thunder as the Brahmin who learns how dependent he is on the castes below him and allows the knowledge to alter him.

Aside from Apur Sansar my favorite of Chatterjee’s performances is in the masterful high comedy Days and Nights in the Forest, which I have written about in some detail elsewhere on Critics at Large, so I will be brief in my discussion of it here. He plays Asim, the leader of a quartet of thoughtless young men who go on vacation in the country and find their world upended (or three of them do) by their time there. They encounter two women, sisters-in-law, who invite them to their home; what Asim, the worldliest of the four, and Sanjoy (Subhendu Chatterjee), the headiest of them, discover is how poor they are in life experience by comparison with the widowed Jaya (Kaveri Bose), bowed down by her loneliness, and the brilliant, sensitive Aparna. Aparna is, of course, played by Tagore, and in her scenes with Chatterjee the two actors seem to be operating on pure instinct. They make great acting look like the easiest thing in the world – and like the most honorable of professions.

Apur Sansar, Devi, Three Daughters, Charulata, The Coward and Chatterjee’s last film with Ray, An Enemy of the People, are all available on the Criterion Channel.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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