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.