Soumitra Chatterjee has been bestowed the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. It is the most prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in the country where a small list of nominees is finalized by a select Jury appointed by the Directorate of Film Festivals under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The Award has often been criticized for regional politics interfering with the choices resulting in deserving talents being sidetracked and ignored. But regional politics and all, the award is basically anchored to a person who has made a rich and lasting contribution to Indian cinema. Most of these have gone to deserving and veteran talents such as Bhupen Hazarika, (Music and culture), V.K. Moorthy (cinematographer), Naushad (music), Majrooh Sultanpuri (Lyrics), Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand (acting), B.R. Chopra and Yash Chopra (production and direction) and so on. Satyajit Ray won it in 1985, quite late in his career. Tapan Sinha won it when he was completely immobile while Manna De won it late into his eighties.
If Soumitra Chatterjee’s lifetime contribution to cinema spans 53 years with at least 50 outstanding films of the rough total of 300, should he not have got the award much earlier? He once rejected the Best Actor Award for his performance in Goutam Ghose’s Dekha. Then he was awarded the Padma Bhushan and was somewhat appeased. He finally accepted the Best Actor Award for his brilliant work in Suman Ghosh’s Padakkhep in 2008.
He is perhaps, the only Phalke winner whose talent goes far beyond acting in his mentor Ray's films and also beyond films per se. He has done television, he has written, directed and acted in plays as varied as Neelkantha, Sleuth to King Lear to Atmakatha by Mahesh Elkunchwar all in Bengali. He is still in demand as an anchor and commentator in music, radio and theatre programmes. He is a brilliant elocutionist and recitation artist. He has around eleven books of poetry besides an abstract translation of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. He jointly edited one of the best Bengali literary magazines called Ekkhon for many years with Nirmalya Acharya. The publication ceased after Acharya’s death. Except for Bhupen Hazarika, without meaning to belittle the other Phalke awardees, Chatterjee is perhaps the only multi-dimensional personality to have graced the award instead of the award having graced him.
Amitav Nag, an IT professional who edits a brilliant film journal, Silhouette, says he is an ‘enigma’ who, like Amal, the character he portrayed in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, stormed into films like a comet but stayed on for 53 years. Who is Soumitra Chatterjee? Is he the actor who brought characters to life in 15 films by Satyajit Ray beginning with Apur Sansar (1959) and ending with Shakha Proshakha (1990)? Or, is he the man who found it easier to cope with cancer at 77 through The Third Act, Therefore, a play he wrote, directed and acted in last year? Actor-director-poet-writer Soumitra Chatterjee, suffering from cancer, presented his autobiography as a live stage performance. He also entered the world of jatra in 2003. Jatra is a travelling theatre form that moves from place to place.
“I loved to act even as a child. The home environment was not against these things. My grandfather was the president of an amateur dramatic club and we grew up hearing his anecdotes. My father acted in plays produced by a similar group. He was brilliant in the art of reciting poetry. As children, we would often put up our ‘plays’ at home, based on small booklets of children’s plays that could be bought from the market. I recall having ‘staged’ Tagore’s Mukut at home, improvising the stage, using bed sheets for curtains, getting help for props and costumes from my parents. We got a lot of encouragement from our parents. When I was in Std. V, I did a role in The Sleeping Princess for a school function. I loved the very feeling of acting. I found it fascinating. The praises, the back-patting, kept me wanting to do more. When we shifted to Calcutta, I recall having acted in Bengali translation of W.W.Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw for the Inter-University Youth Festival at Delhi in the mid-Fifties during my post graduation. Ahindra Choudhury, a great name on the Bengali stage, was invited to polish our work. It was my Sisir Bhaduri link that finally decided that I wanted to become an actor and nothing else,” reminisces Chatterjee.
He has never elusive about any distinction between art films and commercial films. Just as one can watch him emote a scene with Debasree Roy in Rituparno Ghosh’s Asookh, one can also be privy to a Soumitra Chatterjee performance in a crassly commercial film like Swapan Saha’s Baba Keno Chakor. He has acted under the directorial baton of a much younger star like Chiranjeet in Bhoy. He did not permit his ego to come in the way of an important role in his co-star Aparna Sen’s Paromitaar Ek Din.
Asked about his personal picks from a huge array of wonderful films besides the ones that Ray directed, he picks Sansar Seemantey directed by Tarun Majumdar, Kony, a sports-centred film directed by Saroj De, Raja Mitra’s Ekti Jiban, a fictionalised account of the first lexicographer who wrote the first ever dictionary in Bengali, and some memorable mainstream films like Agradaani, Babu Moshai, Baghini, Chhutir Phande, Jodi Jaantem Sudur Niharika . Other favourites are Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum, Ajay Kar’s Malyadaan Babumoshai, Khunje Berai and Stree, Tarun Majumdar’s Ganadevata.
“I am happy about the Dadasaheb Phalke award because it has restored my faith in the public that has sustained me for so many years. But I miss my mentor Satyajit Ray, my great teacher Tapan Sinha and all those who paved the way for me over these 53 years,” he sums up, wistfully.