Soumitra Chatterjee, a Bengali actor who starred in celebrated films by director Satyajit Ray, playing wide-eyed young men, cocky intellectuals and charming detectives in movies that were widely admired for their visual poetry and emotional depth, died Nov. 15 at a hospital in Kolkata, India. He was 85.
The cause was complications from covid-19, according to Indian media reports. Chatterjee had been hospitalized in early October after testing positive for the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. In a tweet, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called his passing “a colossal loss to the world of cinema” and to the “cultural life of West Bengal and India.”
In a career that spanned more than six-decades, Chatterjee appeared in nearly 300 feature films and collaborated with prominent Indian directors such as Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen, ultimately expanding his creative ambitions to work as a poet, essayist, literary editor, painter, and writer, director and star of plays. But he was best known for his partnership with Ray, whose films put India on the world-cinema map.
Like Toshiro Mifune in the movies of Akira Kurosawa or Max von Sydow in the films of Ingmar Bergman, Chatterjee was a fixture of Ray’s work, becoming the director’s “one-man stock company,” as film critic Pauline Kael once put it. Collaborating on 14 features, their work together marked a sharp contrast to the melodramas and musical extravaganzas typically made in Bollywood, as Mumbai’s Hindi-language film industry is known.
Reviewing Ray’s Bengali-language Apu trilogy, in which Chatterjee made his feature-film debut, movie critic Roger Ebert wrote that “it is about a time, place and culture far removed from our own, and yet it connects directly and deeply with our human feelings. It is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray.”
Chatterjee was 23 when he was cast as the title character in “The World of Apu” (1959), the final installment in Ray’s trilogy about a poor but high-caste Bengali man who leaves home, tries to become a novelist and finds himself consumed by grief. “When I played Apu, I did not play myself, I played a generation,” said Chatterjee, who saw his own life reflected in the protagonist’s journey from countryside to city.
He was acting in plays and announcing radio programs when he met Ray in the mid-1950s, through a friend who was working as the director’s assistant. By then, Ray had made his directorial debut with “Pather Panchali,” the first Apu film, and was searching for a compelling young actor who could star in “Aparajito,” the sequel.
Chatterjee was deemed too old and too tall for the part. But as he told the story, their meeting inspired Ray to make a third part to the series, which he announced after “Aparajito” won the top prize at the 1957 Venice Film Festival. “He had found someone who could play the adult Apu,” Chatterjee recalled in a 2012 interview with the news website Rediff. “He decided to make the film because he saw me.”
New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther later praised Chatterjee’s performance as “timid, tender, sad, serene, superb,” calling him “the perfect extension of Apu as a man.” Collectively, the Apu trilogy has influenced directors as varied as Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and Dennis Hopper, whose landmark counterculture film “Easy Rider” (1969) featured a meditative scene in which Peter Fonda mirrors Chatterjee’s Apu, running his hand through the grass in a moment of reflection.
Chatterjee was known in part for the expressive power of his gaze – notably while delivering soulful looks as a poet who falls for his cousin’s wife in “Charulata” (1964) and as a screenwriter who yearns for a married woman in “The Coward” (1965), both directed by Ray and starring Madhabi Mukherjee as the love interest.
In an email, Ray biographer Andrew Robinson wrote that Chatterjee’s “finest performances are united by emotional sensitivity combined with educated intelligence,” including as a restless bachelor in “Days and Nights in the Forest” (1970), as a village Brahmin in “Distant Thunder” (1973) and as the beloved detective Feluda in “The Golden Fortress” (1974) and “The Elephant God” (1979), all directed by Ray.
“In this combination,” Robinson added, “Chatterjee epitomized the best of Bengal, like Ray himself.” His comments were echoed by Indian filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who reportedly declared that on-screen, Chatterjee “became the quintessential Bengali – intellectually inclined, of middle-class orientation, sensitive and likable.”
Soumitra Chatterjee was born in the Indian city of Krishnanagar, under British rule at the time, on Jan. 19, 1935. His grandfather and father, a lawyer, were both amateur actors, and Chatterjee recalled staging children’s plays in the courtyard of his home.
“Mattresses were brought out for the stage, bedsheets were used for the curtains, and with the aluminum foil in cigarette packets my parents used to make crowns for us” as props, he told India’s Telegraph newspaper.
After graduating from the University of Calcutta in what is now Kolkata, he received a master’s degree from the school in Bengali literature. He also studied under the noted actor Sisir Bhaduri, though he said he learned film acting primarily from Ray, who emerged as a mentor and father figure while taking him to watch Hollywood movies on Sunday mornings and loaning books on the cinema.
Chatterjee sometimes helped him during productions, once pushing the camera dolly for a shot in “Distant Thunder.” “He would try to stop me from doing it, but I couldn’t stop myself,” he told an interviewer in 1992, shortly before Ray’s death. “Working with Ray, it seems the most natural thing in the world to make his filmmaking efforts move smoothly. He is that kind of man.”
While Ray was celebrated overseas and received an honorary Academy Award, his movies were typically overshadowed in India by Bollywood fare. Chatterjee was often beaten at the box office by fellow leading man Uttam Kumar but had some of the greatest commercial success of his career after starring as Feluda, a kind of Bengali Sherlock Holmes that Ray created for a children’s magazine story and adapted into novels.
“I was finally playing a character that my children would love,” Chatterjee told the Indian Express this year. “But when Feluda became a cult figure, I used to wonder why should people, particularly the young ones, know me only for playing Feluda? Later on, I realized I was mistaken. Even if one young child remembers me as Feluda, that makes me happy as an actor.”
He had two children with his wife, Deepa Chatterjee, but complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Chatterjee played down his film work in recent years – “Given bad material, he turns out a bad performance, because his distaste for the material shows,” Ray once said – yet received a host of awards, including India’s highest film honor in 2012 and the French Legion of Honor in 2018. His final stage roles included King Lear, in a Bengali adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.
“I have a fear: If I don’t work, I won’t exist,” said Chatterjee, who had credits in seven films that were still in production when he died. “I don’t want to burden anyone when I die,” he added in a 2016 interview, “but the dream would be to pass away while I’m acting. Not everyone can be that fortunate. I would call such death an accidental gift of life.”