Soumitra, and the Evolution of a Fan
By Rituparna Roy
The first time I wanted to marry was when I was nine. I attended a maternal uncle’s wedding (one among many in my childhood) and fell in love with my beautiful aunt, my ‘maima’, as she sat decked as a bride – a veritable goddess on earth. I wanted to be that bride-goddess, covered in jewelry, clad in Benarasi, with a crown on my head.
The next time I wanted to be a bride was when I watched Apur Sansar (1959) for the first time. This had more to do with the handsome groom! I was in middle school then, but do not remember the exact year. What I do remember is that I had watched it with my mother, who kept filling in the gaps in Apu’s story even as we watched, as I had seen Pather Panchali (1955) but not Aparajito (1956). I was not paying her much attention. There was another bride I had found arresting, an adolescent one who looked my age. This time, I was not interested in being the bride-goddess; I was totally engrossed in the bride and groom – Apu and Aparna – and their absorption in each other after their wedding. The second half of the film, after Aparna’s death in childbirth, I found very painful and slow and did not understand much of. But the first part was seared into my consciousness. And Apu as last-minute groom and Apu as husband stole my heart. There he was, a handsome young man, asking his bride sensitive questions: how much she knew about him, whether she will be able to cope with poverty, what were her feelings about their strange situation. I had seen some “phul sajja”/“suhaag raat” scenes/songs in films by then, had a vague tingling sensation about them. But this one was different: the bride and groom stood as far away from each other as possible, there was no song, only his anxiousness about an uncertain future and her quiet assurances even as a shy bride.
The twenty minutes of marital bliss that we get in the film was also something I can never forget. It is superfluous to list or describe those scenes – everybody knows them, and enough critics have written about them, too. But the point here is not the cinematic brilliance of those twenty minutes that gives the film its name, but their emotional quotient – the growing intimacy between the newly married couple amidst their domesticity – that even an adolescent like me could relate to.
I saw Charulata (1964) roughly around the same time, I think – with Soumitra famously playing Amal to Madhabi’s eponymous heroine. The good-looking, aspiring writer/husband was now the good-looking, aspiring writer/brother-in-law. Goes without saying, the “good looking” part was a very important factor in my positive response to the film and his character! Once again, I understood very little of the film – the loneliness of Charu and the complex “extra-marital affair” that happens in its wake, even less of the creative aspiration at the heart of the relationship. But I found Charu beautiful (that was enough as far as she was concerned) and I loved the handsome carefree Amal – singing, writing, flirting by turns (till he disappears), all essential qualities in my idea of a lover.
I got acquainted with Amulya too, not long after. But I found him funny; and ‘Samapti’, for me, was wholly Mrinmoyee’s story, and Aparna Sen as the child bride monopolized my attention as I watched the film. I would see Amulya in a very different light, many years later… but that is a different story.
Soumitra thus entered my life in my school days. Not a unique story, that; what was, was that I saw him most in a role that he never played on screen – as Amit Ray, of Shesher Kabita. In the 70 mm of my mind! This is how it began: a Bournvita Quiz Contest question on a Sunday on the novella had my mother summarizing the story for me. The rest of the day was spent reading it, and the next few days translating some favourite passages in my diary. As I read about Amit, Labonya, and Ketaki, I could only visualize Soumitra as the hero. I told my mother that. She gave me an indulgent smile. What I did not tell was that I had imagined myself as Labonya while reading! I tried imagining an adult version of myself – rather unsuccessfully, I must add. Soumitra was, of course, still the Apu-Amal I had been smitten by, agelessly handsome. A part of my mind, most irritatingly, could not get rid of the age-difference between us, the fact that the actor was actually my father’s age. But then, who cared? I had Apu-Amal-Amit as my lover. Everything else was irrelevant.
When Soumitra passed away on 15 November 2020, unlike most of my peers, I did not think of Felu da – the sleuth who was quintessentially a part of my generation’s growing up years and whom the actor immortalized on screen (in Sonar Kella: 1974 and Joy Baba Felunath: 1979) – but these earlier roles of his in Ray films. They were the first to come to my mind probably because childhood memories are always the strongest; and in my impressionable years, Soumitra had defined my very idea of romance and a romantic hero: a man who read and wrote, played the flute and piano, awakened love and aspiration in a woman, was tender and sensitive as a husband, and loved his wife so much that he went mad with grief at her loss.
Ray’s alter ego
In the three decades since my school days, Soumitra the actor had never stopped amazing me. I kept admiring him for new reasons every decade, increasingly with a more critical eye. I particularly admired him in an array of roles that he played as aged fathers, in myriad complex relationships with their daughters (in Atanka, Antardhan, Asukh, Sanjhbatir Rupkathara, Podokhhep). It is important to stress here that Soumitra had a long innings as an actor after Ray passed away; and even when he did films with Ray, he constantly worked with other directors in Tollywood and continued to hold his own as a stage actor-director. But his films with Ray stood apart, both in the range of subjects they covered and the kind of performance that the auteur could extract from him. I understood this much later in life. And he became the most shining example of a director’s actor for me.
Not for nothing was Soumitra called “Ray’s alter ego”: they did fourteen films together. Theirs was one of the most memorable collaborations in world cinema. There have been famous director-actress pairs whose collaborations were fuelled by romance – Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Federico Fellini and Guilietta Masina, to name just two among them. In Fellini and Masina’s case, what began with La Strada (1954) and continued in films like L’Avventura (1960) became a partnership of a lifetime, duly acknowledged by Fellini in his Lifetime Achievement Oscar speech in 1993. Godard and Karina separated after only five years of marriage, but Karina maintained (in the 2007 documentary on them by Luc Lagier – Godard, l’amour, la poésie) that she owed everything to Godard; and their eight films together (including A Woman is a Woman: 1961, My Life to Live: 1962, and The Little Soldier: 1963) remain hallmarks of the French New Wave. The French New Wave also threw up another great duo – of director-actor – that of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Laude (The 400 Blows: 1959, Stolen Kisses: 1968, Day for Night: 1973, being some of their films together). But perhaps the duos that come closest to Satyajit-Soumitra – in terms of the length of association and the sheer number of films done together – are Max Von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal: 1957, The Magician: 1958, The Virgin Spring: 1960, to name but three of their films); and Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa (16 films over as many years, Drunken Angel: 1948, Rashomon: 1950, Seven Samurai: 1954, and Throne of Blood: 1957 being among the most well-known of them).
It would probably take a lifetime for anyone to properly study and compare these collaborations – each unique in its own way and offering something distinctive to world cinema. A 2500-word essay is not the space to do that; and a literary critic like me with just a nodding acquaintance with these masters the least qualified to do so. My point in this essay is really my own evolution as film audience, as a Satyajit-Soumitra fan in particular.
I would like to note here that, apart from the ones enumerated in the opening section of this essay, I saw most of the Ray films with Soumitra as an adult – first on television; later, in DVD (of which I had my own Ray collection); and much later, on the internet (mostly on YouTube and also the ‘Criterion Collection’). It is only when I came to the last two and was able to watch the films as many times as I wanted, at my own pace, that I truly began to appreciate both the director and the actor – though still only as a film enthusiast, with a predominantly literary sensibility and without any knowledge or training in Film Studies.
It is easy to admire Soumitra in films where he plays the lead – the Rajput taxi-driver Narsingh in Abhijaan (1962), a character that was perhaps farthest from him as a man; the coward Amitava in the eponymous Kapurush (1965), who fails to respond to his beloved’s plea to elope to avoid her being forcibly married elsewhere; the revolutionary Sandeep in Ghare-Baire (1984), based on Tagore’s 1916 novel with the first partition of Bengal as its backdrop; and the conscientious doctor in Ganashatru (1990), who puts his life on stake trying to stop people from having contaminated water which they consider “holy”.
This is already a staggering range as an actor, spread over three decades of collaboration with a director: it could only happen because their “wavelengths matched”, as Soumitra once said in an interview, and because there was trust on the director’s part that his chosen actor could deliver. While I undoubtedly savoured Soumitra’s performance in the above films, it is in two other films (where he does not play the lead) that I admired him the most – in Devi (1960) and Shakha-Prosakha (1990).
Coming-of-age as an audience
Soumitra as Apu, especially as the inconsolable husband after the death of Aparna at childbirth, is etched in the Bengali consciousness. To do Devi, right after that, must have been a tough act to follow. And yet, I found him surpassing himself in the role of another stricken husband – whose wife is snatched away from him even while she lived.
In Devi, Soumitra was paired again with Sharmila Tagore, in what she later considered to be her career’s best role. The story had moved further back in time in Bengal – from early 20th century to the mid-19th – this time an adaptation of an 1899 short story by Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay. Sharmila’s Doyamoyee is the goddess of the title – a goddess she is forced into becoming after her ageing zamindar father-in-law, Kakikinkar Roy, a devout Kali bhakt, sees Ma Kali’s face transforming into hers in a dream. She is worshipped as an idol and is supposed to work miracles… till she cannot anymore, when she is unable, ironically, to cure her beloved nephew, a trauma that turns her already tortured and fragile mind insane. Apu-Aparna’s romance, however short, could blossom in the absence of any intruding parental figure in their midst. By contrast, Umaprasad and Doyamoyee’s budding relationship does not even get a chance to bloom. He is mostly away, studying in Calcutta, while her marital life is lived out more in relationship with her father-in-law – devotion and caregiving on her part, and a strangling affection on his. At his sister-in-law’s behest, Umaprasad comes into the picture, as it were, at the very end, when things have already taken an irreversible turn. His confrontation with his father – a desperate and heroic attempt on his part to defy the orthodoxy that was ruining his life – is one of the most dramatic scenes in all of Ray’s oeuvre; a scene in which Soumitra gave one of his finest performances. It is also a scene in which we see two titans clash – the young Soumitra taking on the veteran Chhabi Biswas. No mean feat, that! I woke up to the true power of the film and Soumitra’s brilliant performance in it only very recently, while watching it with my students, intending it as a reference for them in understanding the life of women in 19th century Bengal.
In Shakha-Prosakha, Soumitra got even less screen time than in Devi – playing a mentally ill middle-aged man, Proshanto Majumdar, who was once a promising mineralogist but whose life changed after an accident in England. He is the second in a family of four brothers, who are forced into a hasty reunion when their father, Anandamohan, a renowned businessman, suffers a heart attack, and it is uncertain how long he would survive. The degeneration of moral values in middle-class Bengali life – especially the seeming centrality of corruption in getting ahead in life – is at the heart of the film; and except for Proshanto (who stays with the father and the senile grandfather and lives in a world of his own, immersing himself in Bach and Gregorian chants), all the other brothers living in Calcutta are shown to have embraced it in big or small measure. This clash of values is dramatized in “an unflinching scene over the lunch table in which two of the brothers viciously argue about black money in front of the others until they are literally stunned into silence by the mad brother’s smashing of his hand over and over again on the table like a hammer” (Robinson, 1989).
Soumitra had consulted a specialist in brain injuries as preparation for this role. But apart from that, Ray wanted his character to have a physical mannerism, like mentally ill people often do, and asked him to adopt one with his hand – thumping it wherever he can. Soumitra agreed. In relating this anecdote in an interview, Soumitra quoted Ray with some relish:
I have given you enough independence during your entire career to think and play your role as you like. But in this particular film, I’m afraid, we will have to work together. Because in a person who is mentally deranged or hasn’t got a mental equilibrium, the behaviour pattern can be of infinite variety. So, we will have to select only those which are significant for this script and this particular story. So there, I believe, your and mine observations should coincide and tally with each other.
The thumping of hands, as a mannerism, had greatly appealed to Soumitra, and the scene described above was the one in which it came to maximum cinematic use. The actor also added a slight twitch of the neck muscles as another mannerism of his character – which Ray, in turn, accepted. “That’s how the two of us kind of collaborated,” Soumitra concluded with a smile.
Shakha-Prosakha was Soumitra’s last film with Ray; and for me, this anecdote about how Ray briefed Soumitra for his role in it, in a way, summarizes the arc of their relationship that began with Apur Sansar. Contrary to popular perception, as has just been noted, Soumitra was no acolyte. According to Sharmila Tagore (his co-actor in three Ray films), he would argue with Ray until he was convinced and often suggested changes in scenes. In an India Today TV interview (‘News Unlocked’) with Rajdip Sardesai, soon after the actor’s death, she related one such scene from Apur Sansar – where Apu and Aparna are returning home in a carriage, after an evening out watching a film. Aparna lights his cigarette, the flame of which illuminates her face. It’s an iconic scene that few who have watched the film have forgotten. But there was a story behind that scene: Sharmila was unable to light the match; after several retakes, Soumitra suggested that somebody from the unit light it and give it to her when the scene is shot. Ray accepted the suggestion and it worked!
This anecdote is symbolic: the flame that was lit in 1959 continued to shine over three decades. And it goes without saying that, from helping a costar in his first film with Ray to figuring out the best shorthand for his character in his fourteenth, Soumitra’s was a unique creative partnership with Ray.
The auteur did not praise him much in public. One of the few times he did was in a letter to Cine Central when they held the retrospective ‘Teen doshoker Soumitra’ (Three decades of Soumitra) in 1990: “I will have faith in Soumitra till the last day of my creative life,” he had written. Recalling this in a 2019 Scroll interview with Amitava Nag, the actor had said, in all humility: “I cannot expect anything higher than this in my life.”
Photo: The New Indian Express
1) The first part of this essay was published as a blog post by the author on 16 November 2020 – ‘KD46: Apu-Amal-Amit’ – the 46th post in her ongoing blog, Kolkata Diaries. ( http://www.royrituparna.com/category/kolkata-diaries/)
2) The author would like to thank Dr. Asijit Dutta (Head of the Department of English, The Heritage College, Kolkata) for his inputs on famous collaborations in world cinema.
Rituparna Roy is Assistant Professor of English at the Heritage College, Kolkata. An alumna of Presidency College and Calcutta University, she has taught at several institutions in Kolkata, Leiden, and The Hague. She is the author of South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh (Amsterdam University Press: 2010) & co-editor of the ICAS Volume Writing India Anew: Indian English Fiction 2000-2010 (Amsterdam University Press: 2013) – both written during her time as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden. Roy blogs at Authors Electric.com and her own website (royrituparna.com), and writes features and reviews for The Wire.in, Scroll.in, The Punch Magazine, Jaggery, and Kaani. Gariahat Junction is her first work of fiction, written mostly during her years in the Netherlands. She is Initiator, the Kolkata Partition Museum Project (KPMP) & Managing Trustee, KPM Trust – that aims at the establishment of a Partition Museum in Kolkata.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.