- He was 23 when he started acting.
- He brought Ray’s most powerful characters to life
- He also worked with the Bengal greats Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar
When the legendary Satyajit Ray met the lanky young actor in 1958 for a role in his film, he exclaimed, “My God, you turned out to be too tall. Ray was looking for someone to play a grown Apu, the little boy from his classic movie. Pather Panchali. Finally, the height (5 feet 11 1/2 inches) did not get in the way. Soumitra Chatterjee debuted as Apu in 1959 in Apur Sansar.
Today, Bengal lost its tallest superstar.
Soumitra Chatterjee died on Sunday, weeks after being admitted to the hospital with COVD-19. He was 85 years old. He was 23 when he started acting, playing Apu or Apurba Kumar Roy in Apur Sansar, the third of the great Satyajit Ray trilogy. He brought Ray’s most powerful and complex characters to life and Ray molded him into what he believed to be one of the best actors in the world.
Fourteen movies – that’s the number of times Satyajit Ray directed Soumitra Chatterjee in a movie of Charulata Abhijan Y Aranyer Din Ratri to Devi, Ganashatru Y Gharey baire.
Other Bengal greats, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar, signed him up again and again as well. Even in his 80s, the actor was the star of the Bengali big screen. The Bengal filmmakers wrote scripts centered on a character that only Soumitra Chatterjee could play. Until the end, it was big at the box office with Bela Sheshe, Mayurakshi, Sanjhbati – all the hit movies.
The Dada Saheb Phalke award came in 2012, the Padma Bhushan in 2004. Soumitra Chatterjee had rejected the Padma Shri twice before because, it is said, he felt they were too late and not for his best work. In 2018, France awarded him the Legion of Honor.
Soumitra Chatterjee didn’t just star in movies. He straddled the theater, performing on stage, directing and writing plays, essays, poetry. He painted. He elevated the recitation of poetry to an art that captivated Bengal for years.
His most beloved – the poems of Rabindranath Tagore.
With Soumitra Chatterjee’s death, he’s not just an actor Bengal has lost, he’s not just Satyajit Ray’s muse, Bengal has lost a bit of himself, of what it meant to be Bengali.
Perhaps, in the mold of Tagore and Ray, his last Renaissance Man.
A tall man.