Everything about Soumitra Chatterjee’s cinematic career has received closeup focus in the myriad articles published since his final exit, but hardly anyone has spotlighted his theatre activities. He remembered fondly his childhood days in Krishnanagar (Nadia, Bengal) where his grandfather and father used to take part in amateur theatre. One of his earliest experiences was Tagore’s play for children, Mukut, performed at home in the courtyard with mattresses as a platform and bedsheets for wings and curtains. His mother helped in cutting tinsel and stitching costumes. He told one interviewer that his first stage appearance in school may have been The Sleeping Princess directed by the Principal. He won medals for his acting and, in his words to another interviewer, theatre “became my first love”.

Enrolling in City College, north Calcutta, he continued acting, and as an MA student in the University of Calcutta, won Best Actor at an Inter-University Youth Festival in New Delhi. But seeing the legendary Sisir Bhaduri on the commercial stage truly ignited the latent spark, making him consider becoming a full-time actor, and he decided to model himself on his newfound mentor. He used to visit Bhaduri regularly and learn about acting (in theory) and voice training. It thrilled the young acolyte no end when he got a chance to perform alongside the master in a 1957 revival of Praphulla before Bhaduri’s death (in 1959). His sensitive filmic style, therefore, descended directly from Bhaduri’s fabled naturalism.

Satyajit Ray’s discovery of him could have easily meant no looking back to the stage for Chatterjee, but his reminiscences of Ray’s tutelage reveal an important theatrical sidelight. Ray loaned his own copy of that bible of realistic acting, Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares, to Chatterjee, who acknowledges his inexpressible debt to it. He not only returned in 1963 to the Star Theatre as the hero in Tāpasi, he also featured in it for the first hundred nights before screen commitments intervened. In the next fifteen years, he could grace the stage only occasionally, for charity shows (including under directors like Ajitesh Bandopadhyay and Utpal Dutt). Among these, two stand out that launched his work in adapting and directing: Bidehi (1972, from Ibsen’s Ghosts) and Rājkumār (1973, from Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife, significantly about a filmstar’s professional disillusionment).

When he literally staged a full-fledged comeback in 1978, he seemed to have formulated an individualistic agenda: to bring Ray’s neorealistic mise-en-scene and group theatre’s progressive ideology and artistry to commercial playhouses dependent on the box office. This proved his signal contribution, because everyone dismissed the possibility of such a bridge, for apparently the twain could never meet. It made him take the labour-intensive step of scripting and directing in addition to acting the lead. His first such venture, Nāmjiban, actually originated in an adaptation done by his wife Deepa for her theatre group, of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John, a British playwright born in Trinidad. The naturalism stunned audiences; no less than Utpal Dutt reviewed it euphorically over four pages in his magazine Epic Theatre:

“The lesson on realistic theatre that Stanislavsky gave to the world, that lesson which is nearly always disregarded in Bengali theatre due to laziness and coarseness, Soumitra-babu has endeavoured astonishingly to re-establish. … Nāmjiban is a challenge, a manifesto of non-compromise, a sadhana devoted to ideals. This play doesn’t let the viewer escape to some imaginary paradise, it stands him face-to-face with the lower depths, it vexes the petit bourgeois with the whip of irony, it disturbs his satisfied mind again and again.”

Chatterjee himself creatively Indianized or dramatized nearly thirty plays in his lifetime, one-act and full-length, from a widely eclectic variety of modern authors. He had a quirk of naming himself as the writer, firmly believing (as he once stated at a seminar) that Bengali theatregoers would not buy tickets for a drama advertised as by a foreigner. But he readily credited his sources when asked in conversations, and in his published collected works he has printed their titles scrupulously. They testify to his voracious reading – something that few in current theatre can boast of, regrettably.

They also point to another praiseworthy trait: he often selected lesser-known texts by literary giants, even Tagore, for instance, whose short story Paylā Nambar he dramatized brilliantly much later. Among obscure plays, he had done this first with The Big Knife (Rājkumār, revived in 1983) and repeated the practice on his next hit, Nilkantha (1987), taken from Turgenev’s neglected A Poor Gentleman (which won Anglophone appreciation only recently as Fortune’s Fool). Satyajit Ray reportedly liked Nilkantha the best of all Chatterjee’s productions, for his “unforgettable” acting. See him in the photo alongside.

After introducing uncommon down-to-earth realism in the north Calcutta industry, Chatterjee had to make concessions for popular tastes by adapting romantic comedies, nonetheless sophisticated, like Ghatak Bidāy (1990, from Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker) and Chandanpurer Chor (1994, from Jean Anouilh’s Thieves’ Carnival). Yet he persevered with decidedly uncommercial fare in Pherā (1987, from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s classic dark “tragic comedy”, The Visit) and Tiktiki (1995, from Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, which has only two men playing cat and mouse). His direction of the first act in the latter matched Shaffer’s intent, fact and fiction so thoroughly confounded that the audience at intermission wondered whether the play had ended.

Having seen most of his productions since the 1980s, I’ve witnessed his histrionic range, for which I used the word “bravura” more than once. In the same role (Nilkantha), he could move from farce to pathos effortlessly. His flawless enunciation and delivery struck me in Manoj Mitra’s Darpane Sharatshashi (1992). His heroic power and stamina at the age of 75 as Lear was awesome, standing amidst the ruins of an otherwise disastrous production and a poor translation. During the last two decades, picking older characters facing death, he captivated in Prāntapasyā (1998, from Simon Gray’s Life Support), staying onstage the entire duration, even assuming the dying wife’s voice while soliloquizing. It climaxed in the autobiographical Tritiya Anka, Ataeb (2010, inspired by Gray’s account of succumbing to cancer in The Last Cigarette), meditating on first-hand experiences with death during the Famine and Partition, his own illness and fear of dying.

He had phenomenal mnemonic recall, best manifested in his consummate public recitals of long poems from memory. And actor Debshankar Halder attests to his fully dedicated involvement in the progress of a play: “His scene may come later, if he wants he can sit in the greenroom, but he sits in the wings, glued to happenings onstage.” This awareness of live art created in the moment probably made Soumitra Chatterjee regard theatre as “more challenging than cinema.”

[The interviewers mentioned are Amitava Nag and Partha Mukherjee]

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