This is not a traditional interview in the sense normally available. It is sort of a tête-à-tête with the legendary thespian. The conscious rationale was to ask minimally on his film-acting, rather try to focus on other aspects of the artist and the individual which can in some ways throw light on the creative facet. Amitava Nag, editor, Silhouette managed to squeeze thirty-five minutes off Soumitra Chatterjee’s busy schedule.
This staccato conversation ideally would have been wholesome provided adequate time. For now, this is how it went:
Amitava Nag: We know your relation with literature – that you are a playwright, a poet, an essayist and so forth. Tell us, how are you influenced by the other art forms primarily music and painting.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Well, very frankly, I have ever been interested in various art forms since my childhood although my basic interest was in literature. I started writing poetries since my school days. Later I started adapting plays, writing plays but that was out of necessity since I didn’t get suitable plays for my Productions. And I was a literature student – I did my graduation in Bengali literature and then continued my study in MA though I didn’t appear in the MA examinations. But my interest in literature dates back to childhood days when I remember seeing my grandfather writing novels, both my parents were very much interested in literature, they used to read a lot. That’s how the basic interest was in literature. But, there were friends and relations who dabbled in painting. Music was always there in my family. We had a gramophone in our house and hundreds of records. So music also started very early.
Amitava Nag: Was it Bengali music or Western as well?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Then it was mostly Bengali music. When in college then there were few classical as well and after that in mid-twenties or early twenties I started listening more and more Western classical music. So music was always there as well. But painting, music, these other art forms I believe always helps an artist in cinema or theatre because he has an idea of what should look good, visually. And he is inspired by the depth of vision he comes across say by Van Gogh’s paintings.
Amitava Nag: Do you find emotional stability necessary in order to write or act? Or can you get to work whatever be your state of mind?
Soumitra Chatterjee: As far as acting is concerned I can act in any state of mind. I have that much of practice and control over it. But I don’t think I can do the same in my writing for which I probably need a little bit more tranquility. Because I am not a whole-time writer, I need to concentrate more. But, as you know if you wait for the right moment, the right moment may never arrive. Sometimes great upheaval in mind also provokes me to write, particularly poems.
Amitava Nag: Humour in life and in art—how are they related and how important for you?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Humour in Bengali cinema is absent for long. Previously there were great clowns. Tulsi Chakraborty was there. After Tulsi Chakraborty, two great actors Bhanu Bandyopadhyay and Jahar Roy were there, after them Rabi Ghosh. The whole fountain of humour was dependent on them. Otherwise, comedy writing was also quite rare. Whenever there were very good writings we also saw very good comedy films like Sare Chuattor (1953). Most people do not know the writer’s name – the original screenplay was written by Bijan Bhattacharjee. So standard of comedy there was, and was expected to be as well, excellent.
But humour in life is essential. A person without humour probably cannot survive. This reminds me of a comment by Charles Chaplin which I find best defines humour amongst all those I have read – “Humour is a gentle and benevolent custodian of mind which prevents us from being overwhelmed by the apparent seriousness of life”
Amitava Nag: How fastidious are you? How often do you change your writings or your performances?
Soumitra Chatterjee: I am very fastidious. I do change whenever there is any scope which I feel justified. Even if there is a play which has been performed for 100 nights say, I do change here and there whenever I feel that is necessary. When I am rehearsing I am extremely fastidious and I don’t give up until I am reasonably satisfied. Total satisfaction never comes but I am very fastidious about my productions.
Though I am not a full-time writer, whenever I write, then also I am very fastidious – my manuscripts show how much scribbling and striking off is there (laughs).
Amitava Nag: Do you feel art criticism (film / literary / painting) is at all purposeful?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes. Because, it keeps the artist (painter or writer or actor) away from the folly of being over-confident and developing a false sense of superiority. But for that the criticism also has to be of that level. Suppose I am doing a play and George Bernard Shaw writes a criticism of it, I will definitely be benefited. I will think and feel so much, the way he showed in his critique that I would have learned something may be. Here, as far as I remember for theatre criticism say, Mohonlal Ganguly was there. Or say Aparesh Chandra. The way there was a comparative study of Girish Ghosh and Ardhendu Sekhar – the level of criticism was different, written from a creative plane itself. Otherwise, let me be very honest and frank, the newspaper or media reviews, I don’t read at all. I don’t like them. But say if there is one from Sight and Sound, yes I will read because there level is different.
Amitava Nag: Are you open to criticisms?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Why not! But I do believe in self-criticism more, very frankly. And, I am very open to criticism from common people not the critics.
Amitava Nag: Why, are the critics not common people (laughs)?
Soumitra Chatterjee: They are, but they don’t criticize from the point of view of the common people. Whenever any common man comes and tells me “this, whatever you have done in this film is not correct”. Now everyone at first becomes little self-defensive but I always think a second time as to why this person said like this, where is the mistake. And most of the time I have seen he/she is correct from his/her perspective. I may have my own version and an answer but, whoever has criticized like that, does have a point from his or her position as well.
Amitava Nag: Any such example that you can think of?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Not precisely but in my first play Naam Jiban there was probably a poem which was not entirely correct and a very common woman told me the correct one and then I later found out that she was correct and then I rectified it. I do value and honour the common people’s criticism a lot.
Because deep down I know, people like us who are involved in art, even if performing art we don’t belong to the same place where 80 percent of our population belongs – in villages or even in cities but in a completely different existential world – as if there are 2 different countries. Still, if I could ever get an opportunity I would have tried to work for them. I work for the remaining 20 percent of the population – urban maybe, but I don’t work for the critics (smiles).
For the sake of it, say for example there is a revolution today and there is a forum, a platform of and for this 80 percent population and if they call me and ask me to act in the role of a sophisticated, aristocratic villain I would jump to work in that role. But we don’t have this scope. So I have to work within the scope of this theatre or film.
Amitava Nag: How much autobiographical element is present in your work?
Soumitra Chatterjee: In acting, there are certain roles where I have put in my own experiences in life into the subtext of the character. For example in Saroj De’s Koni (1984) – I have a perfectionist teacher insider me. So I imbibe a lot into that character taking from my own persona.
Soumitra Chatterjee played the role of Apu in Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar. Apu is a young idealistic man who embodies the migrant body in an urban space navigating ambition, opportunities and relationships that a city offers.
Amitava Nag: But you had been exceptional as Aghor, the thief in Sansar Seemantey (1975) as well.
Soumitra Chatterjee: There it is different, my understanding of the society is what I tried to portray. But in Koni I did play a lot of myself, similarly, say for Amal (Charulata) or say for that matter Apu (Apur Sansar). Apu is my generation, I can represent my generation there. That is there as an undercurrent – emotional or mental autobiography.
When I write essays, most of the times I write my experiences – what I see and feel and can derive. In my plays also there are many experiences of my own life – directly or indirectly. So, experiences every author or creative person has and incorporates in his art – that may not always be autobiographical. In acting, there is a lot of emotional autobiography I can say. My most recent theatre is autobiographical – candid and direct, this type of theatre never happened in our country. I am not talking of good or bad, I am talking of the structure and subject.
Amitava Nag: Apollinaire, the poet, talks about the long quarrel between tradition and innovation. How much traditional are you and when do you feel the urge to be innovative?
Soumitra Chatterjee: I spring out of tradition. But I always look forward, that’s my attitude towards life. Without tradition, I cannot advance.
Amitava Nag: Coming to the question of tradition, apart from Bengali literature don’t you feel the Bengali tradition is very young (consciously since the Renaissance primarily) as compared to the South or the North West or West India? Say for example sculpture or dance – we don’t have a tradition dating back to tens of centuries.
Soumitra Chatterjee: To a certain extent yes. But there had been a lot of richness in our folk culture. Say for example Gambhira or Chhau – I do consider these as very rich art form. The craft in Chhau might not have the sophistication of Bharatnatyyam but its rawness is so rich and varied. And rural Bengal or India thrived on this folk art.
The British gave us the theatre in the form what we see today but in its course, our folk theatre – Yatra is completely ruined. Today whatever is being done in the name of Yatra is all rubbish.
Amitava Nag: Many of the theatres or cinema or novels what we read today are searching for something, may be roots or may be something else. Do you feel this urban art practitioners are in general somewhere disconnected from the folk art which you mentioned as the mainstay of our folk culture-based tradition?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes. Most of them are at the most ‘informed’ about folk art. But they have never touched them in the true sense.
Amitava Nag: Erskine Caldwell, the American author says, “To be popular you have to be exploited”. You agree?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Sometimes yes. However, I would say – To be popular you have to compromise sometimes. If you are so unbending as to not compromise at all then you remain a distant figure. At the most, you may be admired or get little respect but you cannot be popular.
Amitava Nag: Do you believe art to be a transcendental function i.e. a means to rise out of parochial, narrow states of mind?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes. Ultimately, yes.
Amitava Nag: Do you fear technology in the sense that no one will read books or visit cinema halls to see films, rather download films from internet and watch them?
Soumitra Chatterjee: In the first place I am a complete computer illiterate. I always stayed away from computers because my plate is full. I cannot bite what I cannot chew.
Amitava Nag: But what you said earlier and we know from many of your interviews as well, that you always look positively towards the future and you want to walk forward and not back
Soumitra Chatterjee: Yes. I would have taken to computers if I were little younger. When computer was at its full swing here may be 8-10 years back, I found that if I start learning it and working on it then I will be so involved that I will not be able to do my other work. My time is limited. But somehow my hunch is, I would have not liked reading something from the computer – print media is always better.
Amitava Nag: What type of books you read? Almost anything that is written and that comes in your hand or you choose?
Soumitra Chatterjee: I haven’t read many novels when I was young. Now I read novels more than I used to before as a matter of relaxation. But very late now I have a rethinking and I will reduce reading these light materials even more. At this age human memory decreases and deteriorates. So reading more heavy material makes the brain to work more than light ones and the memory loss is slowed down.
Amitava Nag: Is this your theory?
Soumitra Chatterjee: No my doctors told me this. The fight against Alzheimer’s or Dementia can be reading little complex and heavy books.
Amitava Nag: Did you feel somewhere, you remained a regional actor who more or less most of the time played the “Bengali Middle-class Conscience” role? Also, do you feel, your association with Satyajit Ray was not highlighted the same way many others were done viz. Mifune-Kurosawa, Sydow-Bergman.
Soumitra Chatterjee: I don’t think that our association was not highlighted much.
On the first part of the question, I have remained, out of my own choice a regional actor. I didn’t migrate to Bombay. And I also don’t consider a Bombay actor, in essence, a national actor. They are Hindi film actors, not national. However, by virtue of acting in Satyajit Ray’s my identity transcended to an international actor.
Amitava Nag: Ok. International is fine. How well do you feel you are recognized nationally?
Soumitra Chatterjee: It's there amongst educated people outside Bengal as well. I have seen, say Delhites, non-Bengalis who have known me and appreciate my acting. Also Bombay film industry – apart from Naseer, Smita even those who don’t work in that type of parallel films, most of them know about me quite well – they admire me but probably feel I am a bit distant. For example, Amitabh Bachhan knows, after he did The Last Lear (2007), he enquired “Has Soumitra seen it, arrange for it, what he tells after seeing” – this type. He values my opinion I guess. That recognition I do get. But I don’t expect more than that. It would be wrong on my part if I don’t be part of that industry and still expect a lot out of it – this cannot take place simultaneously, right?
Amitava Nag: You mentioned of your most recent theatre plan. Can you elaborate?
Soumitra Chatterjee: It is candidly autobiographical. There is one character played by three actors since otherwise there may be monotony in form. All three play the role of Soumitra Chatterjee. It’s a slice of my life. I have now named it taking cue from Jibanananda – Tritiyo Anka.. Otoeb. This is different from Atma Katha (adapted from Marathi – Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Atma Katha) my latest theatre which has a 78-year-old Padma Bhusan writer as the central character who is writing an autobiography – mainly dictating it to someone else. But Tritiyo Anka is my autobiography. I expect it to start shows in December.
Amitava Nag: So is it that at this age of your life, you are nostalgic and you want to tell people what you are. Probably you have been misread by Bengalis a lot and so you think the best person to answer is you and best way is through your own theatre?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Not really. There is a little nostalgia in the beginning but most of it is set in the current times.
No, even if I am misread, I cannot be my own propagandist.
Amitava Nag: Finally, do you believe in a better world?
Soumitra Chatterjee: Oh yes, but that’s a dream. A dream world – basically a rural Bengal with urban facilities like in Europe where there will be no poverty and there will be equality amongst people.
Amitava Nag: Soumitra Chatterjee, we wish you great work, work that keeps you challenged and makes you happy.
Soumitra Chatterjee: Thank you.
Cinemaazi thanks Amitava Nag for contributing this interview which was originally published in Silhouette Magazine on 10 November 2009 (https://learningandcreativity.com/silhouette/i-can-act-in-any-state-of-mind-soumitra-chatterjee-interview/ ). The images used in the feature have been sourced from the internet.
Amitava Nag is an independent film critic and editor of film magazine 'Silhouette' (www.silhouette-magazine.com) since 2001. Till date Amitava has authored 5 books on cinema including 'Satyajit Ray's Heroes and Heroines', '16 Frames' and 'Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite Films of Soumitra Chatterjee'. Amitava also writes poems and short fiction in Bengali and English and authored a collection of short stories each in English and Bengali, and an anthology of Bengali poems.His first anthology of English verses and a selected translation of Soumitra Chatterjee's poems are awaiting publication.