Soumitra Chatterjee inaugurating a Puja at Behala in 2013
19 January 1935 |
Krishnanagar, Bengal Presidency, British India
(now in West Bengal, India)
|Occupation||Actor, Recitator, Poet, Thespian|
|Years active||1959 – present|
|Height||6.2 ft (189 cm)|
Soumitra Chatterjee or Soumitra Chattopadhyay (Shoumitro Chôṭṭopaddhae; born 19 January 1935) is an Indian film and stage actor and poet. He is best known for his collaborations with film director Satyajit Ray, with whom he worked in fourteen films, and his constant comparison with the Bengali cinema screen idol Uttam Kumar, his contemporary leading man of the 1960s and 1970s.
Starting with his debut film, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), the third part of Apu Trilogy, he went on to work in several notable films with Ray, including Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962), Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969); Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973); Sonar Kella (The Fortress, 1974), Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1978), Ghare-Baire (The Home and The World, 1984) and Ganashatru (Enemy of the People, 1989). Meanwhile, he also worked with other noted directors of Bengali cinema, with Mrinal Sen in Akash Kusum (Up in the Clouds, 1965), Tapan Sinha in Kshudista Pashan (Hungry Stones, 1960), Jhinder Bandi (1961), Asit Sen in Swaralipi (1961), Ajoy Kar in Saat Pake Bandha (1963), Parineeta (1969), and Tarun Mazumdar in Sansar Simante (1975) and Ganadevata (1978).
He was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 2004. In 2012, he received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India's highest award in cinema given by the government of India for lifetime achievement. He has won two National Film Awards as an actor, and as an actor in Bengali theatre, he received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1998, given by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India's National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama. In 2014, he received the introductory Filmfare Awards East for Best Male Actor (Critics) for his role in Rupkatha Noy.
Early life and background
Soumitra was born in Krishnanagar, a town in Nadia district of West Bengal, 100 km from Calcutta, in 1935. The town under the influence of playwright Dwijendralal Ray, also from Krishnanagar, had a flourishing theatre culture, with numerous small theatre groups. His grandfather was the president of one such group, while his father though lawyer by profession, also worked as an amateur actor. He started acting in school plays. Encouraged by the praise he received his acting, gradually his interest in theatre grew with passing years, thus in late school years, he was taking acting seriously. He was a very close friend of famous theatre personality, Mrityunjay Sil who is often regarded as the person due to which Soumitra is a star. 
Soumitra and his family moved to Howrah and Calcutta during his early years. Soumitra graduated from the City College, Kolkata with honours in Bengali literature, as a graduating student of the University of Calcutta. He has lived for a number of years in Calcutta in Satyajit Ray's old apartment. He studied for his M.A. in Bengali from the University of Calcutta. While still a student, he learnt acting under noted actor-director of Bengali theatre Ahindra Choudhury. However a turning point came when in the final year of college he saw a play by Sisir Bhaduri, theatre director and the doyen of Bengali theatre. The play not only set a standard for acting for him, but also help makeup his mind to become an actor. He managed to meet Bhaduri, though his friend's mother, actress Shefalika Putul. Though, he met Bhaduri, towards the end of his career, when his theatre had closed, nevertheless over the next three years, till Bhaduri's death in 1959, Chatterjee made him a mentor, and learnt the craft of acting through their regular interactions. He even appeared in a small role in one of Bhaduri's productions. 
Subsequently, he started his career working in All India Radio as an announcer, while he was still there he started pursuing a career in films. He came in touch with Ray during the casting for Aparajito (1956), who was looking for new faces. Ray thought he had the right look, however found him, age 20, and just out of college, too old for the role of adolescent Apu. Ray remembered him and offered him the role of adult Apu two years later.  Meanwhile, he was rejected in his screen test for Bengali film, Nilachale Mahaprabhu (1957) directed by Kartik Chattopadhyay.
Work with Satyajit Ray: 1959–1990
Chatterjee had gone on the sets of Ray's fourth film, Jalsaghar (1958) to watch the shoot. He was still unaware that he had been already been selected for the title role. That day, while he was leaving the sets, Ray called him over and introduced him to actor Chhabi Biswas as "..This is Soumitra Chattopadhyay; he's playing Apu in my next film Apur Sansar" leaving him much surprised. Despite being selected, as a debutant actor, Chatterjee was nevertheless unsure for his career choice and especially his looks, as he didn't consider himself photogenic. However, on 9 August 1958, when the first shot of the film was given an okay in one take, he realized he had found his vocation. Thus Soumitra's film debut came in 1959 in Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu (Apur Sansar). In fact Ray believed with a beard Chatterjee looked like young poet laureate Tagore.
Soumitra would eventually collaborate with Ray on fourteen films. His centrality to Ray's work is akin to other key collaborations in the history of cinema — Mifune and Kurosawa, Mastroianni and Fellini, De Niro and Scorsese, DiCaprio and Scorsese, Max von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman, Jerzy Stuhr and Kieślowski. After Apur Sansar, he also worked with Sharmila Tagore in a number of Ray films, apart from working with leading star actor of the period, Uttam Kumar with whom he has often been compared, in eight films.
Chatterjee was cast in diverse roles by Ray and some of the stories and screenplays that Ray wrote were said to be written with him in mind. Soumitra featured as Feluda/Pradosh Chandra Mitter, the famous private investigator from Calcutta in Ray's Feluda series of books, in two films in the 1970s Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath. Ghare Baire, an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore's novel of the same name and one of Ray's major ventures of the 1980s, featured Chatterjee in a leading role in the character of a radical revolutionary in a love triangle with his friend's wife. These roles showcased Chatterjee's versatility in playing diverse characters, especially in an urban setting. In Shakha Proshakha (1990), Ray's second last film, Chatterjee turns out a moving performance in the role of a mentally handicapped son of an aging patriarch on his deathbed and the only source of his father's solace, as his siblings squabble.
Soumitra had approached Satyajit Ray to suggest a name for a little magazine founded by Soumitra and Nirmalya Acharya in 1961. Satyajit Ray had named the magazine Ekkhon (Now), he designed the inaugural cover page and illustrated the cover pages regularly even after Soumitra had stopped editing the magazine. Nirmalya continued editing the magazine, and several of Ray's scripts were published in the magazine. 
Besides working with Ray, Soumitra excelled in collaborations with other well-known Bengali directors such as Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha. He earned critical acclaim for his role of an impostor in Mrinal Sen's Akash Kusum. He was equally confident in playing the swashbuckling horse-riding villain in Sinha's Jhinder Bandi giving the legendary Uttam Kumar a tough challenge. In Teen Bhubaner Pare, he again shared the screen with the Tanuja, and his flamboyant and peppy way of romance. Besides films, Chatterjee has continued acting in Kolkata-based Bengali theatre, and even published over 12 poetry books.
Entering the 1980s and 1990s, he started working with contemporary directors, like Goutam Ghose, Aparna Sen, Anjan Das and Rituparno Ghosh, and even acted on television. In 1986, he played the role of a swimming coach in film Kony directed by Saroj Dey, who was part of the film collective Agragami. The film about a young girl from a slum, who wants to become a swimmer. At the 32nd National Film Awards, the film won the National Film Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment . Later in an 2012 interview, he called Kony one of the best films of his career. He even recalled using film's catch-phrase "Fight-Koni-fight" in hard times, as a chant to himself to lift his "aging spirits". The phrase had become popular with middle-class Bengalis at the time.
He replaced Mrityunjay Sil as the lead artist in 1958. Mrityunjay Sil was at the peak of his theatre career at that time. But due to personal issues he suggested his friend, Soumitra's name. Mrityunjay Sil is often credited to be one of the few people to have helped Soumitra.  But he soon left his job.
After a two-decade long busy career as a leading man of Bengali cinema, he returned to theatre in 1978, with his production Naam Jiban, staged at Biswarupa Theatre in Kolkata. This led to other plays like Rajkumar (1982), Phera (1987), Nilkantha (1988), Ghatak Biday (1990) and Nyaymurti (1996), beside notable plays like Tiktiki (1995), an adaptation of Sleuth and Homapakhi (2006). Besides acting, he has written and directed several plays, translated a few and also branched out to poetry reading in recent decades. 
Since November 2010, he has been regularly performing in the title role of the play Raja Lear directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay, a play based on King Lear by William Shakespeare. Soumitra has received widespread critical and popular accolades for his acting in the play.
Soumitra Chatterjee is also well known for his poetry recitation. Recitation is something tha was imbibed in him since childhood by his Parents. One such popular recitation of his is "Shesher Kobita" by Rabindranath Tagore.
Awards and recognitions
Soumitra has received the 'Officier des Arts et Metiers', the highest award for arts given by the French government, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Italy. He turned down the honorary Padma Shri award from the Indian government in the 1970s; in 2004, he accepted the prestigious Padma Bhushan award from the President of India. He has been the subject of a full-length documentary named Gaach by French film director Catherine Berge. In 1998, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award given by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India's National Academy of Music, Dance & Drama.
Incidentally, besides getting 8 times BFJA - Best Actor Awards  and international recognition for his acting prowess, Chatterjee never won a National Film Award for acting in the early part of his career, which established his reputation as an actor, working with directors like Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha or Mirinal. Thus, over the years, he has been vocal about his feelings of disappointment and alleging bias in the National Film Awards committee's towards awarding popular and mainstream cinema. Thus, in a gesture of protest against, he turned down the 2001 Special Jury Award for Dekha directed by Goutam Ghose. Later in an interview he stated "..the National Film Awards, overlooked my performances in several powerful roles...When I did Kony, Shashi Kapoor was adjudged the best actor. Anil Kapoor was feted (Best Actor) for Pukar while Dekha was awarded a 'consolation' prize".
However, after receiving the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian honour given by Government of India in 2004, he changed his viewpoint towards awards, and stated "Now (after Padma Bhushan) I feel I don't have the right to hurt my viewers by rejecting an award."  A few years later, on 9 June 2008, he was awarded the 2007 National Film Award for Best Actor for Podokkhep (Footsteps), which he accepted though stating “after decades of acting, I do not attach too much value to it”.
In 2012, he was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India's highest award in cinema given annually by the Government of India for lifetime contribution to Indian cinema. In 2014, he received the introductory Filmfare Awards East for Best Male Actor (Critics) for his role in Rupkatha Noy. & also he won Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award – South (1994) 
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