"Must I talk now? Look, I'm doing a role, the show is on, this is no time for talk...maybe tomorrow...." A tacky greenroom on a south Calcutta field, the jatra show Bring Back My Daughter has just begun. Soumitra Chatterjee, all wild grey unkempt hair, patched trousers, dirty muffler, the innocent ex-convict looking for his long-lost daughter, is supremely indifferent to the news that the government has decided to award him the Padma Bhushan.
It was 10 pm when the news came in. Soumitra was practising his lines for the jatra's second scene, his feet up on a chair, when fellow actors Sreela Majumdar and Tarun Haldar burst in. Then came the newsmen. A sense of ceremony asserted itself. Someone produced a bouquet. Someone else had the presence of mind to make a public announcement about his Padma Bhushan, which sent the audience into rapturous applause.
But the man himself—arguably India's finest living actor and one of Bengali cinema's biggest-ever stars, Satyajit Ray's on-screen alter ego—was nonchalant. "I have no reaction," the 70-year-old thespian told Outlook. "I have never really bothered about awards or official recognition of any kind. My priority has always been my audience, the paying public, the people. Their support keeps me going, for over 45 years now." In a Doordarshan interview, he admitted that he decided to accept the award "since I do not want to hurt the feelings of my admirers who have been overwhelmed by the announcement".
Soumitra has a point. Italy has honoured him with a lifetime achievement award, France has conferred on him its highest award for arts—the Officier des Arts et Metiers. He is the only Indian actor to have a full-length documentary devoted to him: The Tree by French director Catherine Berge. Yet, he has never won the Indian government's President's award for Best Actor! In 2001, he was awarded a special jury award for his role in Goutam Ghose's Dekha. Anil Kapoor had beaten him to the main award for Pukaar! The special award seemed a sheepish gesture from a guilt-ridden jury. Soumitra spurned it with disdain. "I felt it was insulting," he says.
But what is little known is that Soumitra also refused a Padmashri in the early '70s. "In those days they used to ask before announcing the award," says Soumitra. "I declined. The government wasn't doing anything to help the film industry, so I saw no point in receiving a government award as an individual." That's another character facet. The man has never made compromises. Though he has Left leanings, he has never been a member of any political party, perhaps aware that his artistic conscience would not permit him to accept any ideological fetters. But he has associated himself with most liberal causes of his time, be it a protest over the Babri Masjid demolition or the politicisation of education. In the film world, he has been supportive of greater rights for lowly technicians and workers. Though a darling of the Left establishment in West Bengal, he has not turned this acceptability into personally profitable channels, unlike other Bengali film personalities or literary lions.
His astonishing career began as the adult Apu in Ray's Apur Sansar (1959). And repeated critical acclaim for his roles in Bengali arthouse cinema notwithstanding, he, together with another towering Bengali matinee idol, Uttam Kumar, reigned over commercial Bengali cinema as a romantic star and 'sex symbol'. He has been Devdas, he has done the swashbuckling villain Rupert of Hentzau in Jinder Bandi—Tollygunge's take on The Prisoner of Zenda—besides featuring in 15 of Ray's 36 films in an amazing variety of roles: from a Sikh cab driver in Abhijaan to an impoverished Brahmin trying to survive the Bengal famine in Ashani Sanket, from the suave detective Feluda to the amoral revolutionary Sandip in Ghare Baire.But even all this clearly does not suffice to account for his histrionic versatility and range. Soumitra is perhaps the last of the classic Bengali Renaissance men, the multi-faceted cultural figure in the Ray mould. He is a critically acclaimed poet, has written and directed plays, and co-edited the literary magazine Ekkhon for decades. "He is the ultimate renaissance person with talent to burn," says film critic Swapan Ghosh. "A phenomenon, a one-man institution."
And while Soumitra may be indifferent to the Padma Bhushan, Bengal is rejoicing, whether it's politicians of different hues, the people, or his co-workers. "I feel very happy," says veteran director Tapan Sinha. "The honour also does our Bengali film industry proud." Says actress Sabitri Chatterjee, "It is a privilege for all of us. A rare honour for the artistes as well as the industry." "No one deserved it more," says actor Biplab Chatterjee. "For some reason, many talented artistes from Bengal have never received their due from our establishment. What about singers like Hemanta Mukherjee, Suchitra Mitra?"
So, did Soumitra think of refusing the Padma Bhushan, like he did the Padmashri? Says he, "Nowadays they don't ask, they just announce. And after the announcement, as a mark of protest...there is no environment for meaningful protest any more, is there?"
There can be no question that one reason why Soumitra's won more acclaim and admirers abroad than in India is his absence from the Hindi screen. Soumitra has a shrug of an explanation. "Look, I had no problems with Hindi," he says. "Trouble is, when I got some offers from Mumbai, my local commitments would not permit me to accept them." Among these was the chance to play the Bengali doctor in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand, the role that triggered Amitabh Bachchan's stellar ascent.
However, that still does not entirely explain the Indian film establishment's surprising recalcitrance about not rewarding his work, when he has been recognised as one of the leading thespians by critics across the planet.
But in the end, Soumitra's career, as he rightly points out, has been defined much more by the love of his audience, than by formal anointments. One reason for his unwavering popularity, even as he left the romantic hero roles behind and moved on to character roles (Soumitra is busier still nowadays, working in films, jatra and TV serials), feels director Rituparno Ghosh, is that the actor is the very epitome of Bengali culture. The contrast with the ever-elusive, aloof, conservative other Chatterjee, Uttam, was total: Soumitra is accessible, you can see him driving by, buying groceries from the local market, chatting away in an adda...the transition from reel to real life is as natural as shedding clothes. He is everyman's actor, capable of playing everyman—servant, rustic, timorous lover (Kapurush o Mahapurush), executive, street Romeo (Tin Bhubaner Paare).... His empathy for everyman, the sheer range and depth of his gifts sets him apart from almost any other actor on the Indian screen. The Padma Bhushan adds little to his life and work.