The I of the Storm Soumitra Chatterjee and his Elusive Autobiography

The I of the Storm Soumitra Chatterjee and his Elusive Autobiography

“My autobiography? Let’s face it in a bit of a Shakespearean way. It’s going to be a tale told by me, full of sound and fury, signifying, I presume, nothing”, a broad smile lit up the elegant, octogenarian face of Soumitra Chatterjee.  “I don’t think I’m biographically interesting. That’s why I didn’t try an autobiography.”

Truth be told, it did sound a bit surprising. I was quick to remind him that recollections of the past by Chatterjee had nicely made it into the staple diet-list for the Bengali middle-class. With a well-nigh photographic reminiscing power, he kept on digging out palatable nuggets of experience at regular intervals, only to be disseminated across media. Print (books, periodicals, dailies), audio, audio-visual, even online. From (expected) Satyajit Ray to a plethora of (fairly unexpected) topics like traditional Bengali cuisine – he was regularly urged to share delicious chunks of his memory. Most of the time, he obliged. Often, generously. 

Also, didn’t he write, direct and play the protagonist in a distinctly autobiographical play Tritiyo Onko Otoeb (It’s the Final Act, So…)? The self of Chatterjee being distributed into three actors, he used to appear on the stage flanked by his daughter Poulami Bose and veteran actor Dwijen Bannerjee. Together, they kept on recollecting memories, both distant and closer to the time of writing (the play) – but certainly, the past recounted in the play, would belong to Chatterjee, and not the other co-actors. So, he had already chronicled a good part of his illustrious life himself, albeit in different autobiographical forms. Wasn’t it a bit strange on his part, then, to summarily rescind the idea of writing an autobiography? 

An intriguing conundrum, indeed. Chatterjee listened to the argument cautiously, as if conjuring up the journeys within, from ‘autobiographical’ to ‘autobiography’ and vice versa. Then, with a Holmesian grin, he hurled another riddle in reply: “All autobiographies comprise autobiographical materials, but it’s futile to think that the heap of autobiographical materials would necessarily lead to an autobiography!”

The I of the Storm Soumitra Chatterjee and his Elusive Autobiography

Pic: Nilanjan Karmakar; courtesy: Sovan Tarafder

In other words, he preferred to drive an irrefutable wedge between these two words, widely considered to be interchangeable – autobiography and autobiographical. For him, an autobiography was something more than a compilation of autobiographical materials. The facts being represented correctly, the ‘autobiographical’ could certainly put its claim to truth. To the factual upper crust of it, more precisely. 

‘These are nice consumables, you know. Quick-reads, interviews. Innocent. Precautious. Pleasantly anecdotal. The audience is happy being offered some of the personal details of Soumitra Chatterjee. But an autobiography would want you to be honest. Brutally honest, if needed, to yourself, or may I say, your conscience”, Chatterjee cast a brooding glance. ‘This word, conscience, seems so outdated now, doesn’t it? But that doesn’t stop it from biting you. And therein lies the problem.”

The problem he referred to involved a manufactured silence. Manufactured by the media as well as the one, secretly bitten by conscience. Chatterjee didn’t transfer the onus solely onto the media. The reason he could maneuver the media well is that he had always been good at dealing with the ticklish questions. The national press chose to remember him sporadically. Unless it was an award conferred to Chatterjee or any occasion that warranted his observations, he was not taken much note of. The Bengali media, largely icon-starved, had followed him carefully. Chatterjee being one of the last few Bengali legends of truly international repute, they had reason to. They provoked him, to a certain extent of course, but mostly preferred to steer clear of the issues that might have nudged him out of his comfort zone.

The I of the Storm Soumitra Chatterjee and his Elusive Autobiography

Pic: Nilanjan Karmakar; courtesy: Sovan Tarafder

In return, Chatterjee supplied them with a bucketful of nostalgia, interspersed with elegant observations. Subsequently, anecdotes (that he wanted to share) enthralled the audience. At times, anecdotes (that he did not want to) went viral, leaving him in a troubled spot. Both these types of materials had been, at the most, autobiographical stories, stashed in his memory and elicited on demand. Nevertheless, the entire hullabaloo did not make him blind to the fact that it was not the edifice of autobiography that he had been constructing with all those mediatized interventions. It was merely autobiographical – the guided tour in the private universe of Soumitra Chatterjee.  The autobiography, Chatterjee believed, must locate the blind spots. The unsaid, unheard, and unnoticed. The darker side of the moon.

It was like a vicious cycle. Life had zones of silence, lying unattended in the interstices. Chatterjee wanted to address them in his autobiography, yet for some reasons, could not find himself in a position to. So, another silence emerged. Was it the famous Eliot’s hesitancy: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” What if he dared to?

“I’m no Prufrock, you see. And I must say that telling the truth is just one-half of the process. The other half is no less important. Objectively accepting that truth, setting aside one’s personal value judgments. That’s as difficult as stating a piece of truth, unsavoury to some, or even worse, most of the people”, Chatterjee was reflecting intensely on the inner configuration of the silence, manufactured on both ends. “I know, like other public figures, my life is an open book too, more or less. Still, there has to be a line of division. In western countries, people won’t peep into your private life just in order to, let’s say, enjoy your work. One may personally dislike someone, yet that wouldn’t come in the way of appreciating what he’s done. Unfortunately, here it’s different. Public perception of your personal life has a strong chance to impact your professional career. So, it’s better not to see, speak or hear any evil. Everything needs an atmosphere conducive to it. So does autobiography, I believe.”

But, shouldn’t the importance of being Soumitra Chatterjee always include deft handling of the prying eye, of the dented privacy, and certainly of gossip flying thick and fast? Film icons had proverbially thrived on the blather churned out by the larger sections of the society. 

“You want me to be thick-skinned? Well, so I am, sort of. I don’t have qualms about being judged by the sundry public. I’m here because they’re there. But, I do have issues when they indulge in double-standard, when they unleash an unkind paradox.”

Paradox? Chatterjee had been delightfully philosophical since this conversation began. But the very idea of people unleashing a paradox on Chatterjee left me a bit puzzled. Realising this, he gave me a reassuring smile. 

“People expect my life to be what they call “glamorous”. It’s a downright euphemism, I know. What they insinuate is something controversial, scandalous, forbidden for most of them, objects of extraordinary desire. When they use surrogate words, like ‘colourful’, ‘eventful’, I can smell what they’re trying to hint at but haven’t been able to. But then, such is the world of so-called glamour, infested with controversy…”

Here, a question popped up. When he knew the rules of the game, was there any point in crying foul? With the halo of glamour hanging constantly over the head, much like the sword of Damocles, a public figure like Chatterjee couldn’t afford to crave for an insipid life. Common people, the incorrigible star-gazers, would hardly appreciate a star like him doing the chores. 

“Firstly, I’m not crying foul. On the contrary, I’ve just been silent. Secondly, who is a star? I mean, who do  people consider as a star?”

I was a bit apprehensive about figuring out the answer. Chatterjee himself, time and again, disrupted and reconfigured the carefully maintained distance between a star and the audience. He didn’t hesitate mingling with the public, be it his theatre-show or fund-raising campaign for the people ravaged by flood. Anyway, for the usual movie-going people, a star is someone up above the world so high, like a diamond…

“Goodness! Don’t go that far”, he flashed a smile. “Suffice to say that people mostly think that a star is not what most of them are. They want the star to have a life, both on and off the (shooting) floors, way much different than the middle-class life they lead. Still, the same star with his oh-so-different lifestyle is constantly judged according to the oh-so-familiar conventions. This is what I call the paradox. The unkind double-standard.” 

I couldn’t check myself letting him know that he had just opened the Pandora’s Box. What he said could well be interpreted as a tacit demand for preferential treatment. For VIP immunity. For a measuring tape with graduations radically different from the usual one. 

Chatterjee, a little frustrated, shook his head. “Not at all. I have nothing against middle-class life. This is where I came from and still, after so many years, I feel this is what I belong to. I’m simply talking about, let’s say, a mismatch. First, you want me to be somewhere beyond the usual Bengali middle-class life, on the pretext that it doesn’t befit me. Fair enough. But then, you expect me to conform to the conventions of the same life which you didn’t want me to be a part of. This is, I believe, grossly unfair.”

That he had long been disturbed within was visible increasingly. Had he wanted, he could have hidden the emotions well. Yet, he let the guard off and vented what he had felt he had to. After scribbling on a piece of paper, unmindfully for a while, Chatterjee raised his eyes. “Just two little requests. Please share one’s perspective before passing any verdict on him. If you want the star to be different, so be it, but please appreciate the difference. Also, as I mentioned already, please judge a performer by his work, and nothing else. But, aren’t such thoughts just too wishful? Do I need the king of ghosts, like Goopy and Bagha…” 

Breaking into laughter he left the sentence midway. The double standard would stay, sadly for long, he knew. Hence, the idea of going for the autobiography was shunned silently, and instead, he kept on distributing the ‘autobiographical’ among the trivia-hungry consumers. Nevertheless, being a creative soul, didn’t he miss facing the mirror aka ‘autobiography’? 

“Mind you, once made public, it’s not my personal mirror. The reflection is going to be shared with a huge number of people. So, there will be mirrors, not the mirror. Are those mirrors ready to reflect the person back as he is? I just fear they aren’t. The mirrors are, more often than not, pre-occupied.”

Chatterjee, visibly lost into his thoughts, paused, took a breath only to drop something like a bomb, quietly. “However, don’t you know that I already have written my autobiography? I’ve been writing it for a  long time.”

Evidently, that moment itself marked the height of Chatterjee being cryptic during the conversation. Expectedly, I stood dumbfounded. Immediately, he made things even more abstruse with a brief statement, “I mean, my poems.”

Chatterjee, a veritable poet to his credit, had poems published at regular intervals. He had several titles, both stand-alone books and compilations like collected poems and complete poems, but never did I look at his poetic flourishes as parts of his autobiography.

“Actually, nobody did. They all took it as my favourite extracurricular activity, you know, the poetic over-ambition of an actor-playwright. But, whatever I couldn’t express in prose, I tried to do in poems. I don’t know how good or bad they are as literature. That’s for the experts to judge. I just know it’s the life of Soumitra Chatterjee woven into words.”

It came as a huge close-up of Soumitra Chatterjee, completely new, stunning, and unexpected. Suddenly, his poems sprang to life and the words began to dance around the pages. It was simply breathtaking to visualize all his inner solitude and the busy exterior, all the war and peace within getting regularly transferred to his stash of words. While people expected him to come up with a usual prose version of an autobiography, he had them nutmegged by secretly offering one in a poem. I came to realise why his poems were so overwhelmingly pivoted on the I of the poet. Why this particular pronoun— first person, singular number— would keep on resonating through his poems. The poetic transformation (of the reality) set his spirits free, enabling him to express what he wanted to. A littérateur to the core, Chatterjee had always made deft use of the literary devices to express the unsaid he had been carrying within. Similarly, as I found, later on, he manoeuvred the dramatic structure too. When he adapted Clifford Odets’ play The Big Knife and transcreated Rajkumar (1973) out of it, the scaffolding of drama helped him to investigate the infamous rift that had the then Calcutta film industry split vertically. He broke the silence, albeit in his idiosyncratic way.

“Let me read you a few lines”, Chatterjee reached out for the fat volume of his complete poems, then unhurriedly flipped over the pages, or maybe the years went by. Gradually a soft light melted his eyes. “It’s from my poem Shahacharee (The Female Companion). The book is Madhyarater Sanket (The Hidden Message of Midnight). Listen: Whatever I get pleasure in doing / Whatever I’d happily watch taking place / I find pleasure in admitting them / I’m not afraid to disclose the moments that make me happy.’ The poem flowed to its final lines: ‘Far from the societal codes / Those relations / Still remain my fount of joy / Like streams of water flowing dark underneath / I don’t have any qualms about admitting this.”

Hearing him recite his poems had always been great, but this one – profound and also unsettling – gave goosebumps. Not very often had a legend poured his interior into words the way he did. Not very often could you find a legend uncovering himself in a way he did – honest, graceful yet brutal. Not very often had a legend involved his space, time, and his audience in such an elegant catch-me-if-you-can game.

We just did not notice that he had always been there in his poems, laying bare his interiority. Much like the character he famously played on stage, King Lear, he had stood his ground, amidst all the storms that hit him. The tumult within got regularly metamorphosed into poems, his encoded autobiography. Expecting someone would decipher those messages someday, he stood there, waiting. 

Lone as the I of the storm.


Author’s Biographical Note: The author is an independent researcher-filmmaker. Worked in the ABP group and the TOI group for 20 odd years. Did his Ph.D. in Film Studies at Jadavpur University. Collaborated with Soumitra Chatterjee in writing his autobiographical journal. Made 'Selfie' (2014), a creative biopic on Chatterjee. Recently completed '8th Day of the Week', an award-winning documentary on the blind theatre actors in Kolkata.

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