The Importance of Being Soumitra Chatterjee

The Importance of Being Soumitra Chatterjee

To be the hero, or not to be the hero, is that the question?

Honestly, the spin-off on the legendary Shakespearean dialogue was a bit run-off-the-mill, something that feigns to be smartly provocative, even benignly sly, seeking to highlight the cautiously uttered not as if it were the fulcrum of the sentence. 

Soumitra Chatterjee didn’t take much time to ponder. He carefully plopped himself down in the chair and replied, ‘You mean, how I would, or wouldn’t prefer to be remembered?’

Actually, sort of what he said did lurk beneath the question. Getting to know the types of the likes and dislikes a legendary figure, like him, had in mind was always fascinating. Certainly for a journalist, and a student of the history of Bengali cinema as well. Even more so since Chatterjee had always preferred to be the hero with a difference. Also, his opinion, laced with that characteristic elegant humour, on the natty journalistic queries. was something to look forward to.

‘I’d be happy being called the hero. As a matter of fact, so I was. But, I’d be happier if you don’t straitjacket my identity as the hero. I mean, in the usual sense a hero is defined.’

Charmingly cryptic, the legendary octogenarian flashed a smile. Much like an expert angler, he knew that he had just dropped the most enticing bait. Did he mean to say that he was and was not the hero at the same time? Did he mean to say that he reconfigured the significance of being the hero? Did he mean to say that he had ushered in a paradigm shift in the construction of the protagonist in the narrative of Bengali cinema?

‘All these are things for others to consider, to debate over, to agree or disagree with. I can only tell you that I just wasn’t content being a typical, er, typified hero.’ Chatterjee looked through the window and continued, ‘this film industry, you know, had an incorrigible and rather nasty tendency to typify. It still has. For a newcomer in 1959, things were trickier. Pitfalls were laid out, or at least so did the well-wishers warn me categorically. I was told to take every step with utmost caution… Don’ts would comfortably outnumber the dos. And boy, once you taste success, even a bit of it, such well-wishers are galore.’

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As he stopped to catch his breath, questions erupted like an adamant volcano. What made the (self-styled) well-wishers rush with loads of advice? Did he pay any heed to those who exhorted him? How wrong were the steps he took at that time? What kind of a sacrilege was it being dissatisfied playing the hero as per the rulebook of the industry? Wasn’t the status of the hero the most coveted one for any (male) actor in the industry? Also, didn’t he actually want to become what he, right from his debut film, had shaped himself as, i.e. the hero? 

Straightaway all such queries started to tickle. Knowing that he had taken the lid off the Pandora’s Box, Chatterjee listened patiently and then, thankfully, unfurled his mind in a way lengthier than it was expected.

‘Absolutely, I wanted to play the protagonist. This is any actor’s dream, and mine wasn’t any exception. I refused the secured prospect of a service in the All India Radio. And, fortunately, in my very first film, I landed a role that was the central, eponymous character. That too in a Satyajit ray film. Also, the film was a critical and commercial success. What more could a greenhorn ask for? All of a sudden, I found myself as the hero.’

Absolutely so, but wasn’t this simply a chunk of the cultural folklore, too well-circulated through the length and breadth of the Bengali community, spread over the globe? For that matter, the non-Bengali folks, even the non-Indian Satyajit Ray aficionados had good knowledge of this behind-the-scenes story and the subsequent metamorphosis of Chatterjee. There still were some lesser-known facts though, namely the machinations of the then Calcutta film industry, or put euphemistically, the rules of the game as formulated by the industry moguls. Did the rulebook seek to straitjacket him as the hero? And, supposing it did, what sort of discomfort did he find being typed as (no other than) the hero?

‘I’d be lying if I claim that I didn’t enjoy the status of being the hero. But I was always comfortable considering myself a character actor in the role of the hero,’ reflected Chatterjee. ‘I still am. That’s how I’d prefer to leave a mark, if any. It’s a pity, a real pity, that the system would only allow a hero to be relegated to the insignificance of a character actor, or a character actor can only upgrade to the all-important status of a hero. Unfortunately, they just can’t coexist!’

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But wasn’t it a nice abracadabra coming from a seasoned wordsmith like Chatterjee? As far as the system was concerned, the east and the west would always remain, well, east and west respectively and he was asking the twin to meet. Or, this pleasant piece of personal observation would actually be taken as an exquisite chunk of magnanimity emanating from one of the greatest heroes the Indian cinema has ever produced. Would he have said the same thing had he not been what he had rightfully been: the hero? A hero is a hero, didn’t we all know? So, people just might tend to take his lament as a snappy wisecrack even. 

‘Then, I’m afraid, people are mistaken,’ Chatterjee sounded a little upset, only a little. ‘I’m sorry but things are being taken in a facile manner. I mean this hero-character actor dichotomy. I suggest that there won’t be any dichotomy between these two. It’s just we’re trained to think it that way. And yes, had I not made my career as a hero, I’d still have suggested the same. Because this thought runs deeper than it seems. The maxim goes, I know, exceptions don’t make any rules. Fair enough. At the same time, rules just can’t rule out the exceptions, if it’s actually there.’

Interestingly, didn’t he translate a Bertolt Brecht play The Exception and the Rule, back in the wee hours of the 1960s? Albeit only a few films old at that time, he had, by then, played the protagonist and also one swashbuckling antagonist in films made by stalwarts like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. Was there any inner psychological tangle, involving the self of the translator, behind the work of translation? It was also the time when he had started proliferating himself beyond his comfort zone, and in the creative world of Satyajit Ray. He just might have felt an urge to explore the interconnection between the rule and the exception.

‘Yes, I did the translation, named it Bidhi O Byatikrom,’ chuckled Chatterjee. ‘ Like a lot of other things in my life, my teacher Sisirkumar Bhaduri drove me to this Brecht play. People might find it surprising, but I don’t. Yes, Sisirkumar didn’t do any Brecht in his lifetime, but he was a voracious and erudite reader, and also had a clear vision of contemporary world theatre. Nevertheless, the idea of any inner Freudian drive lurking beneath the translation hadn’t struck me yet. Still, I must say it’s an interesting way to look at what I did when I did.’

So was he trying hard to be the Byatikrom (exception) when Bidhi (rule) was goading him towards some other direction? If his principle remained being a character actor in the role of the hero, wasn’t that threatening and paradoxical enough for the rulers and the rulebook of the industry?

Chatterjee replied, ‘Certainly, in some senses, it was. You just can’t pop up one fine morning and try to send the system into a tizzy. It was nothing short of blasphemy, though that’s precisely what I tried. Those were the days, you know. Understandably, I had to fight a lot. Just to keep my chin up, as they say.’

So, for the journalist at least, what this personal struggle eventually percolated to was an intriguing piece of perception: for Chatterjee, being a hero was tantamount to being straitjacketed. Being suffocated, in other words. But what did that anguished feeling of suffocation originate from?

‘Well, from what I was. What I still am. An actor. As simple as that. You can’t expect an actor – a character actor for that matter – to be reduced to being simply a hero, can you?’ Chatterjee quipped, his eyes smeared with the suggestion of a smile. ‘Or, should you really? It’d be fair on my part to leave you with this question. Give it a thought.’


It’s been months since Chatterjee left us with this question. It’s also been months since he left his mortal frame as well. Like a true artist, he preferred to incite a question rather than offering a bevy of answers. And like a true question, it just doesn’t cease to be relevant, precisely because Chatterjee, with unmistakable insight, inserted a distinctly ethical dimension into the issue with a softly spoken ‘should’.

Should one expect a character actor to get reduced to simply being the hero? This genuine conundrum has a lot more than meets the eye. Immediately, it calls for introspection into the status of the hero, as it is usually considered to be. Simultaneously, it seeks to investigate the position of the character actor, again as-it-is-usually-perceived. As one digs deeper into what Chatterjee said, it tends to point towards a carefully maintained lacuna in the system: the overarching power of the hero vis-à-vis the systematized downgrading of the character actors to the level of being subservient to the vagaries of the hero and his power. In the severely gendered space of the film industry, the power of the hero signifies the male bastion that influences both the diegetic (the domain of the narrative) and the non-diegetic space (the operative modalities of the cinema industry). How the womenfolk at different levels of the industry remain exploited is another discourse, not really relevant to the scope of this particular piece, but it needs to be stated that the character actor too, irrespective of the gender, is the category that is made to remain subjugated to the power of the hero. 

Satyajit Ray's classic Nayak provides a good ringside view of the powerful position of the hero, where he, the symbol of male prowess, is never supposed to be found in any compromising situation. While that hardly makes him an infallible being, the absolute power he wields over the system (that involves the production process and the market) readily swings into action. It wipes out the misconduct (if any), finds a fall guy to be smudged and duly sacrificed (if needed), and represents the hero as the embodiment of unblemished (hence, impossible) perfection.

When Chatterjee seeks to equate the status of the hero with that of the character actor, he wants to put the former – the all-powerful and sacrosanct protagonist – through a process of the rupture. It is the kind of rupture that seeks to divest the hero – the epitome of power – of his position as the transcendental signified and withdraw the ubiquitous control he enjoys over the entire process of a film being made. While this rupture has a distinctly tangible implication on the on-ground operational frontiers of film making, the conceptual (hence non-tangible) one is no less significant. 

As the system goes, the flouting of the inherent logic of the narrative happens only at the behest of the hero. While most of the character actors (exceptions being only too few and far between) are plausibly (hence, vulnerably) embedded to the matrix of the logical unfolding of events, only the hero can degravitate and appear as the ultimate larger-than-life figure with the explosive (albeit implausible and non-vulnerable) ability to bend the logic of the narrative as and when he needs to. So, Chatterjee, in a sense, wants the hero to follow the narratorial logic instead of the other way round.

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If the predominating rule is, as is commonly put, ‘a hero is a hero, then, going by Chatterjee’s demand, there needs to be a small tweak transforming the equation to: ‘a hero is a character is a hero’. The tweak is immense, since it serves to reconfigure the narratorial movement vis-à-vis the movement of the protagonist. Asserting the interconnectivity between (the status of) the hero and (the significance of) the character (within the given narrative), the new equation makes the extra-narratorial aura of the hero implode. Thus it seeks to disrupt the convention and subsequently bring the protagonist into the logical framework of the narrative. 

Gone are the days – Chatterjee seems to herald – when the position of the hero is taken to be irreducibly self-referential and beyond the narrative. Now he, like any other character, is scheduled to conform to the narratorial wireframe. Since the character is the hero (as per the reconfigured equation), the unduly privileged male protagonist just cannot throw the logical coordinates into limbo simply on the pretext that this is needed to proclaim his position as larger-than-life (hence, essentially self-referential).

Unfortunately, the so-called mainstream  Bengali cinema chose to remain what it had traditionally been, i.e. pivoted on the extra-terrestrial power of the male protagonist. Simultaneously, it needs to be put on record that Soumitra Chatterjee, despite his cult status as the male protagonist in the Bengali mainstream film circuit, called for such a hugely significant change in the normative codes of the mainstream film narrative. To be the hero, or not to be the hero, wasn’t really the question for him. He wanted these two positions – ‘to-be’ and ‘not-to-be’ the hero – remain interchangeable. In the process, he gave the entire discourse a distinctly ethical turn. 

For Chatterjee, the character was the de facto hero and his illustrious filmography (comprising the mainstream, middle and art-house cinema) will certainly testify to this vision. Unlike Uttam Kumar, the matinee idol of the Bengali movie-goers in the 1950s and 60s, we tend to locate Soumitra Chatterjee, the protagonist with a difference, through the characters he played. That explains the interchangeability which mattered to him: being a character actor in the role of the hero and vice versa. 

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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