Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s Abhijaan is exactly as promised: a film that melds documentary and scripted drama into a tribute to an acting legend.

Soumitra Chatterjee plays Soumitra Chatterjee – an octogenarian actor looking back on his life, grappling with a family tragedy, and examining his legacy. Though Chatterjee’s dialogue is scripted, it has the ring of authenticity to it since it has been inspired by previous conversations between the actor and the filmmakers.

Parambrata Chattopadhyay further muddles the conventional biopic by casting himself as Sanjoy, a London-based oncologist who arrives in Kolkata to make a documentary about Chatterjee. Abhijaan is based on research and a script by Subhendu Sen, also an oncologist.

Abhijaan was premiered at the International Film Festival of India in Panaji. It’s among the Bengali actor’s final projects. He died on November 15, 2020, soon after completing his portion of the shoot.

The movie attempts to come to grips with a multi-faceted figure – an actor, poet, theatre personality and public intellectual who stayed away from electoral politics but espoused Leftist thought throughout his life, as he tells Sanjoy in the film. “Communism has helped me cope with different situations in life,” Chatterjee says.

One of the big questions on Sanjoy’s mind is the contradiction between the celebrated public figure and the person. Chatterjee declares that he isn’t interested in stardom but then follows it up with acknowledgement of his exalted status. Fans seeking autographs and selfies keep putting Chatterjee on a pedestal, and he keeps gracefully stepping off it, declaring that he is a star on his own terms.

Parambrata Chattopadhyay in Abhijaan (2021). Courtesy Ratanshree Nirman/Roadshow Films.

Except for a distracting sub-plot about Sanjoy’s dilemma over his own professional choices, Abhijaan sticks to its goal of creating a portrait of a much-loved performer. The film confronts and acknowledges the impossibility of summarising a rich and complex life and settles for vignettes.

Highlights from Chatterjee’s long career are provided through recreated scenes from such films as Ray’s Apur Sansar, Charulata and Abhijan and Saat Paake Bandha, co-starring Suchitra Sen. Flashbacks reveal Chatterjee’s formative period in the 1950s as a stage actor and All India Radio announcer.

A fateful encounter with Bengali theatre legend Sisir Bhaduri gives the young Chatterjee the opportunity to hone his acting skills. Played by Jisshu Sengupta in this period, Chatterjee learns to throw his voice, enunciate clearly and tap into his subconscious for his roles.

Further lessons, in both performances and life, are round the corner. Satyajit Ray, skilfully played by the director Q, casts Chatterjee in Apur Sansar. The concluding chapter of Ray’s Apu trilogy makes Chatterjee an overnight star and leads to a longstanding friendship with Ray.

Fame follows, as does fandom. Friendships are formed with co-stars, including Uttam Kumar, played by Prosenjit Chatterjee. In the present, Soumitra Chatterjee grapples with his grandson’s accident, which has rendered the young man comatose.

Jisshu Sengupta in Abhijaan (2021). Courtesy Ratanshree Nirman/Roadshow Films.

“I am still here,” Chatterjee tells his distraught daughter after the accident. Indeed, Chatterjee is a vivid presence in the movie, forever erasing the line between his own thoughts and the dialogue that has been handed to him.

Chatterjee’s famed dignity in the face of personal setbacks and his professionalism, whatever the size and quality of his roles, endeared him to generations of Bengali moviegoers. It’s enriching to work with all kinds of filmmakers, he tells Sanjoy in Abhijaan: “For acting, you need practice.”

There are regrets over paths not taken, and hints of secrets from Chatterjee’s romantic life. Sanjoy plays devil’s advocate and tries to corner Chatterjee ever so often, but eventually succumbs to the great man’s artistry and grace. Whether as a fictonalised character or the real article, Soumitra Chatterjee proves hard to resist.

Abhijaan (2021).

Also read:

A biopic? A documentary? Parambrata Chattopadhyay on ‘Abhijaan’

Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020): Acting legend, principled lodestar, utterly decent human being

Soumitra Chatterjee on working with Satyajit Ray: ‘Our wavelengths matched’