Soumitra Chatterjee – A Film-Maker Remembers is Suman Ghosh’s tribute to the thespian, who died on November 15, 2020. Ghosh directed Soumitra Chatterjee in four films, starting with Podokkhep in 2006. Basu Poribar, released in 2019, was their last collaboration. In this excerpt, Ghosh recalls Chatterjee’s ease with his co-stars and his commitment to the art of filmmaking.

‘You read, I will hold the light

Shooting with the entire cast was an experience in itself. Initially I was quite apprehensive about managing such a huge cast, and that too such big stars. Almost the entire film was shot at the Mohishadol Rajbari near Haldia, a town around 100 kilometres from Kolkata. By then Soumitra-kaku had stopped going on outdoor shoots for his films since he was not keeping well. I was glad that he made an exception for my film. Deepa Kakima, his wife, told me, “Tomar chhobi bolei jachhey.” (He is going only because it’s your film.)

To my delight the entire cast was extremely cooperative with me throughout the process. It was lovely seeing the legendary pair of ‘Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen’ once again. Starting with Ray’s Samapti, they had been together as a pair in so many other legendary films such as Akash Kusum, Basanta Bilap, Baksho Badal, Chhutir Fadey, to name a few. There was a beautiful warmth in their relationship. I loved to hear their conversations mainly around books that they had read and were planning to.

I remember a moment that will be etched in my memory forever. During a night shoot, a generator had malfunctioned and we lost power. Soumitra-kaku was preparing for the scene and going over his dialogues with the script. Seeing his frustration at the sudden unforeseen interruption, Rina-di immediately switched on her phone torch and told him, “Tumi poro. Ami alo ta dhorchhi.” (You read. I will hold the light.)

I could not resist the beautiful moment and clicked a photo of them, I must admit without telling them. Later I did show it to both of them.

Suman Ghosh and Soumitra Chatterjee. Courtesy Suman Ghosh.

There were several occasions during the shoot when Soumitra-kaku helped me. I remember two such instances vividly. There was a scene towards the end of the film when Prahlad (played by Arun Mukhopadhyay) was supposed to leave the dining room. While doing so, it would strike him that when he had looked earlier, one of the lights in the chandelier was not working. He would stop and look back, and realize that he had been right – one of the lights indeed wasn’t working. When he was acting it out, I found his look predetermined – it was not coming across as organic.

I had two problems. One, I was unable to understand what exactly was going wrong. That is, why was I finding it ‘predetermined’? And two, I did not know how to communicate that to such a legendary actor in front of the entire cast without offending him.

I went up to Soumitra-kaku and told him my problem. He listened to me intently and then went up to Arun-kaku and whispered something to him. I do not know what he told him. But the next take was bang on. Arun-kaku in turn came up to Soumitra-kaku and thanked him.

In another scene, debutant Sreenanda Shankar was supposed to be with Soumitra-kaku. She was obviously nervous and told me so. I went up to Soumitra-kaku and told him, “Sreenanda is quite nervous about shooting with you in this scene. This is her first film and one of the first scenes that she is shooting. Can you do something about it?”

Soon, I observed him going to Sreenanda and starting to chat with her. By the time the lighting was done and we were ready for the shot, she was much relaxed. The scene went quite smoothly.

Basu Poribar (2019).

The climactic dinner scene in the film gave me yet another glimpse of how great he was as an actor and his willingness to adhere to the director’s vision. He was supposed to become emotional about his family while reciting Tagore. I was to take a close shot of him and hence the minutest facial gestures would be caught on camera.

He performed wonderfully but I did not like the couple of teardrops that fell from his eyes. I applauded his performance, as everyone else did, but I went to him and told him that I wanted another take since I did not like the teardrops. He asked me, “Why? They came naturally.” I told him my reasons.

Pranabendu, his character, was too arrogant to cry in front of his family. Even if he did truly feel emotional, as he did then, he would hold back his tears. I wanted his eyes to be moist but without the teardrops. Soumitra-kaku understood and we shot again. This time it was perfect. He did the same rendition of the Tagore lines with his eyes moist but not a single teardrop. Such was his technical mastery over the craft.

The day Basu Poribar released, he came for the premiere but was rather unwell. He could not stay for the screening. He ultimately saw the film a year later when I organized a special screening for him and Kakima at our studio. He was quite pleased with the film and looked at me and said, “Khub ekta kharap korini … bolo?” (I was not that bad … was I?) I just smiled and hugged him. Who knew that this would be my last film with him.

Excerpted with permission from Soumitra Chatterjee – A Film-Maker Remembers, Suman Ghosh, Om Books International.

Also read:

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

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

Fun, camels and greed control: Soumitra Chatterjee recalls the shoot of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Sonar Kella’