The year 1969 marked ten years as an actor for Soumitra Chatterjee. This journey was not easy, straddling as he did two different streams: establishing himself in the artistic cinema of [Satyajit] Ray, [Mrinal] Sen and Tapan Sinha, while struggling for a foothold as a major commercial star. In these ten years, Soumitra acted in thirty-eight films: six films by Satyajit Ray, three by Mrinal Sen, two by Tapan Sinha, three by Ajay Kar, and three by Asit Sen, and of course in several mainstream films. He created a niche for himself as the thinking man’s hero – a member of the educated (upper) middle-class with typically leftist leanings, as most young intellectuals of Bengal were at the time, but with the added qualities of being a dreamer and a romantic. This pitted him against the popular Bengali matinee idol, Uttam Kumar. During Uttam Kumar’s reign it was impossible for any other hero to rise. In some ways it was Soumitra who made some headway in carving a space for himself in popular imagination, even while playing second fiddle to Uttam Kumar. The two stars had two hits together during this time – Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi (1961) and Salil Dutta’s Aparichito (1969), where Soumitra played a man-child opposite the arrogant Ranjan played by Uttam Kumar, which showcased the immense talent both the actors had.
In the same year (1969), Soumitra acted in three other films: Parineeta by Ajoy Kar, Chena Ochena by Hiren Nag and Teen Bhuvaner Paare, directed by Ashutosh Bandyopadhyay, which was the biggest hit and the most memorable film of the three. The film is based on a story by Samaresh Basu, an eminent Bengali writer; interestingly enough, Aparichito too was based on a novel by the same author.
Teen Bhuvaner Paare is a contemporary take on life on the streets in 1960s Calcutta. The late ’60s witnessed nationwide political unrest, and it specially impacted the youth of Calcutta in various socio-economic ways. Subir (Soumitra) is one such typical young man who moves about with a noisy gang of local boys, who do nothing and have lots of time to kill. They make a nuisance of themselves in the middle-class, conservative neighbourhood where the film is set. Subir at least works for daily wages in a factory, unlike his friends, and also supports his family on his meagre earnings. Enter a beautiful, independent young schoolteacher Sarasi (Tanuja), who comes to live with her elder brother, sister-in-law and widowed mother.
Sarasi immediately catches Subir’s fancy. He breaks into a vigorous roadside Romeo kind of dance along with his friends to get her attention (shot on the catchy and immensely popular number ‘Ke tumi Nandini, aage to dekhini’). Sarasi is offended instead of being flattered, and she calls Subir a ‘loafer’.
Subir has a younger brother who is very different from him; this brother is cynical and morbid, the opposite of Subir who has a carefree nature. But being the older son, Subir has to look after the family, and listen to his irritable retired father’s rants. A sense of frustration has made Subir and his friends reckless, and seek an escape in drinks and irresponsible behaviour.
Subir now puts on a semblance of decency to impress Sarasi’s brother and family…
Soumitra Chatterjee as Subir
Subir’s character in Teen Bhuvaner Paare is a very different one from Soumitra’s other films; here he plays a high-spirited young man, a bit of a nuisance in the neighbourhood and to society at large. The film starts with a song-and-dance routine number by young men of the locality, to celebrate a win for the local football club. The song ‘Jiban-e ki pabona’ remains iconic in the Bengali cultural space – often used in ads, it has become a kind of anthem for the Bengali middle class. As none of the young men are trained in dancing, to keep the milieu realistic within the confines of a mainstream film, their mudras and style reflect an amateurishness. Soumitra in particular danced well in his first such song-dance sequence, bringing a touch of naivety to the act. Subir’s wooing of Sarasi (who is returning home from work) with the popular ‘Ke tumi Nandini, aage to dekhini’ remains a hallmark of timeless romance, very different from the romancing of Suchitra by Uttam, the popular lead-pair of the era. With this, Soumitra carved out his own niche as a romantic lead, alongside the towering popularity of Uttam Kumar, in several commercial films of the time.
Soumitra recalls, ‘I had already trained in ballroom dancing from veteran dance trainer, Bob Das. At that time, Bengali cinema couldn’t afford to have a dance director or a fight director, though these designations were introduced shortly thereafter. So, we ourselves had to decide the type of dancing we wanted in the song. In the original story itself there is a reference to a group of young men of the local club who dance on their way back from a football tournament win. The song has transcended the era. It was written by Sudhin Dasgupta who, apart from Salil Chowdhury, was one of the most modern lyricists of the time…’
Uttam Kumar was generally the hero who hailed from a rural background and dealt with the harsh reality of an urban milieu. He conquered the hearts of a million Bengalis whether city bred or migrant labour from Bihar or refugees from across the border. He fed the angst of the middle-class Bengali in the aftermath of Partition. Soumitra’s rise as a commercial hero came about in the mid-1960s. In fact, he came to represent the transition from the romantic ’50s to the ‘angry’ ’60s and ’70s. He knew instinctively that to survive as an actor, he needed to do some popular films, not just stick to the alternative cinema of Ray, Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha. To his credit, Soumitra chose mainstream roles that lay within the commercial framework, yet seemed rooted and real, and that gave him an edge over other actors and made him a hero with a difference.
Soumitra says, ‘The story was written by Samaresh Bose and he based his character on a real person. I also met the man in question. So this character and the story came from life itself, the world around us. I didn’t meet him for the purpose of playing the character, it was a casual acquaintance. I shared a rapport with Samaresh-da and I think he just pointed out this person to me once and told me that he had modelled the character on him. The story also has shades of Swayangsiddha. Many people in our country are deprived of education and other basic needs. I know a few myself. They are part of our world. This story is one of hope – it is about a man leading a mundane existence and his determined transformation. That is what appealed to me. Look at the time the film was made. It was in the late 1960s. Keeping the political scenario in Bengal in mind, I felt that the film was closer than most others to the contemporary reality of the time.’
Teen Bhuvaner Paare – this classic hit film about reform and redemption continues to evoke fond memories because of the appealing love story at its core and the wonderful chemistry between the lead pair. Another plus point are the evergreen songs, which are imaginatively used unlike in the usual commercial potboilers. Soumitra’s star status helped the film sail through at the box office.
Excerpted with permission from Beyond Apu 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee, Amitava Nag, Harper Collins India.