Khitda is probably as iconic a character as Apu or Feluda. Khitish Singha continues to inspire individuals across class and generations and the test of time is indeed the greatest measure of an artist. As the actor says, ‘I loved Khitda because he is so real. It is inspiring to think that there are actually people like him.’

Soumitra helped the director deconstruct the character. He drew the character in his diary and showed it to the director who agreed with the look. The meticulous details of costume, for example, an inexpensive half- punjabi, the dhoti worn in a typical style (called malkoch), and the watch worn on the inside of his palm were all Soumitra’s idea.

In Kony, Soumitra looks the opposite of his elegant, urbane self. At that time he was still playing romantic roles but the anticipation of playing a different kind of role made him shed the usual ‘star’ mannerisms and image. The dark tan he adopted makes him look typically commonplace.

Soumitra observes, ‘The entire make-up was my plan. I drew the costume and make-up of Khitda, including that short cropped hair and the high-powered glasses. When the novel came out as part of the Puja publications I was attracted to it right away, and I hoped I would get the role if the film ever got made. Initially, I think they did think of other actors for Khitda, including Uttam Kumar. When the role came to me I agreed without hesitating, since I had wanted to do it for so long. These roles never gave me any money, which working in other films would, but I have always been drawn to offbeat roles.’

Kony (1986).

Early in the film, Khitda is seen visiting rural areas of Bengal with his assistant Jiban to hunt for young swimming talent from poorer families, for whom everyday survival is a struggle. It is apparent that Khitda has not succeeded in finding any candidates worth his while. Khitda asks Jiban or Jibne as he affectionately calls him: ‘Do you know, Jibne, why I train swimmers? Do you think it is for money? For honours? These do not belong to the coach.’

Jiban’s answer is that coaching has its own joys, and when the swimmer wins, the coach also wins. Khitda argues some more. ‘But what exactly is it that you win? Is it happiness, and how long does this happiness last? What is the best thing that a coach can do for the swimmer? He can only show the swimmer the way. After that it is the swimmer’s determination, perseverance, hard work, desire – these have to come from the swimmer. The coach’s challenge is to arouse the desire and to motivate the swimmer. When one does succeed, it is at the risk of poverty, superstition, illiteracy and other obstacles. But one should not accept defeat. Fight, fight, fight!’

Soumitra breathes life into a character that represents the typical left-of-the-centre Bengali of a generation back, intent on helping the poor achieve a little dignity. Soumitra says, ‘I was lucky that I had seen coaches from different sports backgrounds at work. So I fine-tuned Khitda’s character using some of those observations. I also visited swimming clubs in both north and central Calcutta, to see how they train students, and observed the way they walked, talked, interacted with their charges. Khitda’s character is an amalgamation of many coaches. There is no single coach that I wanted to be. But yes, the physical appearance – the dhoti, the half-sleeves, etc. – these things belong to the down-to-earth swimming coaches of north Calcutta.’

Though not exactly an athlete, Soumitra exhibits surprising agility while jumping over fences or doing physical exercises, and also his usual knack for comedy comes to the fore in scenes with the local businessman, his own wife, and with Kony. In his scenes with Kony, as the trainer, Soumitra probably followed, in essence, what is called the ‘Animal Exercise’ in Method acting – he is like an ape – forceful but calm and observant.

In his seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959–1960), Jacques Lacan speaks of ‘jouissance’ – when pleasure becomes pain and happiness is mingled with suffering. The ending of the film where Kony breaks down to Khitda heightens this feeling of ‘jouissance’, albeit devoid of the sexual connotation the word has. ‘Khitda, I was almost dying of pain,’ says Kony. And Khitda consoles her, ‘That pain is everything. This is not the end. You have so many struggles ahead. You have to go a long way.’

When Kony battles her way ahead of her competitor, Khitda exhorts her, ‘Fight, Kony, fight.’ This is where reality and cinema fuse. This is where Soumitra Chatterjee stops being just an actor, and becomes a symbol of the common man’s triumph over everyday battles, to discover the magic, the joy of being alive.

In one of the film’s most telling moments, Khitda tells Kony, ‘In sports, it’s not winning or losing that’s important. Being good is the key.’ Throughout the film this conviction, this gallantry of spirit is what is effortlessly conveyed by Khitda and Kony. Soumitra says rather touchingly, ‘These days, when I am down, I murmur my dialogues from the film to myself and say, “Fight, Soumitra, fight.”’

Soumitra Chatterjee has played several ground-breaking roles: the sensitive Apu, the brilliant Feluda, the epic Gurudas Bhattacharya in Ekti Jiban. However, if a character can be called universal and be an inspiration for generations of young people to learn to fight and win, it is Khitda. The prosaic, humble swimming coach Khitda becomes, in Soumitra’s hands, an unforgettable symbol of the middle-class struggle to survive and triumph. There was certainly a mentor deep inside Soumitra Chatterjee. He played the gritty swimming coach to perfection, reserving an assured place for Khitda in the annals of Indian cinema.

Excerpted with permission from Beyond Apu – 20 Favourite Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee, Amitava Nag, HarperCollins India.

Also read:

Soumitra Chatterjee interview: ‘What keeps me going is my sense of obligation towards my audiences’

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

Why ‘Teen Bhuvaner Paare’ is one of Soumitra Chatterjee’s best roles