‘In a YouTube interview Christiano Ronaldo explained why he is so close to his sons. It was his father who abandoned him when young. That loss haunted Ronaldo even after he grew up,’ I tell him. Sports is not one theme that recurs often in our tete-a-tete, but I know that he is an avid follower of sports. A keen athlete when young, he also played hockey in one of the lower-placed Calcutta clubs in the league.
‘I don’t know of Ronaldo but somehow from the private pictures Messi seems very happy with his family,’ he conjures, ‘actually I think you need some stability to sustain performance. Not everyone is such an enigma as a Maradona.’
‘Is Maradona your favourite footballer?’ I ask.
‘I do have a softness for Maradona the way he raised himself from poverty. This is not sympathy of any sort but more of an understanding, I think. But if we consider sheer sportsmanship alone, I am very much drawn to Pele. Maybe because he is a black footballer who is respected so much worldwide. This adulation hasn’t happened on its own. If you look at the greats before Pele – Puskas, Stanley Matthews, Bobby Charlton they were all white. It requires a Pele to rise from that milieu and be acceptable.’
I recall how as Khidda, the swimming coach, he gave a heartfelt pep talk to Kony in the Bengali film Kony – ‘Remember, you will not be able to win over everyone with shame and modesty. You will have to win with your ability.’ Khidda continued his speech giving examples of Mohammed Ali, Jesse Owens, Garfield Sobers, Pele and others. They all brought glory to the poor, coloured people of the world, those whom they represented.
‘Do you recollect that historic match of 1977 between Cosmos and Mohun Bagan that ended in a 2-2 draw? My friend P K Banerjee was Bagan’s coach and I rebuked him later for not allowing Pele to play freely,’ Soumitra-babu laughs saying this. ‘The Eden Gardens was jampacked and everyone came to watch Pele. It rained the night before and I must say that Pele was gracious enough to be on the ground. I read later that his insurance company warned him not to play due to the ground conditions. And then he was so heavily man-marked that he couldn’t play up to his standards. PK was unfair.’
Sir Garfield Sobers is the other great, from cricket, who has a special place in Soumitra-babu’s mind, ‘Sobers was so complete. Almost like a miracle.’
I am visiting him a week after India lost to New Zealand in the world cup semi-final.
‘Grace is what I miss in today’s cricket. Two balls and the last innings was over for Sir Don Bradman–he was bowled by Eric Hollies for a duck. The press, the Australian one, wanted to put forward a view that emotions took better of Bradman and because of his blurred vision he couldn’t bat. Even years later, Sir Don always maintained he couldn’t pick up the spin on the ball. He was emotional alright. But the ball was unplayable. Look at the dignity of the man – at 39, playing his last Test match, needing only 4 runs for a batting average of 100 which no one ever came even close to. Here he is, not blaming it to the crowd, the cheer, tears of emotion but giving credit to the bowler. I find these stories so intriguing and inspiring,’ he looks far, searching the other stalwarts in his mental map.
‘Who you think is the last cricketer who could exemplify grace?’ I try to bring him back from trance.
‘Sachin Tendulkar, who else. Such humility, such modesty.’
‘I have always felt that you are in a sense almost like Tendulkar,’ I engage him again. He looks up at me with a question. Not a frown but a bemused query.
‘The innings you are playing. So long, consistent and versatile. Just think, even with such a stupendous form, even Virat Kohli will probably fail to match Tendulkar’s heroics in Test cricket. Mostly because of the sheer tenacity with which Tendulkar could play on. He started so early and then continued the flourish for so long. Do you think there is any other actor in India who started as early as you and had the privilege of being cast by almost all major directors of every generation?’
‘Frankly, I never thought it like this. Yes, I was lucky in the initial days with my choice of films. I think you have a point. It will be a privilege to be compared with Tendulkar, any day,’ he flashes his brilliant smile in happy sustenance.
Just as I move out of his room, ‘But Amitava, I would still have loved to be a Sir Garfield Sobers. But life gives you what it takes, so it is fine I think.’
Excerpted with permission from Murmurs – Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee, Amitava Nag, Blue Pencil.