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Cinema, Bengal And The Social Psyche: Eulogising Soumitra Chatterjee

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Soumitra Chatterjee, an iconic persona in the realm of world cinema, is no more. A lot of ink has already flowed in his kind remembrance in the form of obituary articles deciphering his contributions, his stature, his art and craft, and his personality in the recent days. People from all walks of life tried to honour the thespian artist and poet in the ways best suited to them. Truly deserving of the heaves of praise, idioms, epithets and emotions that accompanied him to his final voyage: here is a man whose forte was limited by a ‘regional’ medium, but the statue of his performance and accolades it fetched was truly international.

Yet again, it proved the old adage, “art knows no barriers, no boundaries”. In a crazy era of news media, the way his demise was mourned is unparalleled in recent times. Not only did all local and regional dailies reflect upon his craft and persona in the form of obituaries or write-ups, even the national media followed suit. The vivid coverage of even the national dailies — some even in their streamer — of a person whose works pivoted around the regional cinema and medium has lots to say of the man himself.

The mourning and remembrance for this man that percolated even to the lower rungs of society was so severe in his home turf that even the national daily has no choice but to report it. In stark contrast was the demise of Telegu legendary musician SP Balasubrahmanyam. While both had won many an accolades and added feathers to their names, the reportage on Balasubrahmanyam sir was too triffing to warrant attention, barring a few pieces that appeared in some dailies.

This dichotomous reportage proves forth the point that it was not only Chatterjee’s achievements and honours, including the “knight of legion of honour” award or even his association with the greatest icon of the film industry Satyajit Ray that made him a rallying cry in the hearts of the people he entertained during his lifetime. There surely is a different ingredient to this phenomenon.

As obvious as it may seem, the streets of Kolkata turned into a Maha Kumbh or an Orissa’s Rathyatra as tides of disciplined pilgrims from all walks of life rocked the streets in their legend’s last journey to pay homage for the last time. This scene could astonish anyone outside the state of Bengal, where such display of affection for a film legend is just an imaginary at its best.

Soumitra Chatterjee was not a typical Bengali hero but was a heartthrob regardless.

What it was in him that made people come from their safe zones in such an unusual number, was the usual question that hovered the mind of even the enlightened. Is it because of his art, his personality, his multifaceted dynamics or his stardom? To understand the phenomenon, we need to delve a bit inside the psyche of people and their culture. It is noteworthy that the tides of people who rocked the streets with tears rolling down their cheeks are not movie freaks or the kind of admirers who are always eager to have a glimpse of their ‘star’. They were just as common as the the adjective may suit.

It was not only a rally of crazy admirers but much more. Actually, Soumitra Chatterjee as we know, was never that kind of star who had a stardom tail wagging. Any person familiar with the Bengali film industry can vouch that Chatterjee was not at all the ‘star’ by the usual nature of the term. In view of stardom in their times, it was Uttam Kumar and not Soumitra who could have been called a ‘star’ and whose stardom in today’s world, had it existed, would have been caught with a hundreds of fans vouching for a selfie. Soumitra Chatterjee, by contrast, was not that typical Bengali hero. Yet, he was the heartthrob of many. What, then, explains this tortuous relationship with commoners who’d fail to qualify as his crazy admirers, but mourned his demise heavily?

With the usual connotation of the term ‘stardom’ comes the imaginary of a ‘star’ thronged by fans over the shoulders waiting for a glimpse. In a deep contrast, here was a man who’d sometimes go unnoticed, sometimes unhindered in his daily chores by the people at bay. And yet, these same people swell up the crowd and couldn’t resist coming out to the streets even in such a pandemic to mourn and bid goodbye to their man.

What explains this dichotomous attitude then?

If we scroll back to other film personalities of Bengal like Rituporna Ghosh, we would be blessed with the same attitude and affection and would not be disappointed. And yet, both of them were never a “star” and never possessed the kind of stardom that, in today’s world of cinema “stars ” such as Rajnikanth or Shahrukh Khan, may possess. But they were always the “star” in people’s heart. At best, their admirers could be said to be soothing calm and emotional mortals.

Their stardom was intrinsically linked to the characters they acted upon or the movie they directed rather than their self. Their characters are the ones who became people’s “star” as they got interwoven with the character they played and became synonymous to their legendary characters or stories. So, when the news of Soumitra Chatterjee’s demise reached the masses, the first thought that levitated their mind was that their feluda or their apu is no longer a living reality.

Chatterjee is no more present, but his characters dance over our eyes. 

For the masses, Soumitra Chatterjee was feluda and apu was Soumitra. And it is this linkage of characters to the psyche of the Bengali masses that made them mourn. The characters were not just mere characters, they were the imagination of someone’s childhood or struggle of life, or even someone’s first love that a commoner could relate to. The realism and vibrancy brought in those characters by Soumitra Chatterjee made them reflect people’s imagination and realism.

And this phenomenon, where characters of a movie, a novel or a story itself have an all-pervasive footprint on people’s mind and thought could only have been brought by a deep penchant for artforms, literature, poetry, drama and films by the Bengali psyche. And not only was this affectionate connect to art and literature restricted to urban elites or the literary and artistic corridors, but percolated deep into the psyche of the masses pervasing all layers. That’s why it is not surprising to find people who may be handicapped by the poverty of knowledge and wealth, but still possess a profound fondness for poetries and literature whatever little they may have read or listened.

This explains why the characters of a novel or a film, or the lyrics of a poetry are so close to the heart for even a commoner. There’s a popular adage in Bengal that says that in every Bengali’s heart lies a poet. This specially relates to even a commoner’s frame of reference, be it in any usual discussion where some verse, lyrics or some quotes from a novel are bound to come forth.

This may describe my childhood observation where even our house maid used to let his train back home a miss, only to watch the Bengali movie played every afternoon in my home. After hearing the news of the sudden demise of Soumitra Chatterjee, this psyche got a blow and was so even when Rituparno Ghosh left.

The way he brought realism and emotional thrust to the characters he played made those characters ‘stars’ in the eyes of the people. These characters then reverberated in their mind, intermingling with their emotions and thus, making those characters evergreen and eternal. Soumitra Chatterjee was thus, seen as an umbilical cord between those virtual characters of the screen and the audience at bay.

And so our ‘Feluda’ became the reminiscent of childhood memories of all 90s kids when books and novels replaced the tech savvy world of today or was ‘Apu’, who exemplified an ordinary soul of rural Bengal, who discovers a new world in his journey of struggles. The simplicity of those characters, the reality of performances, the expressions of passion typified and epitomised any ordinary Bengali who imagines, dreams and hopes for a better tomorrow.

Even today, when Chatterjee is no more present, these characters dance over our eyes and the world of cinema continues rolling its wings, reminding us of the infallibility of the person and the characters he represented and also showcasing the love for cinema and literature embedded deep within the psyche of the masses in this part of the world that would surely go down in golden letters in the history of time.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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