Arts & Media Culture

A Tribute to Soumitra Chatterjee – the Actor of Awareness

Soumitra's act of awareness in movie Sanjhbatir Rupkathara.

By Sudeep Ghosh

The Apu Universe nurtured and developed by Soumitra Chatterjee is a world of discerning awareness borne out of torment, grief and tragic realization. This universe is animated by the unparalleled tragic grace Soumitra exudes through his impeccable performance. The Apu universe breathes Tagorean sensibility through the intersection of Satyam, Sivam, Sundaram (Truth, Love and Beauty). Moreover, this universe carves a niche for radical thoughts, kindles the moral imperative to penetrate the veil of appearance, and brings forth a certain kind of experience that is transformative through the catharsis of existential and moral angst. This article is a close look at and a meditation on Satyajit Ray’s renaissance man Soumitra Chatterjee, the actor of awareness, focusing on the ‘moments of awareness’ in the film Sanjhbatir Rupkathara(2002) from his rich repertoire.

Viewers, if you are able to resonate with Soumitra’s gestures and body language, you cannot help resisting the power of suspension and liberation; you stand frozen in immobility, seized by the intensity and enormity of petrifying anguish portrayed by Soumitra. Watch the final, telling scenes from Anjan Das directed Sanjhbatir Rupkathara(2002),  based on Joy Goswami’s eponymous novel, where the remorse-stricken father(Soumitra) tries to break the ice, the ice of pent-up, searing agony. Soumitra’s soul-stirring performance, where the father(Soumitra) cradles the tear-streaked face of his daughter and tries to reclaim his lost daughter (Indrani Halder) with his metaphorical dialogues, leaves an enduring impact on the minds of the audience. Unlike King Lear, the father in the film does not float ‘a mighty wreck in the wide world of sorrows.’(Hazlitt). However, the father is remorse-stricken, his hollow eye sockets beseech the daughter: ‘I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,/ I cannot look on thee.’ (George Herbert’s Love). The daughterly love is the father’s anchor and deliverance. For the shell-shocked father, the wall of grief breaks the prison of fear and hate. This wall, which appears insurmountable, is chipped away by the language of love, is cleansed by the unalloyed motherly care and compassion.  The father figure transcends the archetypal quality of being ‘fatherly’ and emerges phoenix-like as a universal care-giver. The perpetual burden of guilt is dislodged, paving the way for a ripeness of joy recalling Tagore’s prophetic words: ‘Oh, you grief-stricken,/ in the end the bubble of your grief/ shall be swept away / in the ocean of peacefulness’ (The Ever-moving, Parisesh).  Soumitra takes viewers through the crucible of conscience. What he leaves behind is the legacy of Tagorean humanism – the power of love, empathy and forgiveness. He takes us to the inner courtyard of redemption, infusing hope into flawed and fractured humanity. He reaffirms our faith in humanity; to quote Tagore from The Voice of Humanity:  ‘Like the sun it can be clouded, but never extinguished.’

The tragic intensity of Sanjhbatir Rupkathara is transformative. Not constrained by the formulaic Aristotelian pity and fear, the tragedy evoked in the film is dissolved in the ‘pukur’(pool) (I am tempted to use the word ‘pukur’ as originally used in the film). This ‘pukur’ is the pool of humanism. If the father muses over the moss-covered, submerged ‘idol of twilight’, the connotation is that he is trying to salvage the ‘lost’ idol, the idol of love battered by the fatality of ‘infatuation’, the flaw the painter-father falls prey to. The film’s tragic poignancy reaches its acme when the burden of mounting deceit disintegrates. When the father’s aching fingers hold the daughter’s face and the daughter’s tear-drops melt into the father’s palm lines, the father-daughter suffering gains universality in the totality of awareness. This awareness is the healing power of love against all formidable odds. It breathes life into the immobility of human beings at the mercy of ineluctable fate.  Soumitra’s unparalleled performance, clinical and perceptive, renders the redemptive power of unconditional love. To apprise  his performance is to recall Nabokov: ‘the passion of a scientist and the precision of a poet’. Soumitra immortalizes these ‘moments of awareness’. As a blissful poise descends on the feeling of new-found equanimity and distills into ‘moments of awareness’, we find the architect of awareness Soumitra striding into timelessness. What he bequeaths to posterity is the art of living – the gifts of struggle and survival, the gifts of the silence of the anguished heart, the gifts of conscience and its soulful resonance.

Soumitra’s ‘acting’, which induces awareness,  is an abiding striving for ‘action’. This ‘action’ conjures up the German author, Hermann Hesse:  ‘An action is a light that shines from a good sun. If the sun is not good, if it is not sound and many times tested, or, worse, if it is the kind of sun that asks itself anxiously what it ought to do, it will never shed light.’ Soumita’s tragic awareness calls for a deeper exploration of self where the action goes through the torment of self-discovery. The painter-father is able to reclaim the ‘lost’ self through tragic interiorisation, through his brutal confrontation with self-loathing, through his honesty of character when the gnawing echo of remorse trails off. The father emerges as a resplendent light dispelling the shadows of self-doubt. He is liberated from the sins of memory and personal victimhood. At the end of the movie, his deliverance, reminiscent of Tagore’s confession – ‘Are you not slaying me only to give me life?’, is celebratory rather than paradoxical. The father finally regains his power of articulation. For the father, to be able to paint at the end is a symbolic gesture of a glorious communion with the spirit of his departed wife. His guilt-ridden anguish fades away as he is pitied by human compassion and embraced by universal love.

Like Coleridge’s poetic persona deriving inspiration from the Eolian Harp, the painter-father’s instrument of redemption is the sanjhbati (twilight lamp). What permeates the Apu universe is love, the eternal spirit that sweeps through life’s mystifying ways to set free ‘imprisoned’ hearts locked in the lures of temptation and battling an uncanny sense of impending doom. To watch and re-watch the intense scenes or these ‘moments of awareness’ in the film, where father and daughter rejoin and are overwhelmed by the swelling tide of emotion, is to treasure the richness of human struggle redolent of awareness that dissipates the sprawling darkness of guilt-stricken subjectivity. To define this awareness is to recall the narrator of Virginia Woolf’s The Lady in the Looking-Glass: ‘a profounder state of being that one wanted to catch and turn to words, the state that is to the mind what breathing is to the body, what one calls happiness or unhappiness.’ This struggle is the essence of humanity affirming and glorifying the sanctity of unconditional self-surrender. This is the cornerstone of human civilisation and this struggle is the symphony of awareness embracing the eternal in transience, to borrow words from William Blake, ‘Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.’  Endowed with Tagorean humanism, Soumitra Chatterjee traverses the stage of life, giving us entrances to a fuller life.

The creator of the Apu universe calls to mind the words of the British Critic Herbert Read : ‘The revolutionary artist is born into a world of clichés, of stale images and stale signs which no longer pierce the consciousness to express reality. He therefore invents new symbols, perhaps a whole new symbolic system.’ As an iconoclast,  Soumitra Chatterjee, or his alter ego Apoorva Kumar Ray, is resurrected in his nuanced reading of Prithviraj Choudhury’s long poem Iti Apu; each one is Tagore’s ‘eternal traveller’ touching the infinite. A Tagorean to the core, Soumitra Chatterjee’s theatrical or poetical affinities find eloquence, to borrow the words from Tagore’s songs in his play Achalayatana:

Light, O light mine, O dear light that pervades the universe,
Light that washes my eyes.
Light that steals my heart!

Photography by Tejoshmi: Soumitra Chatterjee reciting a poem by Rabindranath Tagore at inauguration of a flower show – Soumitra Chatterjee – Wikimedia Commons


About the Author

Sudeep Ghosh teaches at the Aga Khan Academy Hyderabad (India). His pedagogical articles, poems, research papers, translations and art criticism have appeared in international journals like Aesthetica Magazine (UK), Le Dame Art Gallery (UK), Canadian Literature (University of British Columbia, Canada), Wasafiri (Open University, London). Indian publications include Teacher Plus, Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademy), Sannate (Penguin India), The Knowledge Review, Families (Fulbright Alumni Journal), The Statesman, The Telegraph, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Brown Critique, Poetry Today, Phoenix, Gandhian Perspectives, Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Sahara Times, Kavya Bharati. New Global India, The Book Review, Apurva (University Research Journal, BHU), Phoenix (Allahabad University Journal), Poetry Review, Muse India, The New Indian Express, Brainfeed Magazine, The Punch Magazine.

His reflective piece ‘An inner expedition in the time of Corona’ is published in an International Anthology ‘Art in the time of Covid-19’ ( San Fedele Press)

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