Soumitra Chatterjee, pic courtesy The Hindu.

“See that man? He is Soumitra Chatterjee, the film star.”

Our maid Sandhya (Shondha in local parlance and that incidentally being her daak nam – the name you called her by, her official name or bhalo nam being Kiranbala Haldar) was pointing him out to my grandmother and me as we sat in the balcony of my dad’s third floor flat in Calcutta.

The year was 1978. I was 12. And grandmother 71. We were both grappling with our changed world – for me a new city, new language, new school, new friends and a new life entirely. For her a drastic change at the end of her life- from a joint family in a house in a familiar city, here she was in a flat on the 3rd floor in a completely alien environment. The building had no lift and so she was to remain confined indoors. The verandah was her favourite place and from here she watched the comings and goings on Southern Avenue. I was her interpreter when she needed to communicate with the maid.

Both grandmother and I were excited. We looked down to see a tall, good looking man in flowered shirt, trousers and dark glasses. Grandmother snorted. “Film star? Then what is he doing wandering around by himself with no hangers on? In Madras, even the smallest of actors will have a retinue.”

I obligingly translated this to Sandhya who could not care less. “He is a star,” she reiterated. Grandmother and I remained unimpressed. Even more so when this so-called film star hailed a taxi (we had the worst taxis in Calcutta, all rickety ambassadors) and got in. “And what’s more he does not even own a car,” said grandmother.

I don’t think Soumitra ever came again on grandmother’s radar. She withdrew increasingly into a world of music and prayer and passed away in 1981. Her ambition to learn Bengali, for which she had purchased a book just a month earlier, remained unread. But she did watch with fascination as I became fluent in the language and began to speak and read it with ease.

That opened my eyes to Bengali films. And so I came to know about Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen (the big three). I got to realise what the greatness in Uttam Kumar was. And why Madhabi Mukherjee was hailed for what she was. I saw films of Suchitra Sen, Supriya Debi, Sumitra Mukherjee and of Soumitra Chatterjee. Many years later, I became interested in films of an earlier vintage – PC Barua, Kanan Devi, Debaki Bose, New Theatres, etc. In a brief stint at Lintas I had the opportunity to visit some of the crumbling studios at Tollygunge, where even MS Subbulakshmi’s films had once been shot.

I came to know what realism was. The hero did not have to fight goons singlehandedly. There need not be a happy ending. Homes did not necessarily have to be palaces with winding stairways on which the heroine’s father horsewhipped the hero. The villain did not have to be always on a cabaret floor. And people could have shades of grey. There was no real hero, heroine or villain. At this moment, I pause and think of Uttam Kumar as the troubled judge in the film Bicharak. And yes, you could make an entire film with just poverty as a theme and yet make it gripping. Bengali films were more often tragic and realistic than escapist.

Soumitra belonged to that class of great artists who gave us such films. Over the years, I must have seen a significant chunk of his movies. There were of course the fabulous Ray films – of which I have top of mind recall of Apur Sansar, Jai Baba Felunath and Ghare Baire. The last is probably my favourite and in it Soumitra had great shades of the negative. I also look back at Saat Paake Bandha, a 1963 film that I saw years later on DD. It was the mother of Kora Kagaz (Hindi), Vivaha Bandham (Telugu) and Lalitha (Tamil) – all of which I have seen. The Bengali version was a class above all of them.

Bengali actors were not the superstars of Bombay or the political aspirants of Madras. They lived for their art and got by with what was given to them. Even superstar Uttam Kumar lived in a modest bungalow, and rarely at that. He spent most of his life in the house of his lover and fellow actor, Supriya Devi, which was next to Hindi High School, where I studied. That in turn was a simple house – no high compound walls or security. As for Ray, he lived in a flat on Bishop Lefroy Road. If you entered the flat of an aunt of mine, got to her loo and stood on a stool or upturned bucket, you got to see Ray in his cavernous study, writing, sketching or playing the piano. That toilet became a place of pilgrimage for most Bengali friends of my aunt.

Before shifting there, Ray lived in a block of flats on Lake Temple Road, just off Southern Avenue. When he left, Soumitra came to occupy the same flat. Which is why he frequently walked down our road and took a cab. Calcutta doffed its hat to him as he walked by but it did so with respect and let him get on with his life. Which is how it should be. Which is how Bengali films were. Which is how Soumitra and his ilk portrayed life on screen and lived the same way outside of it.