Soumitra Chatterjee, Globally Acclaimed Indian Film Star, Dies at 85


Soumitra Chatterjee, an Indian actor who incarnated the beauty and fragility of youthful idealism in films by the director Satyajit Ray and helped solidify Mr. Ray’s place in cinematic history, died on Sunday at a hospital in Kolkata, India. He was 85.

His daughter, Poulami Bose, said the cause was brain damage and organ failure brought on by a case of Covid-19.

The role was Mr. Chatterjee’s film debut, and it catapulted him to critical notice abroad and celebrity in India.

In one memorable scene, while delivering a monologue about the novel he plans to write, Mr. Chatterjee furrows his brow with intellectual severity, strikes the faraway look of an imagination at work, pauses and points for emphasis as he narrates the plot, and finally, with arms raised in triumph, smiles with joy at the act of creation. The sequence appears to have the naturalness of improvisation, but it was actually the product of laborious preparation.

Mr. Ray’s son, Sandip, said he saw the work that Mr. Chatterjee put into his roles when he peeked at one of the actor’s scripts. “It was full of handwritten notes,” he told The Telegraph, Kolkata’s English-language daily, in a recent interview. “Every minute detail of voice modulation, pause, look, movement and whatnot was in there.”

For “The World of Apu,” Mr. Chatterjee kept a diary in which he specified what Apu was doing every moment he was offscreen. He brought the same intensity to “Charulata” (1964), a Ray movie about tensions in an upper-class family set in 1879, in which Mr. Chatterjee plays an aspiring poet and essayist. He spent six months mastering the 19th-century style of Bengali handwriting so that the scenes that depicted him in the act of composition could appear authentic.

The young writers Mr. Chatterjee played in “The World of Apu” and “Charulata” set a template for the other characters he became known for. In Mr. Ray’s “The Golden Fortress” (1974), about kidnappers looking for a long-forgotten treasure, Mr. Chatterjee plays a private eye who also has an ambition that is softened by high-mindedness and impracticality. In “Days and Nights in the Forest” (1969), which follows young friends on a vacation, Mr. Chatterjee’s businessman character is sardonic and self-confident, but, like the aspiring writers, yearns for a different life.

His characters often wore a shabby-chic outfit of sport coats and scarves — even when, in one movie, he briefly appeared as an ash-covered coal miner.

In addition to Ms. Bose and his wife, Mr. Chatterjee is survived by his son, Sougata, and two grandchildren.


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