Though both books and films transport us into the world of story-telling, shaping up our perspectives on life, most readers argue that the true essence of a literary work can never be captured in adaptation. Yet sometimes, by the sheer talent of the director and actors, some adaptations succeed in bringing the text to life.
Such was the career of Soumitra Chatterjee, iconic legend of Bengali film, who played more than 300 fictional characters, many of which were based on literary works.
Chatterjee's portrayal of Satyajit Ray's Feluda is undeniably the most significant. Many actors over the years have played the famous detective, but the image of Feluda that readers perceived in their minds fit perfectly only with the version offered by Soumitra.
In the books, Feluda is known for pulling off disguises to catch culprits in their criminal acts—one of the most iconic instances was in Joi Baba Felunath, in which Feluda disguises himself as 'Machli Baba' to take revenge on his arch enemy Maganlal Meghraj in an intense bullet throwing act. This singular act portrays Feluda's sense of accuracy, his sharpness of mind and skills as a gunman, all of which were perfectly reflected in Soumitra's portrayal.
Be it with his intense stare or his bold confidence, Chatterjee's work in Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979)—both directed by Ray himself—were strong enough to encourage the author to illustrate the sleuth based on Chatterjee's physique in the later editions.
The Satyajit-Soumitra duo went on to make several other films based on literary works. Charulata (1964), Ghare Baire (1985), and Samapti, all of them written by Rabindranath Tagore, saw Soumitra Chatterjee in lead roles.
Based on Tagore's short story, "Nastanirh", Charulata told the story of Amal and Charu, played by Soumitra and Madhabi Mukherjee. Soumitra's portrayal of Amal, a talented, spontaneous and quirky writer, enchanted the audience as we found ourselves reflected in Amal's conflicting emotions. Amal playing the piano to the tunes of "Ami Chini Go Chini Tomare" combined both Ray and Chatterjee's magic, cementing itself as one of the most iconic scenes in Bengali film history.
Elsewhere in Tapan Singh's Jhinder Bandi (1961)—considered one of the best black and white Bengali films of the time—Soumitra played a villain for the first time in a story inspired by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay's retelling of Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda.
The ever-smiling Soumitra's portrayal of a cunning and mischievous Mayur-vahan amazed the audience, at a time when the actor was known for his roles as ordinary protagonists. Here, though, his smiles turned into arrogant smirks. During a scene of the King's coronation, Mayur-vahan's boisterous, scornful laughter played a key part in capturing the character's impudence and audacity.
Yet even as he proved his versatility through the negative role, Soumitra continued to dazzle in roles like Sarat Chandra's Devdas (1979), Ajay Kar's Shekhar in Parineeta (1969), and Ashim in Satyajit Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri (1970), based on Sunil Gangopadhyay's novel of the same name.
Soumitra's brilliance as an actor immortalised several iconic literary stories on the silver screen. His honest portrayal of these characters helped connect rich Bengali literature with the growing and thriving world of Bengali cinema—a gift that endures for generations of audiences even as we mourn his loss today.
Rasheek Tabassum Mondira is a contributor.