I read Pather Panchali and its sequel Aparajito, novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, at the age of 11 but saw the trilogy by Satyajit Ray much later. And I have no qualms in stating that I liked the novel more than the film.
I stand by my opinion even at the risk of getting sneered at by avid Ray fans.
Having said that, I must admit there was something missing in the novel -- a lithe, tall, poem-chanting protagonist Apu, who made his appearance first in Apur Sansar, the last part of the Ray trilogy.
The novel somehow failed to generate such a lovely portrayal of the protagonist -- Ray did it with effortless ease.
Here was an actor who looked agile and intellectual, intelligent and homely, sensitive and overtly affectionate. Bengali cinema suddenly woke up to a new matinee hero, Soumitra Chatterjee, who looked capable enough to take on then matinee idol of the Bengali film industry, legendary Uttam Kumar.
Chatterjee entered Bengali filmdom as Ray's chosen 'boy' and went on to become the most reverred actor of all times. Yet, awards always eluded this great man of screen, much to the chagrin of cine-lovers.
Therefore, when Chatterjee refused the National Award conferred on him for his performance in Goutam Ghosh's Dekha seven years back, his fans clapped their hands in cruel delight. 'A fitting reply from the master,' they thought.
However, in June, Chatterjee accepted the same when the jury of the 54th National Awards decided to reward the veteran artiste's performance in Suman Ghosh's Podokkhep.
In a candid interview, the 74-year-old actor spoke to Indrani Roy Mitra about his National Award, a partisan jury, film industry, his aspirations and regrets. Excerpts:
On why he had refused the National Award
I had refused the award for Dekha seven years ago, as I had felt the jury was partisan. Had this award come a couple of years back, I may have refused it as well.
But my perspective towards life has changed. I can see this award has given my fans some cause to celebrate. They would have been hurt if I had turned it down. How can I disappoint those, who have been watching my films for the last 50 years?
On the futility of awards of any kind
Awards don't mean anything to me. They never did. Especially at this point in my life. I am completely disillusioned.
I haven't forgotten that once Jennifer Kapoor in Aparna (Sen)'s 36 Chowringhee Lane lost the National Award to Rekha (Umrao Jaan) despite having put in a much better performance than the Bollywood star.
A National Award calls for a lot of lobbyism; it is not an honest appreciation of someone's skill.
My performance in Podokkhep is one of my best but certainly not my best. I've done 14 films with Manikda (Ray). And if you let me be the judge, I had put in my best efforts in Ray classics like Devi and Charulata. Even my roles in non-Ray films like Sansar Seemanta and Ekti Jiban deserved to be recognised but weren't.
On Ray versus modern directors
Manikda was a master. Therefore, it is unfair to expect his talent in today's young directors.
But there is no denying the fact that having worked with someone of his calibre, it does feel bad to be directed by novice filmmakers, who have very little knowledge of the subject. That is a big compromise, no doubt, but one has to live with it.
On plays, films and yatra
I will go on acting in plays as long as I live. Stage is my first love and I can't forget it. No matter how busy my schedule is, I always manage to squeeze out time for this medium. The proof of a true artiste lies in how well he performs live.
As for yatras (or one wall), they fetch a lot of money but takes a toll on one's health. Yatras call for rigorous travelling, which I can't always take at this age. Hence, I have opted out.
On why he does advertisements
I am not too keen about modelling for ads. But films, especially Bengali films, don't pay a lot at times and one has to go for advertisements to make a quick buck. Advertisement, as a medium, doesn't inspire me aesthetically but financially it does (smiles).
On the deterioration of Bengali films
Bengali film industry has failed to keep pace with time. Be it technical advancement or acting acumen, the industry lags far behind its competitors.
Even film industries down south have made remarkable progress in recent times. But our beloved Tollywood has remained confined within a stagnated boundary. It is indeed in a sad state.
On his so-called competition with Uttam Kumar
The so-called competition was more a figment of the media's mind than anything else. Uttamda was the unparalleled romantic hero of our times.
While he was every woman's ideal lover in almost 90 percent of his films, I was a man of many hues. I did not limit myself to romantic roles alone. Apart from being Aparna's loveable husband in Apur Sansar, I was the tough sleuth Feluda in (Ray's) Sonar Kella and a rogue in Abhijan.
Yet, I enjoyed being compared to a legend called Uttam Kumar. It was an honour for me and at the same time, it forced me to maintain my standard of acting. I could not afford to be lackadaisical especially when I was being put in the same league as Uttamda.
On any regrets he may have had
None, so to say. Despite having worked with almost all the ace directors, I never got a chance to work with Ritwik Ghatak. I was offered a role but something got into the way. Now as I look back, I think whatever happened was good for both of us. Our temperaments would have never matched.
On what he wants to be in his next life
I want to be a sculptor. In this life, I could only portray characters on screen and on stage. In my next life, I want to curve figures and characters out of clay without being directed by someone on how to go about it.
On films that he is working on at the moment
I don't like to talk about films that I work on unless they are released. Talking about half-finished ventures spoils the show, I believe. All I can tell you is that I am up to my neck in films. Most of them will be releasing this autumn.