Soumitra Chatterjee: the first Indian actor to attain this French honour

Ray’s alter ego, Chatterjee’s body of work speaks volumes


News - India & You

January 19, 2017

/ By / Kolkata

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Soumitra Chatterjee continues to grace the silver screen despite his poor health over the last few years

Soumitra Chatterjee continues to grace the silver screen despite his poor health over the last few years

While many would know this veteran actor as the prime collaborator of Satyajit Ray, only a few might be aware of the fact that he is the proud recipient of the highest award of arts from the French government. The actor turns 82 today.

Soumitra Chatterjee was conferred by the French government with the Commandeur de l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the nation’s highest award for artists in 1999. This was the first time that an Indian film personality got nominated for this award. This award was established on May 2, 1957, by the Minister of Culture in France with the purpose of recognising the significant contributors in the field of art and literature.

Reporting for way back in 1999, Ranvir Nayar was told by Catherine Berger, a French director who was instrumental in organising the awards and the screening of four of Ray’s films, “Ray and his film are very popular in France, however, not many know the faces in those movies. This award will help create some awareness amongst the people and bring recognition for Soumitra in France.”

Association with Ray

Presumably, the most prominent face in most of Ray’s works, Soumitra Chatterjee’s association with Satyajit Ray dates back to the third film of the Apu-trilogy, ‘Apur Sansar’ (The World of Apu, 1959), Chatterjee’s debut.

Ray, one of the most versatile filmmakers of world cinema during the three decades of his work also received the Legion de Honneur, the highest civilian award in France. The then French President, Francois Mitterrand presented the award to Ray when he visited Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) in 1988.

Soumitra Chatterjee with Sharmila Tagore in a scene from Apur Sansar.

Soumitra Chatterjee with Sharmila Tagore in a scene from Apur Sansar.

Chatterjee, over the stretch of his career, worked in fourteen of Ray’s films and is often compared to the greatest director-actor teams of world cinema, such as De Niro and Scorsese, Mastroianni and Fellini, and Mifune and Kurosawa. Stepping in diverse roles, Ray has often divulged that some of the screenplays he wrote were solely keeping Chatterjee in mind. No wonder that the French government, which has always held Ray’s works in the highest esteem, chose to felicitate Chatterjee with the award. Along with Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore also received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award for her awe-inspiring acting in Ray’s films and her debut as the central character, Aparna in ‘Apur Sansar’.

Berger was fascinated with the works of Chatterjee when she studied cinema in the United States and badly wanted to document the actor and his works. In 1997, she was realising her dreams with a film called ‘Gaach’, a biographical take on Chatterjee depicting some clips from the films he did with Ray. This would be another lesser known fact about the octogenarian actor.

The Unconventional Actor

As one of the fabled actors of Indian cinema celebrates his birthday on the wrong side of the eighties, Chatterjee has probably worked in some of the most unconventional Indian films. Though he restricted his projects mainly to the boundaries of regional cinema, he has received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2012, the highest award in cinema given by the government of India, for his lifetime contribution to cinema in the country.

While many would point out that he missed the riches and glories of Bollywood, the wise will chuckle and disagree. Bollywood does not represent Indian cinema but could be a part of it where the veteran opted not to budge. However, Chatterjee had a recent share of success in a short film directed by Sujoy Ghosh called ‘Ahalya’ – a thriller made on the premise of Ramayana. The short film is one of the most successful films in the history of Indian short films and Chatterjee played a pivotal role in the film.

Not only in France, Chatterjee had the honour of being conferred with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the government of Italy as well. Quite interestingly, the actor who was named the best actor a whopping eight times by the prestigious Bengal Film Journalists’ Association (BFJA) has never received a national award for acting. The reason could be rhetoric, but that hardly takes away anything from the man.

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