24 January 2018

Up in the Clouds

My Mirror column:

Soumitra Chatterjee, who turned 83 on 19 January, should be counted among the greatest Indian actors ever, and Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum among his most memorable roles.

The great actor Soumitra Chatterjee turned 83 on 19th January, last Friday. If you're thinking “Soumitra, who?”, you've been missing out, and this is as good a time as any to remedy that situation.

Born in 1935, Soumitra made his cinematic debut in Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), the final film in the Apu Trilogy, coming after Pather Panchali and Aparajito. He went on to become Ray's go-to hero. Their long collaboration spanning fourteen films, from certified early masterpieces like Devi (1960) and Charulata (1964), right down to the end of Ray's career with Ganashatru (1989) and Shakha Proshakha (1990).

He was also Ray's choice when the director decided to make films based on his mystery stories featuring the detective Pradosh Mitter, better known as Feluda.

Soumitra didn't just embody Feluda in the films – Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979) – he also informed Ray's sketches of Feluda in the stories Ray wrote in the 70s. As Feluda, Soumitra was urbane, confident and extremely knowledgable, making him a sort of unspoken role model -- not just for Topshe, his younger cousin, assistant in detection and narrator of the stories, but for the generations of Bengali-reading children who grew up watching him. Especially when juxtaposed against the third member of the mystery-solving team, the comically enthusiastic Lalmohan Ganguli, Feluda was the epitome of sophistication and logic. Feluda was almost never wrong.

In his other films, though, it seems to me that what made Soumitra such an unusual hero was precisely the opposite. Right from his debut film, he seemed able to project onto the screen not just charm and likeability but an inner vulnerability.

Sometimes, as in Apur Sansar, that vulnerability broke through to the surface and overflowed – the grief of losing his wife in childbirth turns the young Soumitra irrationally against his son, and he abandons not just the child but the very idea of home.

In Charulata, his character's weakness remains more at the level of suggestion, while in the underwatched Kapurush-Mahapurush, he is the eponymous 'Kapurush': the coward, a man whose courage fails him.

But the Soumitra performance I want to revisit today is not in a Satyajit Ray film. It is a film made by Mrinal Sen, who is, along with Ritwik Ghatak, one of the trilogy of greats of Bengali art cinema. Akash Kusum (Up in the Clouds, 1965), interestingly released in the same year as Kapurush, starred Soumitra as a young man who, in trying to impress the girl he is courting – a very young and lovely Aparna Sen (credited as Aparna Dasgupta, her maiden name) – spins an entire web of untruths from which he cannot eventually extricate himself.

Soumitra's Ajoy Sarkar is a rare character in Bengali cinema. Unlike the educated young men of the 1960s Bengali middle class, on screen and off, Ajoy refuses to join the ranks of jobseekers. He wants, instead, to start a business. The film maps the dubiousness of his particular business venture onto Ajoy's growing fantasy life, with marvellous subtlety.

The lifestyle to which Ajoy aspires seems to him only just outside his grasp. His girlfriend Moni (Aparna) inhabits her wealth with an ease that is to the manner born, and she seems to assume that he, too, is of her world – eg. assuming he'll take a taxi when he says he hasn't got his car one day. Meanwhile his close friend Satu has the flat and job that would, in his alternative universe, be his – so Ajoy simply pretends they are. Soumitra's performance is full of fabulous touches, both in expression and gesture. It's also meta: this is an actor showing us a character who is constantly acting in real life. Asked by Moni whether he is free to watch a film next Wednesday, he makes her wait on the phone while he pretends to consult an imaginary diary. Meeting up with her in a sari shop, he makes the unsolicited offer of buying her one – only to then stage an elaborate charade about having had his pocket picked on the way there. Soumitra captures to perfection both the expansive gestures that seem to constitute Ajoy's vision of himself -- and the stubborn, almost childish, resistance he shows when his friend or his mother try to call him out on his pipe dreams.

Akash Kusum is a fascinating moment in film history for many reasons. Mrinal Sen, having watched Jules et Jim and 400 Blows as part of a package of films from the French Consulate in Bombay in January 1965, adopted from Francois Truffaut stylistic elements that had become integral to the French New Wave: the jump cut, the voiceover, the use of stills and freeze frames.

But Akash Kusum released to a controversial reception in Calcutta, leaving critics and audiences baffled or unimpressed. A war of words about its “topicality” in The Statesman, involving the paper's film critic and the film's writer Ashish Barman, ended with none other than Satyajit Ray attacking the film in brutal terms.

It seems that most viewers condemned Ajoy as an out-and-out conman, and thus undeserving of sympathy. The only way in which the film could redeem itself, said the Statesman’s critic, was by ending on a comic note. They couldn't have been more wrong. The lightness of Soumitra's conman act is integral to the final note of tragedy.

Watching Akash Kusum in 2018, it seems not just topical but prescient in its grasp of a world where there are more and more things only just beyond one's reach.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 21 Jan 2018.

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