Though Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee is meant to be the subject of “The Tree,” he ends up dwarfed by the mighty offscreen presence of Satyajit Ray in this off-center documentary. For a career spanning 30 years and almost 150 movies, as well as theater work, Chatterjee deserves a more tightly focused portrait than this, despite the fact that he is most identified in Western eyes with the late Ray’s pics. Those with a knowledge of Indian cinema will appreciate the docu’s grace notes, but more general auds will come away somewhat confused. Item will work best as an intro to a season of Chatterjee-Ray films on the tube.
Chatterjee, 62, first worked with Ray playing the title role in “The World of Apu” (1959), last leg of the helmer’s classic trilogy, though the actor admits that “everything came together for me” in the 1964 period drama “Charulata.” We hear of his admiration for famed poet Rabindranath Tagore, his passion for theater (including adaptations of Western classics), and his favorite actors, including Ronald Coleman, Mel Ferrer, Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper.
After this intro, which includes no details on his birth, childhood or background, or star status in Bengali cinema, the docu settles down to interviews and meetings with Ray’s circle, including the director’s widow, Bijoya, and actresses Aparna Sen, Madhabi Mukherjee and Sharmila Tagore, all of whom reminisce about the old days and especially “Manikda” (pet name for Ray). Sequences with Bijoya Ray and Sharmila Tagore are uncomfortably staged; the docu’s most moving moment comes subsequently when Chatterjee recalls Ray’s funeral and actual footage of the occasion is intercut.
Clips are plentiful and well-chosen, and there are some interesting moments visiting Ray’s old studio and a location for “Apu.” Chatterjee emerges as a likable man, but is probably far more interesting than this misfired portrait by French director/academic Catherine Berge allows.