Chatterjee was born in Calcutta in 1935. While at university he developed an interest in theater and was subsequently mentored by Sisir Bhaduri, a doyen in the field. He pursued an acting career in cinema while working as an announcer with All India Radio.
Chatterjee’s film debut, “The World of Apu,” (1959) was the third part of Ray’s celebrated Apu Trilogy that began with Cannes-winner “Pather Panchali” in 1955 and continued with Venice-winner “Aparajito” in 1956. The film began a fruitful association with Ray over the years that included “The Goddess” (1960), “Three Daughters” (1961), “The Expedition” (1962), “Charulata” (1964), “Days and Nights in the Forest” (1970), “Distant Thunder” (1973), “The Golden Fortress” (1974), “The Elephant God” (1979), “The Home and the World” (1984) and “Branches of the Tree” (1990).
Chatterjee also worked with the other greats of Bengali-language cinema, including with Tapan Sinha on “Kshudhita Pashan” (1960), and “Jhinder Bandi (1961) and Mrinal Sen on “Akash Kusum” (1965). At the same time, Chatterjee acted in popular Bengali cinema, giving a career total of more than 300 films.
At the time of his death, he had 10 pictures ready for release. The actor also continued his association with theater till the end.
Internationally, apart from his Ray oeuvre that was seen the world over, Chatterjee acted in Nicolas Klotz’s “The Bengali Night” (1988) and Florian Gallenberger’s “Shadows of Time” (2004). Catherine Berge made a documentary on Chatterjee titled “The Tree” (1998).
Chatterjee won lead actor at India’s National Awards for Suman Ghosh’s “Podokkhep” (2006), supporting actor at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival for Atanu Ghosh’s “Angshumaner Chhobi” (2009) and actor at New York’s Winter Film Awards for Amit Ranjan Biswas’ “Bridge” (2016).
In 2012, he was accorded India’s highest film honor, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, and in 2018 the French government conferred upon him its highest civilian award, the Legion of Honor.
“Shri Soumitra Chatterjee’s death is a colossal loss to the world of cinema, cultural life of West Bengal and India. Through his works, he came to embody Bengali sensibilities, emotions and ethos. Anguished by his demise. Condolences to his family and admirers. Om Shanti,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.
Shri Soumitra Chatterjee’s death is a colossal loss to the world of cinema, cultural life of West Bengal and India. Through his works, he came to embody Bengali sensibilities, emotions and ethos. Anguished by his demise. Condolences to his family and admirers. Om Shanti.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 15, 2020
“Soumitra Chatterjee is an ‘idea’ which is slowly fading away amongst us. The all encompassing persona of a Renaissance man,” Suman Ghosh, who directed Chatterjee in “Podokkhep” told Variety. “He had an intensely exploratory mind which wanted to enquire and explore many facets of life, which revealed through his writings, poetry, theater and of course cinema. I hope he is remembered beyond just being an internationally renowned actor.”
“Soumitra was not just an actor, he was an artist of life, a creative dynamo, a timeless Banyan tree in the cultural stratosphere of India, the last of the Mohicans,” Amit Ranjan Biswas, who directed Chatterjee in “Bridge,” told Variety. “While speaking to him last time in January, I asked, ‘What do you stand for?’ Unhesitatingly, he replied, ‘Love.’ May he rest in love and abundance.”
Homages to Chatterjee are pouring in from around the world.
Now that great actor #SoumitraChatterjee has died, here he is near his best: Days and Nights of the Forest.
4 educated male city friends go to the country,meet two women,and are changed. Contains famous memory game sequ.
About ideas, lethargy, beauty. https://t.co/AKR2jXzBvx pic.twitter.com/KzhpAujae7
— mark cousins (@markcousinsfilm) November 15, 2020
Agree! Long live Soumitra Chatterjee🙏🏽
— Mira Nair (@MiraPagliNair) November 15, 2020
Indian Cinema has lost one of its leading lights. My heartfelt condolences to Soumitraji’s family, and to all his fans. His work will continue to bring joy to all of us.
RIP Shri Soumitra Chatterjee 🙏🏼
— Aamir Khan (@aamir_khan) November 16, 2020
T 3722 – Soumitra Chatterjee .. an iconic legend .. one of the mightiest pillars of the Film Industry, .. has fallen .. a gentle soul and abundant talent .. last met him at the IFFI in Kolkata ..
Prayers .. 🙏 pic.twitter.com/GSFYacxKCh
— Amitabh Bachchan (@SrBachchan) November 15, 2020
Farewell Soumitra Da.I had the honour of playing your wife in La Nuit Bengali n your daughter in 15 Park Avenue.I was with you in Paris and saw the adulation you received at George Pompidou Centre but you were so nonchalant about it that it left me deeply https://t.co/4fQS7NdVFW pic.twitter.com/JEezV23z0k
— Azmi Shabana (@AzmiShabana) November 15, 2020
His Graceful Presence was always visible on screen. In all roles to remind us the beauty of life. Soumitra da! My dream to work with you remained unfulfilled.Will catch you on the other unless you hurry back again to this dimension! Lots of love, hugs. Rest for a while in Peace . pic.twitter.com/2NgMJhRA4n
— Adil hussain (@_AdilHussain) November 15, 2020
A legend…an inspiration….🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/MvQCKOHOBy
— Anil Kapoor (@AnilKapoor) November 15, 2020
Deeply sad. Soumitrada, an incredibly kind, funny & loving person & supremely versatile & authentic performer just left us. So fortunate to have worked with him in Paddakhep & then met many a times. Covid is claiming too many precious lives. Miss you so much. #SoumitraChatterjee pic.twitter.com/9LQJ5rfcYz
— Nandita Das (@nanditadas) November 15, 2020