Actress Paoli Dam gives a first person account on shooting with Bengali cinema icon Soumitra Chatterjee in September, before he was diagnosed with Covid-19 and hospitalised in September.
“In the month of September, and I was back on the set of ‘Aboho’ post lockdown. It was our first day of the shoot after lockdown and, though we had already shot a substantial part of the film before Covid stopped shooting, I was feeling jittery on returning to a film set after a gap of many months when I was stuck in a confined space.
“There was a sense of nervousness. I went to Soumitra sir and just gave a smile. He looked at me and said, ‘ki holo? kemon kemon lagche na, etodin por (what happened? are you feeling nervous to shoot after such a long gap)?’ I nodded and then he smiled and told me, ‘kicchu hobe na, jai hok, mogojastre dhulo jomte dio na, bujhle (don’t worry and don’t let dust gather on your thought process, understood)?’
(The allusion of mogojastro, literally translating to brain-weapon, draws from Satyajit Ray’s 1979 superhit Joy Baba Felunath that had Soumitra playing Feluda. In a scene, Feluda tells a kid his weapon is ‘mogojastro’ or brain-weapon).
“I smiled again and agreed. He assured, ‘do not worry, we will have a good day’.
“That is Soumitra Chatterjee to us, a legend — at 85 assuring a youngster like me not to feel jittery. I think I will remember the line for life.
“Being at Rabindra Sadan to take part in his last journey, it was heart-breaking to just deal with the fact that he is no more.
“As I talk, I am going through the last photograph I clicked on the set of ‘Aboho’ and how can I make myself believe that we were shooting for the last time?
“The first time I saw him on the big screen when Ma took me to watch ‘Sonar Kella’. I would watch that film again and again because of Feluda, and I would never miss any film of the Feluda series ever. He was the face of Feluda to me as a child. I loved him in ‘Hirak Rajar Deshe’, too.
“When I look back, it is so interesting to notice that he has remained timeless and he reached out to the audience of every generation because of his choice of films.
“On one hand, he acted in children’s films, teenagers loved him as Feluda. And then, I had a crush on him when I grew up and watched ‘Charulata’! He acted in a film called ‘Koni’ in which he encourages a young swimmer to take part in a national level competition. It was an aspirational story and he was the life of the story.
“How intelligent he was as an artiste with a deep understanding of storytelling — every time I conversed with him, I used to realise this side of his.
“The last successful film I did with Mr Chatterjee was ‘Sanjhbati’ in 2019. He is the man who never had arrogance or took shortcuts from hard work despite being so successful and having so many admirers across generations. He would say, ‘your success should not distract you from your art and craft. It should rather empower you to experiment.’
“He was not someone who would give gyan (preaching) to a junior. But when one sees an 85-year-old successful legend, despite physical exhaustion, standing and performing in front of the camera for five hours, how can one not put the best foot forward?
“Yes, that was him. The moment the camera and lights were on, I would see his eyes light up! This was magic and you would realise what I am saying only if you worked with him, shared a frame with him. I am fortunate to be one of such actors.
“I did not know that the shoot for ‘Aboho’ was the last time I would meet him. He was smiling. I sat next to him and we clicked a picture. Today when I see that picture again, before I break down into tears, I want to thank the legend for create a memory with me that I will cherish forever.”