Soumitra Chatterjee, an Indian actor who incarnated the beauty and fragility of youthful idealism in films by director Satyajit Ray and helped solidify Ray’s place in cinematic history, died Sunday at a hospital in Kolkata, India. He was 85.
His daughter, Poulami Bose, said the cause was brain damage and organ failure brought on by a case of COVID-19.
Mr. Chatterjee, who appeared in more than 350 movies, rose to fame playing the title character in “The World of Apu” (1959). The film, the third in Ray’s famous “Apu” trilogy, cast Mr. Chatterjee in an epic role familiar from canonical works of literature: A young man imagines a glorious literary career from a shabby garret apartment in a capital city but then encounters the hard realities of adult life, which he struggles to transcend.
For “The World of Apu,” Mr. Chatterjee kept a diary in which he specified what Apu was doing every moment he was off screen. He brought the same intensity to “Charulata” (1964), a Ray movie about tensions in an upper-class family set in 1879, in which Mr. Chatterjee plays an aspiring poet and essayist. He spent six months mastering the 19th-century style of Bengali handwriting so that the scenes that depicted him in the act of composition could appear authentic.
The young writers Mr. Chatterjee played in “The World of Apu” and “Charulata” set a template for the other characters he became known for. In Ray’s “The Golden Fortress” (1974), about kidnappers looking for a long-forgotten treasure, Mr. Chatterjee plays a private eye who also has an ambition that is softened by high-mindedness and impracticality. In “Days and Nights in the Forest” (1969), which follows young friends on a vacation, Mr. Chatterjee’s businessman character is sardonic and self-confident but, like the aspiring writers, yearns for a different life.
His characters often wore a shabby-chic outfit of sport coats and scarves — even when, in one movie, he briefly appeared as an ash-covered coal miner.
Mr. Chatterjee had the ability to project guilelessness, sometimes as a naif but on other occasions as a selfless hero. His performance as Feluda, Ray’s riff on Sherlock Holmes, enshrined the character as a standard-bearer of Bengali cultural values. For a crime-fighting detective, Feluda was unusually intellectual, the sort of sleuth who would blow open a case by discovering, as he does in “The Golden Fortress,” a spelling mistake in a hotel register.
Ray invented Feluda as a character in a series of children’s stories he began writing in the 1960s, which he adapted into two movies starring Mr. Chatterjee, “The Golden Fortress” and “The Elephant God” (1978). Since Ray’s death in 1992, there have been more than a dozen new Feluda movies with a succession of new stars, but none have come close to supplanting Mr. Chatterjee’s portrayal of Feluda in the hearts of fans.
Soumitra Chatterjee was born Jan. 19, 1935, in Krishnanagar, a small town in what was then the British province of Bengal. His father, Mohit Kumar Chatterjee, was a lawyer and a member of the Indian Independence Movement, and his mother, Ashalata, was a homemaker. She named Soumitra after a character from Bengali literature and, rather than sing him lullabies, would recite poems by Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore.
Soumitra starred in plays held in the family’s courtyard, where bedsheets had been transformed into curtains and the aluminum foil of his parents’ cigarette packets became crowns for he and his young relatives to wear as costumes.
He avoided schoolbooks, but he was reading Leo Tolstoy at 14. He skipped class to watch movies not meant for children but got caught when he overheard a conversation between his parents about a particular scene and chimed in.
He moved to Kolkata to attend City College and graduated with a degree in Bengali literature. He was inspired to become a professional actor after coming under the tutelage of Bengali actor and director Sisir Bhaduri, who advised Mr. Chatterjee to understand the roles he was assigned by scanning a script for subtext like a detective searching for clues.
In 1960 he married Deepa Mr. Chatterjee, his childhood sweetheart.
After Ray launched Mr. Chatterjee to Bengali superstardom and international art house renown, Mr. Chatterjee’s artistic ambitions expanded. He founded, with a college friend, a literary magazine, Ekkhon (Bengali for “Now”), which published the work of eminent writers like Mahasweta Devi and illustrations and scripts by Ray. Mr. Chatterjee also wrote more than a dozen books of poems and wrote, translated, directed, produced and starred in plays. He exhibited his watercolor paintings across India.
Later in his film career, Mr. Chatterjee became typecast as a genial grandpa who upheld the noble values of a bygone era in roles that were, by his own admission, “hackneyed” or even “detestable.” “One feels sad for Soumitra,” one Bengali reviewer wrote.
In addition to Bose and his wife, Mr. Chatterjee leaves his son, Sougata, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Chatterjee, who was 14 years younger than Ray, regarded him as a mentor and paid him a visit at his home every Sunday morning.
His admiration was not “based on external considerations, like how successful he was, how many awards he got or how wild people were about him,” Mr. Chatterjee said in a video interview. “I could see his artistic vision right before my eyes. It was a vast, universal vision. He had an ability to understand all of life.”