Babita’s tribute: An artist like Soumitra Chatterjee never dies

  • Saimum Saad,
    Published: 2020-11-15 17:38:33 BdST

An artist like Soumitra Chatterjee never dies but remains immortal in people’s hearts. These are the words from Farida Akhtar Babita who worked with Soumitra in an elegiac film on famine.

Soumitra, the legendary thespian who passed away in hospital care in Kolkata on Sunday, left a legacy of enduring fame.

“Ashani Sanket” or Distant Thunder is the film that connected the Bangladeshi actress to Soumitra. The 1973 film directed by Satyajit Ray was based on the novel by the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.

The film examines the effect of the Great Famine of 1943 on the villages of Bengal through the eyes of a young Brahmin doctor-teacher, Gangacharan (Soumitra) and his wife Ananga (Babita).

As food shortages reach catastrophic proportions, Gangacharan attempts to preserve his privileged situation, while his generous wife conversely tries to help and support the community.

The story showed the human scale of a cataclysmic event that killed millions of people. The film unfolds at a leisurely pace that reflects the rhythms of village life, but gradually shows the breakdown of traditional village norms under the pressure of hunger and starvation.

In an interview with on Sunday, Babita recalled that she was 16 years old when she worked with Soumitra.

“My first shot was with Soumitra Da. He was looking great in his dhoti and round-framed glasses -- his get-up for the character of Gangacharan he was playing. I was very nervous,” she said.

For Babita, it was the first opportunity to work abroad with a giant like Soumitra. “I was in a panic – unsure if I would be able to make it,” she recalled.

In the 1970s, Babita was a newcomer, a fresh face to the audience, while Soumitra was already an acclaimed actor who worked in films, such as “Apur Sansar”.

Babita prepared herself by reading about Soumitra and watching “Apur Sansar” before sharing the screen with him. But that added to her adrenaline rush, as she kept worrying about her ability to match his talent.

But that fear was gone once she started working with Soumitra. “I realised what a great human being he was. He made friends with me so easily. I benefited from his suggestions on the set. We used to play board games at leisure during the shooting. Sometimes, he used to recite poems.”

The movie “Ashani Sanket” won the Golden Bear award in the Berlin Film Festival in Germany in 1973. Babita and Soumitra attended the award ceremony with Satyajit Ray.

The success of “Ashani Sanket” paved the way for Babita to become a renowned actress in Bangladesh.

Though they did not work together again in new films, Babita was always in touch with Soumitra.

Babita still fondly remembers Soumitra’s words on her over the phone when she was in Kolkata: “I heard that you became very famous in Bangladesh; you're acting in many films and also winning awards. I knew from the time of Ashani Sanket that you would become a great artist.”

They met every time Soumitra came to Dhaka. “Both of us were invited to a programme in Dhaka and I just ran up to him like a little girl and asked how he was. I told him that even if we didn’t meet regularly, he was always in my heart.”

Soumitra was a guardian to the Bengali movie industry with all his support, Babita said.

“For the past month, I was very worried about him. Every moment I thought that he would recover. But it didn’t happen. An artist like him never dies. I am praying for him to rest in peace. He was in our hearts and will remain so -- forever.”