Soumitra, Shakespeare and a decades long love affair

“Give back 50 years of my life, for I want to play Hamlet,” says octogenarian thespian SoumitraAChatterjee, who still harbours a desire to portray Macbeth and yearns for a second stint as King Lear on stage.

Revered as a cultural icon in Bengal, and known to the world outside as film maestro Satyajit Ray’s favourite actor who has portrayed legendary on-screen characters like “Apu” and “Feluda”, Soumitra has been obsessed with British poet-playwright William Shakespeare since his youth.

A student of literature, he watched in awe the various Shakespeare productions on stage — and the hunger to play the evergreen protagonists created by the Bard of Avon increased as he opted for a career in acting.

“It is impossible not to fall for Shakespeare’s plays if one decides to take up acting. Works of Shakespeare, and epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are classics, they are timeless. So there was that resentment from inside at not getting to do Shakespeare,” the 82-year-old said, in a nostalgic look back at the various stages of his trysts with the Elizabethan age master storyteller.

Participating in a Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet interactive session on Shakespeare in the backdrop of the magnificent British-era Victoria Memorial museum, Soumitra recalled that he had translated Hamlet into Bengali between 1962 and 1964 while in his early 30s.

“But then I had no idea about the need for a big team to do such productions involving so many characters. Moreover I used to work in the professional theatre, where Shakespeare was not in currency then. I couldn’t find a single producer for Shakespeare’s plays. So my dreams remained unfulfilled,” he told the impressive gathering of culture enthusiasts.

Time wore on, and Soumitra got tremendously busy in his large body of work — films, plays, poems and editing a little magazine.

“Slowly, the age to play Hamlet was behind me. I started thinking again which part I could do now. I found I could still play Macbeth. And deep inside I felt I could one day do Lear. And I said that in public,” he reminisced.

Around the confluence of the last decade and the present one, the newly formed Minerva Repertory Theatre asked Soumitra whether he would do Lear.

“They told me to both direct and act. But I said I couldn’t do both and chose Sumon Mukhopadhyay as the director.

“The translation was done. The rest is history. The production was tremendously popular from the time it hit the stage till the time it stopped,” he said.

Sumon, who was also present at the session, said he had the goose bumps about directing Soumitra on the first day of the rehearsal. “I thought how I can direct this legend’ But he has what is called actor’s innocence. So it didn’t take a minute to start a dialogue and strike up a rapport with him. And yes, it also helped as he had tremendous faith in me.”

Soumitra got deeply immersed in the production. “He was living with Lear. He was drawing one sketch after another of Lear. He was writing and rewriting the dialogues.”

“The gruelling rehearsal sessions, which stretched to ten hours at times, continued for ten months. We had a multi-level stage. We asked Soumitrada to keep to one level during the rehearsals. But he did not listen and used to go to every level,” said Sumon.

He recalled Soumitra’s excellent grip over Bengali also helped, especially during trying circumstances.

“At times he forgot the lines, but managed the situations beautifully by virtue of his command ove the language and his fine diction.”

Soumitra did not think that the quality of a drama gets lost in translation. “This may happen in poetry, but not in drama, if the translator has the requisite skills.”

“Of course Shakespeare poses a big challenge. How do you translate those immortal lines of Hamlet ‘to be or not to be…’ and yet retain the emotions completely’ It is better to retain the original English dialogues in such cases, irrespective of the language.”

Asked to state the Shakespearean characters he wanted to play now, Soumitra turned emotional. “Give back 50 years of my life, for I want to play Hamlet… I can still do Macbeth and I really wish to do it. And yes, I want to do King Lear again”.

(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at

By Sirshendu Panth


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