There is an old debate over who is the greatest actor in Bengali cinema. While Uttam Kumar is known for his charisma and magical performances, Soumitra Chatterjee is the favourite of the intellectual Satyajit Ray fans all over the world. If Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen pair is seen as the most romantic in Indian cinema, then Soumitra Chatterjee-Sharmilla Tagore pair holds its own tragic charisma.
Playback singers like Hemant Kumar, Shaymal Mitra, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar rose to success by giving playback for Uttam Kumar! The new age directors of Bengal like Ajoy Kar, Tapan Sinha, Pinaki Mukherjee, Agradut, Agragami could freely experiment in Bengali films only due to Uttam Kumar’s screen presence! The careers of best actresses of Bengali films like Suchitra Sen, Arundhuti Debi, Sabitri Chatterji, were related to Uttam Kumar as they complimented his powerful performances. Uttam Kumar won the first ever national Award for best actor- for his performance in Satyajit Ray’s “Chiriakhana” and the film “Antony Firingi” in 1967, the year the Awards were introduced.
Whereas Soumitra Chatterjee’s performances in the films like Apur Sansar, Sonar Kella, Charulata, Joy Baba Felunath, Abhijaan, were highly appreciated by the intellectual audience. His centrality to Ray’s work is akin to other key collaborations in the history of cinema – Mifune & Kurosawa, Mastroianni & Fellini, De Niro & Scorsese, Max von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman, Jerzy Stuhr and Kieslowski… Soumitra Chatterji received the ‘Officier des Arts et Metiers’, the highest award for arts given by the French government, and a lifetime achievement award from Italy. He turned down the honorary Padma Shri award from the Indian government in the seventies; more recently, in 2004, he accepted the prestigious Padma Bhushan award. He was a very cultured, educated, soft personality, and is still respected for his selective performances.
The battle over the acting capabilities of the two legends led to injustice towards the other great actors of Bengali cinema like Anil Chatterji, Bosonto Chowdhury, Nirmal Kumar, Bikash Roy and Kali Banerjee. People consider them as character artists, but when they played central characters they proved their acting skills time and again. All these actors should have been honoured and recognized, but are unfortunately lost in the Uttam-Soumitra battle!