Ratnottama Sengupta trains the spotlight on actress Swatilekha Sengupta(22nd May 1950- 16th June 2021)
“Swatilekha is more talented and far better actor than I. Still, everyone keeps asking for me!” Rudraprasad Sengupta was not boasting to me – the helmsman of the celebrated Nandikar Theatre Group was citing just one instance to show that “women in theatre still suffer bias.”
He wasn’t far from the truth: Swatilekha Sengupta, who passed away exactly a year ago on June 16 at 71, had graduated in English, mastered Western classical music in England, received guidance in theatre from iconic names like Tapas Sen, B V Karanth and Khaled Chowdhury. She composed music for, directed and carried on her shoulder Nandikar productions like Madhabi, Shanu Roy Chowdhury, Pata Jhore Jaay (Dry Leaves Fall), Naachni(Dancers).
Madhabi was adapted from Bhishm Sahni’s Mahabharat based play; Shanu Roy Chowdhury was adapted from Willy Russel’s Shirley Valentine; Naachni encapsulated the exploitation of the nautch girls of tribal Purulia. She wrote some, she composed the music for some, she travelled to UK and USA, Germany and Norway and Scotland… with husband Rudrapasad, with daughter Sohini, even to stage a one-woman play. Yet, she is most recalled for playing Bimala in Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire (Home and the World, 1985) – although, ironically, she faced fierce criticism for its critical failure!
Growing up in Allahabad Swatilekha – then Chatterjee – had repeatedly watched Charulata (1964) and Mahanagar (1963) with her school friends. She even wrote to Ray seeking an opportunity to work under him. Of course the letter went unanswered – or perhaps it went astray? For, Ray watched Swatilekha in Nandikar’s Galileo and zeroed in on her for the dream role of Bimala: the wife of a forward-thinking zamindar, Nikhiliesh, whose concern for the welfare of the peasantry under his care is critiqued and upended by an upstart revolutionary, Sandip.
Tagore had written the novel, told through the personal stories of the three protagonists, in 1916 when the Nationalist movement was peaking. The 1905 Partition of Bengal had outraged both, the Hindus and the Muslims, and the protests against the religion-based partition also saw Tagore set Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram to music and singing the song to protest the imposition of foreign rule. But after the ‘administrative division’ was rescinded, the call to boycott foreign goods in favour of Swadeshi, indigenous, appealed to the masses – and that led to tensions between the anti-British activists and the idealists. Swadeshi was critiqued as being unaffordable for the peasantry by Nikhilesh in the film and by Tagore, who contended that humanity came before nationalism. Effectively, then, the drama had pitted the conservative versus the radical, rational versus the emotional, East versus West. In short, the home versus the world.
So keen was Swatilekha’s appetite for the character that, on the first day, she’d defied a local bandh and walked from her home in north Calcutta to the legend’s Bishop Lefroy address across the city. On learning that she’d not read the Tagore classic the iconic director had insisted that she should NOT read it. On noticing that she was staring at a harpsichord Ray had asked her if she could play it, and on hearing that she played the piano he’d asked her to play a Beethoven and he had himself whistled along!
All this camaraderie must have passed on to his actor: when the film released to the world, a prestigious American newspaper praised the “immense grace” of the “pretty, surprisingly wilful Bimala”. But the demanding viewers at home tore her to pieces saying “she neither lived nor looked the role”. Suddenly her ‘home’ had turned into a horrid world… “I sunk into depression and wanted to end my life!” Swatilekha had confessed to my young screen-writer friend, Zinia Sen, while preparing to return to the screen 30 years later — with the same co-star, Soumitra Chatterjee, in Bela Sheshe (In the Autumn of My Life, 2015), which is now considered a cult film.
The story of Arati and Biswanath Majumdar takes a curious turn when, on the eve of their 50th anniversary, the husband seeks to divorce his wife. Because? Arati, a typical, traditional housewife, happily spends her life cooking and cleaning, washing and nursing. For, in her vocabulary, those are just other words to say ‘I love you’ to her husband; for looking after her in-laws; for expressing her concern for her daughters and son and grandchildren… This is a far cry from her husband’s definition of a dream partner. For Biswanath, the proprietor of a fabled bookstore, has unending curiosity about the world and wants to travel beyond the map…
The five relationships depicted in the film attempt to define the life-long companionship we brand as marriage. Do marriage vows ensure the fairy tale ending of happiness ever after? Is married life built upon promises kept and love requited? Or do unfilled expectations and unarticulated expressions also cement the friendship? Is it possible to walk into the sunset hand in hand?
Bela Sheshe made on a budget of Rs 1.1 crore reaped Rs 2.3 crore. More importantly, while reviving faith in institutionalised partnership it also breathed new box office appeal in the screen partners, Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta. In Belashuru (A New Beginning, 2022) the latest outing of Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee, the director duo have again cast them as Arati and Biswanath. This time, though, it is a new beginning for the husband is eagerly striving for his Alzheimer afflicted wife to recognise that the ‘stranger’ who follows her everywhere, even her bed, is her now-aged groom. For, Arati now lives in the past she left in Faridpur, along with the pond she’d fish in with Atindrada and the textile shop of her comrade in crime, when she got married…
The film pivots on Arati, and Swatilekha outshines one and all in the cast. Not surprising: the actor’s total commitment to the character is borne out by Zinia. She recalls that, “when the rest of the unit sat listening to Soumitra Da’s enthralling anecdotes and Kharaj Da’s  humour filled recitation, Swati Di refused to join in. Instead, she retired within herself, just as Arati would.”
This is echoed by Raj Chakraborty, the director of Dharma Juddha (Religious War ) which was screened in the recent Kolkata International Film Festival. He recounts that the film was shot in Purulia that suffers extreme summer, but “since the sequence was set on a winter night, she kept her warm clothes on all through the shoot. Such was her dedication to the character and the script!”
Having followed her theatre over a long time Raj counts it amongst his blessings that he could work with her. “I’m certain there was more left to learn,” he sighs as he awaits the masses’ response to the film which once again, rests on the sturdy shoulder of Ma/ Ammi/Dadi. Raj could envisage none but Swatilekha as the protagonist who shelters to two sets of men and women when Ismailpur is seized by an apocalyptic night of communal rage. The pacifier succeeds in instilling brotherhood in the four victims from rival camps – until the tragic truth about her son’s death is revealed. It drives home the realisation that the foremost religion is humanism.
Like Swatilekha, Soumitra Da too had a strong presence on the stage. And fortunately, the screen pair’s daughters – Sohini and Poulami, respectively – are also deeply into theatre. “I had chosen theatre when I wanted to direct,” he’d said to me when Sangeet Natak Akademi had decorated him, “because, if I make films, people will always compare me with Manikda.”
That is why I am doubly delighted that the makers marked the release of Bela Shuru – the duo’s last film – around Swatilekha’s birth anniversary, with a unique exhibition. it showcases Soumitra’s typewriter, the script he penned for a play, a collection of pipes acquired on travels abroad; his paintings, poems, letters to his daughter from his Jaisalmer shoot for Sonar Kella (1974)… And it showcases Swatilekha’s violin and mouth-organ; the costumes she wore in Nachni and Bela Shuru; and, a congratulatory letter to Swatilekha, from a star admirer — Amitabh Bachchan…
Yes, theatre people the world over agree, that the ‘Moon of Star Theatre’ was deprived of her rightful honour when the theatre that was founded by her not named after her. Why? Because “the aristocrats would not like to enter a place named after a noti.” Thespian Noti Binodini might have been, but she was a fallen woman, wasn’t she? So what if this contemporary of Tagore was the first South Asian actress to pen her own story – Aamar Katha — a lucid memoir that portrays the 19th century society in Bengal which was at ease with European ideas but confined women to homes. So what if the sage Ramakrishna had gone into a trance as he watched her essay Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1884)? Such was her portrayal that thespian Amritlal Bose wrote, “Whenever I bow to any wooden or painted image of Sri Chaitanya, I see Binodini before my eyes.”
Binodini Dasi had gone onstage at age 12, under mentor Girish Ghosh (1844-1912), and her career had ended when she was just 23. Merely 11 years, but those were the years when the proscenium theatre modelled after European convention was spreading in Bengal. In those 11 years Binodini enacted 80 roles, playing Sita, Draupadi, Radha, Kaikeyi or Pramila, Mrinalini, Motibibi, Ayesha. Please note: She pioneered modern stage make-up by blending European and indigenous styles.
“Because of this, people who had seen her in one role could not recognise her in another,” Girish Ghosh himself wrote. Yet this same stalwart of theatre, to please whom Binodini had drained her own resources and founded Star Theatre in north Calcutta, refused to write a foreword for My Story as it contained uncomfortable truths about Binodini’s patrons!
Why did the chroniclers of Bengal Renaissance overlook the contribution of this marginalised star to the land’s cultural mileu? “Because of the class-caste divide,” Soumitra Chatterjee suggests in his foreword for the memoir. “How could the Brahmo-Brahmin dominated upper crust acknowledge the talents of a lowborn ‘prostitute’?”
More than a century later, Swatilekha took it upon herself to train the spotlight on the fact that the years had failed to change the plight of another set of dancing artistes – the Nachnis.
 Strike where transport was halted
 22. 5. 1950
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
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