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A Special Tribute

In Memoriam: Star of the Stage Shines on Screen

Ratnottama Sengupta trains the spotlight on actress Swatilekha Sengupta(22nd May 1950- 16th June 2021)

Swatilekha Sengupta in action in Shanu Roy Chowdhury. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

“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[1].”

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[2] 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!

Swatilekha Sengupta & Soumitra Chatterjee in Satyajit Ray’s 1985 film, Ghare Baire. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

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?

Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta in Belasheshe. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

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 [3]enthralling anecdotes and Kharaj Da’s [4] humour filled recitation, Swati Di[5] refused to join in. Instead, she retired within herself, just as Arati would.”

Swatilekha Sengupta as Ammi in Dharma Juddha, a film that will be released in August 2022. Photo sourced By Ratnottama Sengupta.

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[6]. 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[7].”

That is why I am doubly delighted that the makers marked the release of Bela Shuru [8]– the duo’s last film – around Swatilekha’s birth anniversary[9], 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…[10]

Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta in Bela Shuru. Photo Sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

Surely a far cry from the bias that you lamented when you celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Notee Binodini [11] in 2013, Rudra Da[12]?

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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.


[1] Women in Theatre suffer bias.’ – quoted from Times of India, article by Ratnottama Sengupta.

[2] Strike where transport was halted

[3] Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020)

[4] Kharaj Mukherjee : Actor and comedian

[5] Swatilekha Sengupta (1950-2021)

[6] Grandmother

[7] Satyajit Ray

[8] Release date: 20.5.2022

[9] 22. 5. 1950

[10] Amitabh Bachhan, one of the most nationally and internationally awarded and influential actors

[11] Play based on the life Binodini Dasi

[12] Rudraprasad Sengupta, husband of Swatilekha and a theatre personality

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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

Can Songs be the Musical Conscience of a Film?

Prithvijeet Sinha uses Gaman (Departure), a Hindi movie around the pain of migrant workers, as a case study to highlight his contention that lyrics and songs convey much in Indian films.

 As my essay dives into the realm of the personal intermingling with the universal, I have found that the quintessential point of a space, definitive of our existences and livelihood, flows seamlessly in our lives. A collective omnibus houses our private churnings, moving from one point to another as life scripts new adventures of the mind and the spirit to discover valuable assets and find that sacred space — a home to give refuge to our true and innate selfhoods. The idea of the heart as home of our fiercely personal torrents of thoughts is something I adhere to. As such, the heart is a lonely island and much as personal journals and diaries have a secretly lush inner world to communicate, the subtle and implicit art of songwriting is the external synonym and outlet that universally connects our inner world with the outside.

 The functional meaning of a song is actually born out of the discerning of listeners. Khairun, the lonely young woman at the heart of the film, Gaman (1978), is one such example in a sea of millions around the world, one of countless women left to tend to the hearth while the responsibility of corralling finances snatches their men away from them prematurely. Such is the dilemma that a newly annointed marital union becomes essentially a platonic one, testing the sombre beginnings of this lifelong intertwining of two strangers. As if it’s a rite of passage for their individual selves after they have taken their vows in the public eye and been pronounced as man and wife. They burn for that warmth and familial touch of companionship with these songs sung by playback artistes (conveying from the prism of Khairun) becoming spiritual constants when the physical reality of them staying together is rendered impossible. Through her fortitude and its equal mirroring in her husband’s predicament in the city, we find the power of this union to sustain itself in two different places. Their mindscapes merge and Khairun is a conduit for this film’s portrayal of pain of separation and social anxiety. As if she has a telepathic connect with her beloved as when, through voice-overs, we find her letters informing Ghulam of her own angst and her brooding face and eyes loom over Bombay’s skyline.

 It’s the language of our soul or Aatma as we call it in Indian canon.  We are not alone then. There is no conflict in this union and the words, it seems, flow out of our own being.  The beauty, melancholy and dignified distance invested in them bring the pining heart and the hopeful soul together in perfect tandem.

In Gaman, both protagonists live in the shadows of crumbling aristocracy, in a village in North India where the present is bleak and like a ghost informs the poor population about its impending desolation. In a post-colonial nation, the humbler occupants of this social compartment still have survival to contemplate upon and their lands and farming have given them no respite from debts. As the central characters are Khairun (the iconic actress, Smita Patil) and Ghulam Hasan (another stalwart actor, Farooq Sheikh), the film shot in the erstwhile Muslim and predominantly secular princely state of Kotwara, could be reflective of the dilapidated shells of a centuries old lineage which may have had connections in the past and seen better days. But rampant unemployment, educational lacuna and a hand-to-mouth existence contextualize a move to the big city for the man. The name Khairun itself has a certain melancholic ring to it, I think and Ghulam as his name goes becomes a slave of his fated new beginnings.  Their taciturn marital bond is presented in brief moments together.

 In simple but rousing poetry, the real challenge of moving ahead in the big city while leaving behind the rustic stronghold and a real home is poignantly conveyed.  Identities are at stake and have to find a home, even if it is the most modest resort of reassurance. The womenfolk have no real say or stake in this scenario and Khairun’s silence is a witness to that. The song then that appears is ‘Aap ki yaad aati hai raat bhar’ (Your memories were all that remained all night long).

Composed by Jaidev, written by Makhdoom Mohiuddin and sung iconically by Chaya Ganguly, who won the prestigious National Award for playback singing, love and longing are two sides of the same coin. When I heard this song few years back, it came like a lilt from beyond, the central melody captivated me and made me croon its perfectly structured lines. There was a distinct local character to it and the realism of the situations converged with the romanticism of natural images. These images were stages in their marked separation and the passage of time was invoked. The opening lines translated are, “Your memories were all that remained all night long, moist eyes kept smiling all night long.”  The stoic quality of internalization is very succinct here. “Muskurati Rahi”( a smiling wayfarer) in feminine form reflects the mindset of Khairun, the young bride and woman. There is a brevity of conveying the lull within the heart’s storm. A pensive directness addressed to oneself in isolation and to the beloved is like a pithy interior monologue; a missive to the one who yearns for an established bond.

The song is unique as it’s one of the few ones to begin with the chorus or central refrain which clearly elucidates its personal nature of pathos. The first verse continues with the imagery of the still night and dark, private chambers of the heart where longing is given rest and an assured hand. It goes like, “the flames of pain were burning/alighted all night long /melancholy’s flicker was trembling throughout.”

 The fickle spirit is putting up a brave front and is vulnerable, spending its time in contemplation. From the opening plucking of strings, which I think is the instrument santoor and burgeoning flutes, the intimate incandescence of the couple is set into motion in a composition set in the pure classical mold. Khairun’s dialogue travels all the way to us. There is a shine to their passion for each other which refuses to interfere with their earnest pursuits. 

The second verse is more tilted towards romanticism. Its mesmerising notes are referenced with the flute to symbolise love and its dimensions. In Indian lore, Krishna played the flute for self-definition and courtship. Here, its transcendental spell is cast on a lonely soul as attested in the lyrics, “the tuneful, charming notes of the flute/come as reminders of memories all night long.” The speaker is in third person and omnipresent thus the personal becomes the universal and the use of night imagery can make it the last moorings of an individual before sleep gets the better of her/him and every recollection is committed to memory’s animated storehouse. The invocation of the flute is a sweet token for the promise of every stable relationship. The foundation has to be lovely and full of warmth even though it is an ephemeral ideal.

The talent of the lyricist here is that these escape from falling into a basket of random cliches as its essence is in Urdu poetic tradition.  Look at those plangent eyes of Khairun, deep vessels of wait and ceaseless langour, akin to an Amrita Shergill paintings.  

The mystery of the night has direct approximation in the next verse, “the night moon entered depths of the heart/ its glow illuminated the night.”  The moon is a personal symbol as it’s cast in the image of Ghulam for Khairun and vice versa. The unattainable height of its location is related to the profound number of miles separating husband and wife. Its dim light is the only source of illumination thus hope is enshrined in these lines for the little kernel of happiness that may bless them sooner or later.  The desire for union is prevalent here. In the video of the song, notice how the lyrics pertaining to moonlight are juxtaposed with streetlights and neon lights of Bombay where Ghulam drives a taxi for a living and Khairun tends to the household lighted by a dim bulb. Light plays a crucial role in their overlapping narratives. Winter has set in the village and Bombay is the metropolis on whose streets Ghulam has to ply his cab. 

Finally the gypsy heart that celebrates isolation and is detached from unnecessary expectations finds its way in the final verse, “a lover wanders around lanes/ a voice echoes all night long”

 This is not the blabbering of a madman but the deep call of the soul’s recesses. Should both Khairun and Ghulam adopt detachment till they are united or celebrate their individual and in a larger sense collective isolation? Their private musings do their bidding for the heart. The head and heart dilemma is hence paramount.  The lover’s wandering minstrel like ways approximate the private reserves of love and longing. Dual interplay of inner and outer personas match wits and still lucidity is sought and achieved in the quietude of this composition via slender, elegant employment of guitar, drums and flutes.

 Chaya Ganguly’s voice dominates the sway of restrained pathos and hope here while Smita Patil’s eyes and Farooq Sheikh’s stoicism endure as he posts letters and Khairun holds them. ‘Seene Mein Jalan, Aankhon Mein Toofaan’ (A burn in the chest/ a storm in the breath) captures the rush and milling crowds of big cities where individuality hankers for identity while ‘Ras ke bhare tore Nain’ (your eyes are full to the brim) addresses the aesthetics of longing from the same soundtrack. The playbacks by Suresh Wadkar and Hira Devi Mishra respectively are pitch perfect.  The panorama of humanism under duress finds its true form and content in the direction of Muzaffar Ali (auteur of iconic Umrao Jaan), cinematography of Nadeem Khan, lyrics by Shahryar, writer Hriday Lani and crisp editing by Jethu Mundul.

The music of Gaman won Jaidev a National Award too for best music and deservedly so. The film also won a special mention accolade.

Gaman in Urdu signifies transit, passage, migration, departure or movement but I was surprised by how according to Zen Buddhist currency in Japanese, it is an equivalent of stoic endurance and patience. These markers ultimately are a natural corollary of movement of any kind. The music of Gaman is a perfect amalgamation of the personal and universal and devolves meaning to the idea of distance. Timeless musical exemplifications like these simply don’t exist anymore. It is the soul of Khairun that ultimately guides us to that point of personal transit.

Prithvijeet Sinha has been prolifically publishing works of various hues in journals and magazines like   Cafe Dissensus, Confluence, The Medley, Borderless, Wilda Morris’ Poetry Blog, Screen Queens, Rhetorica Quarterly, Lothlorien, Chamber Magazine, Livewire  among others. He believes writing to be the true music of the soul.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.