Bengali cinema has not been very blessed with a lot of good female actors, the numbers are few and most of them from the yester years. While we remember Suchitra Sen, Sharmila Tagore, Sabitri Chatterjee, Supriya Devi and some others quite frequently, we tend to sometimes ignore that one other actor who was a powerhouse in her times, and still gives a brilliant performance every time she is on screen.
Madhabi Mukherjee, born 10th of February 1942, started acting at a very young age. With her base of theatre and experience of working with theatre heavyweights like Chhabi Biswas, Sisir Bhaduri, Ahindra Chowdhury and others, there was absolutely no doubt about her abilities as an actor. In fact, only at the tender age of eight, Madhabi Mukherjee made her feature film debut as a child actor in Premendra Mitra’s film Kankantala Light Railway (1950). She holds the rare distinction of working with three of Bengali cinema’s heavyweight directors, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. Her contribution to Bengali cinema cannot in any way be judged by someone like me, and hence I am attempting to list five of her best performances below.
Dibaratrir Kabya (1970)
Directed by : Bimal Bhowmik and Narayan Chakraborty
Based on a novel of the same name by Manik Bandopadhyay, this film casts Madhabi Mukherjee in the role of Supriya, a lovelorn wife of a police inspector who got married at a very young age even though she loved someone else. Madhabi plays the role of a wife who fulfils her responsibilities faithfully, but her feelings for another man,Herombo (Basant Chowdhury), do not let her achieve mental peace. Even though she knows that she is married, she cannot help but talk to Herombo about her feelings for him. Herombo, on the other hand, is going through his own inner turmoil as his wife has committed suicide by hanging herself. As the film progresses, Herombo falls in love withAnanda, the daughter of one of his school teachers, making Supriya insecure of her relationship with Herombo. The film ends with both Supriya’s husband and Ananda dying, leaving Herombo and Supriya in a void, unable to commit themselves to one another.
Madhabi’s performance in this film is nothing short of brilliant. The character of Supriya has so many different shades that one can only think of it as a nightmare, but Madhabi Mukherjee handles the role with real ease, never losing her way with it. On the one hand, she is a dedicated housewife, carrying out all the responsibilities of a married woman. On the other hand,her feelings for Herombo make her a conflicted person and she cannot escape them as she tries to prove toHerombo, by her words and actions, that he is the one to be blamed for her situation, as he is the one who abandoned her when she was married to someone else. It is of no surprise that she went on to win the National award for best acting for this film.
Dir :Satyajit Ray
Charulata, based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Noshtoneer, is one of Ray’s and Madhabi Mukherjee’s ground breaking films, where both reached the pinnacle of their respective craft. It is often said that even if Madhabi Mukherjee did only Charulata in her career, people would still remember her for a long time, such a powerful performance it was.
Set in Victorian Calcutta of the late 1890’s in an upper middle class household, the film shows Madhabi Mukherjee in the role of Charu, who is married to Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), a self-proclaimed intellectual who is enthusiastic about his newspaper which is political in nature. As Bhupati spends all his time reading books and at his press working for his newspaper, Charu, who is educated and artistic, spends most of her time alone, neglected by her husband. Seeing her loneliness, Bhupati tells his cousin Amal (SoumitraChattopadhyay) to give company to Charu. This spells doom for the trio, as a romantic relationship starts to develop between Charu and Amal, for both of them are intellectually inclined and in need of companionship. The film ends with Amal going to England to marry and complete his higher studies, more so out of guilt because he felt he was betraying his brother, and Charu and Bhupati ending on an unsure note, with the film not giving us any conclusion on that front.
Madhabi as Charulata gives a commanding performance throughout the film. Every time she is on screen, she overshadows anyone else present, with ease and a beautiful charm which one would expect from a Rabindrik female character. Just like in DibaratrirKabya, Madhabi plays the role of a character who is multi layered and goes through a drastic transformation, and she slips into all those emotions with no trouble at all. It is of no doubt that her acting in this film has set the benchmark for all actors who attempt to play a character created by Tagore. Watch the opening ten minutes of the film, where the boredom and loneliness of Charu is perfectly portrayed by Ray’s camera and Madhabi’s acting.
Directed by : Ritwik Ghatak
One of the most complex roles played by Madhabi Mukherjee alongside Charu in Charulata was the role of Sita in Subarnarekha, directed by RitwikGhatak. Considered to be one of the finest films in the oeuvre of Bengali cinema dealing with partition and its consequences, Madhabi Mukherjee yet again proves through the character of Sita that she never disappoints whenever she is on screen. Sita and Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya), her brother, are both refugees from East Pakistan after the 1947 partition of India. Ishwar, a sympathetic person also takes care of Abhiram, whose mother was abducted because she was from a lower caste. Ishwar and Sita relocate near the banks of the river Subarnarekha where Ishwar has got a job at a factory. As Abhiram comes back after completing his studies, he and Sita both realise they are in love with each other. Ishwar does not agree to the relationship, compelling Abhiram and Sita to run away to Calcutta where Abhiram gets a job as a bus driver. As the film progresses, we learn that Abhiram was killed by an angry mob after Abhiram accidentally killed someone on the road. Out of extreme poverty and with no solution, Sita, a mother by then, becomes a prostitute and is shocked to find out that his first customer is his estranged brother Ishwar, after which she commits suicide.
Madhabi yet again excels in a role which is not conventional in any sense. To play a prostitute was a big choice that actors had to make in those days, with most of them rejecting such roles.Madhabi Mukherjee did not shy away from the challenge so early on in her career; in fact she took it upon herself to make it one of the most memorable characters on screen. I cannot think of any other actor who would have performed the trauma and shock the character of Sita goes through when she sees Ishwar as her first customer.
Directed by : Satyajit Ray
In Madhabi Mukherjee’s first film with Satyajit Ray, she plays the leading character of Arati, a housewife who starts working as a sales-woman, going against her conservative family’s wishes, only to support her family financially. Even in this film, Madhabi remains true to her role and gives a flawless performance as Arati. She perfectly plays out a character that is helpless, seeing her family’s situation, yet she wants to support the family and her husband, who works from morning to night to earn money. Trouble starts when Arati’s husband loses his job at the bank and Arati’s success at her work starts to make him jealous and suspicious, all the more so because of Arati’s friendship with Edith, an Anglo Indian woman. The film takes its final turn when Edith is wrongfully dismissed by her boss and Arati confronts him and asks him to apologise to her, which does not happen, making her resign from the job. Arati and her husband vow that they will look for jobs again.
Madhabi’s performance in the film goes through a similar wave till the point she confronts her boss. That one scene completely changes the dynamics of her character and the film, because we, the audience, realise there is more to Arati’s character. The submissive Arati explodes in this scene as she protests what she thinks is injustice meted out to her colleague. Madhabi’s command over her craft is visible in that scene itself.
Directed by : Arabinda Mukhopadhyay
In one of the finest Bengali films, which critiques the superstition ridden society through the eyes of a doctor played by Uttam Kumar, Madhabi Mukherjee plays the role of his wife who is always supportive of her husband and tries to remain inconspicuousfor him, like a shadow, even though her way of life is completely different to his . Madhabi’s performance in this film is composed, just like her character. Even with a reigning superstar like Uttam Kumar by her side, she does not lose her ground one bit and gives a flawless performance in the little time that she has on screen till her death.
There is absolutely no doubt that Madhabi Mukherjee is one of the best actors India cinema has had the fortune of having. Her performances in the above films and a few others prove that she is a rare gem, a gem that needed no shining.
As is the case with all lists, this is only a personal list and not a final one. Readers may suggest their own favourite films of Madhabi Mukherjee, opening a line of debate and discussion.