Interview Bengali

IFFK 2017: World faces social depression and it reflects in today's films, says Madhabi Mukherjee

The septuagenarian chief guest at the 22nd International Film Festival of Kerala speaks of the legends of cinema and theatre she has worked with, shooting for her first film at the age of six, and more.

Photo: Murukesh Iyer

Anita Paikat

Madhabi Mukherjee is a name every cinephile will know, for she was Charulata (1964). Now 75, the actress has remained untouched by her global success. She began her film career at the age of six but believes her best performance is yet to come.

The septuagenarian is the chief guest at the International Film Festival of Kerala in Trivandrum and welcomed me to her hotel room for an interview. She speaks chaste Hindi and, at first, is economical with words. However, as time passes, her smile broadens, and she gets into the mood of narrating anecdotes from the distant past.

Mukherjee speaks fondly of all the auteurs she has worked with — Satyajit Ray’s vision for Charulata, Ritwick Ghatak’s penchant for cinema, and Sisir Kumar Bhaduri’s passion for theatre that was never hindered by his poverty. Excerpts:

Your first film is said to have been Kankantala Light Railway, directed by Premendra Mitra, in 1950, when you were eight years old.

No, that was the second film. The first was Dui Biye (1953). I was six years old.

Do you remember how you were selected, how the shooting was done?

I had worked in theatre before. I was taken to meet [writer and film director] Premendra Mitra to play the younger version of the lead heroine, Chanda Devi. In the film, my character stayed at her maternal uncle’s house, who also had a son and a daughter. They were supposed to tease me all the time calling me the maid’s daughter. My character would get angry and fight with them. This was the scene. But they would forget their lines and I would just prompt their dialogues to help them.

Premendra Mitra suddenly said ‘Cut, cut’ and asked me to sit near him. He said, ‘That thing you see up there. What is it?’ I said, 'I don’t know'. He said that is called a boom [mic]. ‘Whatever you say is all recorded by that boom. So, you can’t prompt.’ But I retorted saying that I prompt in theatre. He explained that audiences sit far from you in theatre and there is no boom there, hence they can’t hear your prompting. So that’s how I learnt that here [in films] prompting can’t be done.

You once said in an interview that Ray’s screenplay of Mahanagar (1963) was the first woman-centric screenplay you read. How did you feel when you were asked to play that role?

I liked it. Any woman would love to do a woman-centric film.

Very few films in those days were based on women’s stories. Today, there are increasingly more numbers. What is the difference you see between the films of then and now?

There is no difference, the stories are the same. Just the design has changed.

By design you mean?

Let me explain. If you had come for an interview the year I did Mahanagar (1963), you would come wearing a sari. Not today. Today you wear salwar-kameez or jeans. This is the only change, isn’t it? Change is inevitable, future will be different, too. We can’t do anything about it.

Your films with Satyajit Ray did very well, they were critically acclaimed too. But your partnership ended after three films. Why didn’t you make more films together?

I didn’t like. It’s important to stop sometimes. You will get tired if you keep on walking. So you have to stop.

Tell us your memories of working with Uttam Kumar, something you won’t forget about him.

That man was very big at heart, someone high up there. That’s why even today people ask about Uttam Kumar. Wherever I go I am asked how the man was. This is what happens when you have a big heart, and Uttam Kumar had one.

He was the founder of an organization for film artistes. It has been 37 years since he died, but even today, artistes who are in distress are helped by the organization. That was Uttam Kumar’s work.

How come you never tried your hand at Hindi cinema when other Bengali actresses like Sharmila Tagore, Rakhee, Jaya Bhaduri, and even Suchitra Sen did, and there was such a strong Bengali group in Hindi cinema at the time?

I don’t like it. Whatever I earn from the Bangla film industry is enough for me to stay fed and also save some. So why should I go there?

Which is your personal best performance? The one that when you look at even now and feel you couldn't have done better.

None yet. I just do the work. Then I don’t think anymore about it. The place that I come from, people don’t come to me thinking of me as an artiste. They call me Didi [elder sister]. If they have any problem, they first think of sharing it with me. The younger ones call me Ma [mother]. This is enough for me, I like this.

Charulata (1964) was shot very differently. You are the focus of the entire film, and yet the focus is not on you, but on the things around you.

There was an opera glass, which had a single handle. Satyajit focused on that. In the film, the wife needed an opera glass to look at her husband. Why? Because he is [emotionally] far away from her.

Today, some bold experimental films are being made in Bengali, but the film industry itself seems to have slid from the position it held until, say, the 1980s. Or is that just our perception sitting in Mumbai?

No, no, that’s not how it is. The entire world is facing social depression. Culture is the mirror image of society. What can you see in a mirror? Do you think you are a good person? No. Then how can the films be good? How can writers write good stories? It’s very tough. First, we need to change society, only then will we get good films, good stories, good songs. Otherwise nothing will happen.

You have worked with Sisir Kumar Bhaduri and Chhabi Biswas on stage. You must have been very young then.

Yes, I was very young, but I remember something. Sisir didn’t have any money but just wanted to do theatre. His youngest brother suffered from tuberculosis, and Sisir couldn’t get his brother treated. He was very poor. He had gone to America under the British, before India’s independence. There he had no money, and could only return after a friend sponsored his travel expenses.

How did you meet Sisir Bhaduri?

Actress Prabha Devi introduced me to him. I must have been only five or six years old. He was called Bada Babu. They were four brothers, the oldest was Sisir, hence we all called him Bada Babu. The second brother Bishwanath Bhaduri was a very good cinema actor. The third brother was into production control in theatre and the fourth, Bhawani Bhaduri, was a theatre actor. Sisir loved the youngest the most, but lost him to tuberculosis.

Ritwick Ghatak also suffered. He was appreciated only after his death.

Yes. He himself told me this would happen. He used to call me Madhu Ma. Once he roamed around the city in a cab and then asked me to pay for the ride. Those days, the taxi fare began at 50 paise and his bill came to Rs500! I fought with him asking why he wandered so much instead of taking care of his house, wife and children. He replied, ‘I am a genius. I can do this.’ I asked him who told him he was a genius. To which he replied, ‘No one says it now, but one day will come when people will say I am a genius.’

The last script he read to me was for Sansar Simante. He could not make that film. Later the film was changed a bit and made by Tarun Majumdar [in 1975]. The script Ritwick read to me was the story of a thief and a prostitute, like Majumdar’s film. But Ritwick stated that prostitutes are made by society. The judge, who is passing judgment, was basically the thief and his wife the prostitute. I can never forget that script.

After he passed away, his wife asked me to write the screenplay of the same story. But I refused, because I knew I could not do justice to it. It’s like music, you skip one beat and the essence of the score is lost.

What do you feel about the current climate of censorship and street opposition to films?

Censorship should be done away with entirely. The audiences will automatically reject films they don’t want to watch. And they will anyway watch the films they like. So what is the use of censorship? The audiences are the censors.

On my visit to countries like America and London, I saw that two of my films are there in almost every household. One is Charulata and the other is Chhadmabeshi (1971). The latter was one of my superhits with Uttam Kumar, which was later remade in Hindi, titled Chupke Chupke (1975), with Sharmila Tagore and Dharmendra. One is a classic and the other is a totally commercial film. Two complete opposites stood in one shelf. So the audience is completely aware of what it wants to watch.

How did audiences react to bold scenes during the 1960s and 1970s?

In Baishey Shravan (1960), directed by Mrinal Sen, my character commits suicide by hanging herself. But the censor board objected to the hanging saying it was very violent. Mrinal then redesigned the last scene and had the character consume poison. He didn’t like it and finally decided to just show the rope hanging. Nowadays, films have a lot of violence, but they are passed.

The people who are appointed to censor face a lot of problems. You know which problem? Money. The amount that the censor board members are given does not even cover their travel expenses. What will they do then? They just come in twice or thrice, and trouble the filmmakers. That is why filmmakers like Aparna Sen, do not give their films for censorship in Calcutta. They come to Mumbai.

Related topics