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Remembering Tulsi Chakravarty, the king of expressions – Death anniversary special

Tulsi Chakravarty, who died on 11 December 1961, could convey social messages through laughter and comic sequences. In that, he was more like international comedy legends.

Tulsi Chakravarty in a scene from Satyajit Ray's Parash Pathar (1959)

Roushni Sarkar

Often confined to the genre of comedy, Bengali actor Tulsi Chakravarty could lend a unique dimension to a film all by himself. Every time he was termed a comedian, he marked his signature beyond his assigned space.

According to Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, film scholar and former professor of film studies at Jadavpur university, “Tulsi Chakravarty had the amazing power to shift the centre of a narrative despite staying on the periphery, and make his own mark.”

The best example of this can be seen in Nirmal Dey’s Sare Chuattar (1953). "He clearly established that he was Sri Krishna in disguise, Uttam [Kumar] and Suchitra [Sen] were merely Arjun and Draupadi," Mukhopadhyay said. "Actually, it is unfortunate that there were not many directors who could understand the acting prowess of Tulsi Chakravarty at that time. If there were, more than one Parash Pathar (1958) would have been made.”

Chakravarty was cast as the lead character Paresh Dutta in Parash Pathar by Satyajit Ray, in a film adapted from noted author Rajsekhar Basu’s story. Ray was of the opinion that no comic scene in Bengali cinema could be complete without Tulsi Chakravarty.

“The great actor would come to the sets in a tram," recounted the professor. "Nobody took much notice of him before Parash Pathar. Thankfully, Satyajit Ray played the historical part of making a testimony to Tulsi Chakravarty's acting brilliance in Parash Pathar.”

Much like the legend Charlie Chaplin, who made his glorious presence felt in the sequence of being chased by a bear in The Gold Rush (1925), Chakravarty could hint at his arrival as an actor in the sequence of getting drenched in rain standing opposite the Raj Bhavan in Parash Pathar.

Chakravarty did not smile or laugh with just his face; he would laugh with his entire body. There are multiple instances of it in Pather Panchali (1955) and Abak Prithibi (1959). “In Pather Panchali we see him teaching his students nonchalantly and then he suddenly gets angry," pointed out Mukhopadhyay. "The way he changes the expression in his eyes in a single shot is unparalleled.”

Incidentally, Chakravarty had worked in a circus for a while before stepping into cinema and that is probably where he acquired the immense strength and capacity to exploit his body to produce various kinds of expressions.

Chakravarty could do justice to the quote, 'Get a laugh but don’t be too ridiculous.' As the mess manager in Sare Chuattar or the head of a rural family or a servant, he could make the audience laugh to its heart’s content without turning into a clown himself.

“Chakravarty was the master of the aesthetic theory of distanced detachment — he could be an astonishing actor without getting entirely involved in the character, from a distance,” explained Mukhopadhyay.

Born in 1899, Tulsi Chakravarty was raised at his paternal uncle’s place, for his father was in a transferable job. Young Tulsi would go to deliver the tiffin to his uncle in a red-light area of Calcutta. He developed his early fascination for acting from seeing the prostitutes and courtesans dancing and singing.

One day he ran away from his uncle’s place and joined Bose’s Circus but could not continue there for long. Returning to the city, he made his debut in New Theatres with Pramankur Atorthy’s film Punarjanma (1932). He had also extensively toured many parts of the country and was fluent in Hindi and Urdu and could deliver dialogues in those languages apart from Bengali, which contributed to his popularity.

“Chakravarty was fantastic in portraying the quintessential Bengali husband, who talks big but turns timid in front of his wife, in Hemchandra Chunder’s Manmoyee Girls' School (1958)," said the scholar. "In films such as Chawa Pawa (1958), his contribution lies in those sequences where he did not have many dialogues to deliver but had to act with his body, muscles and gestures, a style of acting that was the forte of artistes in the silent era but is hardly visible these days.”

Like many other comic actors, Chakravarty played the role of a social sink in that period of political and social uncertainty, when the idea of independence was turning out to be quite delusional and speeches made by political leaders appeared to be superficial.

“He could create that space of warmth and relief to look at the problems of life from a distance," said the former professor. "For example, when we laugh while watching Chakravarty marrying a lady of old age in Sare Chuattar, we secretly wish for that climax. We cannot forget those precious moments in which he suddenly starts scratching his back with his sacred thread in the midst of a quarrel in Sare Chuattar, or wakes up from deep sleep beside a truck driver in Bimal Roy’s Anjangarh (1948).”

Generally comedy films imply worthlessness, but Tulsi Chakravarty’s contribution was to convey social messages through laughter and comic sequences, Mukhopadhyay said. In that, the late actor was distinguished from all his contemporary comic artistes and could be compared with international comedy legends.