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Madhabi Mukherjee explains why Charulata is a crown, not a burden

On her 76th birthday (she was born on 10 February 1942), the legendary Bengali actress recounted some unforgettable moments from her life.

Photo: Murukesh Iyer

Roushni Sarkar

“I remember once [filmmaker] Rituparno Ghosh told me he went to a festival abroad and saw my picture as Charulata among stills of iconic films of world cinema, and how he was overcome with pride. He said he felt a surge of warmth and comfort in that foreign land after seeing that picture — me holding the opera glass. That picture will always stay with me.”

So said legendary Bengali actress Madhabi Mukherjee when asked on her birthday earlier this month by the Ananda Bazar Patrika newspaper if she felt burdened by the iconic image recreated by the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

Madhabi Mukherjee may not have felt the burden as her journey, beginning from Sisir Kumar Bhaduri’s Srirangam theatre to the television series in her later days, emphasizes that she worshipped work more than stardom.

Born Madhuri Mukherjee, one of the most critically acclaimed actresses of Bengali cinema was a victim of Partition. It not only took away her country but also tore her family apart.

As the sole breadwinner of the family, Madhuri's mother would often be invited to sing. A music student of the legendary blind singer-actor Krishna Chandra Dey, Madhuri Mukherjee got the opportunity to share the stage with her mother and sister in Srirangam theatre. Thus began her journey with Natyaguru Sisir Kumar Bhaduri.

A broken childhood perhaps built an extraordinary sense of self-respect in young Madhuri. After being scorned by Bhaduri during a rehearsal of the play Sita, she left the Srirangam theatre and joined Minerva theatre under another great actor, Chhabi Biswas. Mukherjee still considers Biswas her true mentor on stage.

A regular theatre actress at a very young age, Madhuri was asked to appear on the sets of Premendra Mitra’s Dui Biye (1953) in a torn frock. (Though the film was released in 1953, Madhabi Mukherjee, in an interview with Cinestaan.com, recalled shooting for it when she was about  six years old.) On the sets, she started prompting another actor at each mistake. The director had to stop rolling and tell her she needed to stop doing that since everything was being recorded. Thus, Mukherjee had her introduction to cinema.

When she first met Mrinal Sen, she was asked whether she could do household chores such as cleaning utensils and mopping the floor. When Sen’s Baishey Shravan (1960) was released, Madhuri’s name was changed to ‘Nabagata Madhabi’ (Newcomer Madhabi) by the producers.

The journey of the only Bengali actress to have worked with the celebrated troika of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak is dotted with numerous such anecdotes.

After Sen, Ghatak happened to Mukherjee’s career. A day before the shooting of Subarnarekha (1965), in front of the entire crew, Ghatak told the actress her face did not look good in long or close shots.

Not too many people are aware that Mukherjee was first chosen for Ghatak’s film Komal Gandhar (1961). However, the distributor had her replaced with Supriya Devi and she was cast in a minor role. Mukherjee’s pride made her refuse the role and she thought that the chance to work with Ghatak was over.

To her surprise, she was called for the shooting of Subarnarekha (1965). Ghatak told her he had never worked with anyone who had refused him before, but Madhabi was an exception.

Mukherjee was very much taken aback when Ray cast her in Mahanagar (1963), a film with a female lead. To add to her surprise, as the shooting of Mahanagar got over, Ray commented, “When will I get to work with you again?”

After the immense success of Charulata (1964), Ray had advised her not to sign any films for some time.

Source: Madhabi Mukherjee’s interview in Ananda Bazar Patrika newspaper on 11 February 2018.