{ Page-Title / Story-Title }

Article Bengali

Why Pradipta Bhattacharyya wanted only Madhabi Mukherjee for Bakita Byaktigato (2013)

Madhabi Mukherjee, who turned 77 on Sunday, made her debut in Mrinal Sen's Baishey Shravan (1960) and appeared regularly in movies till 1995, after which she would only take up the occasional role.

Director Pradipta Bhattacharyya with veteran actress Madhabi Mukherjee on the sets of Bakita Byaktigato (2013). Photo: Courtesy Pradipta Bhattacharyya

Roushni Sarkar

An effortless actress from the golden age of Bengali cinema, Madhabi Mukherjee was termed “extraordinarily ordinary" by the great filmmaker Mrinal Sen, who launched her in Baishey Shravan (1960).

Known for her performances in Mahanagar (1963), Charulata (1964), Kapurush (1965), Subarnarekha (1965), Diba Ratrir Kabya (1970), Calcutta 71 (1971), Ganadevata (1978), Utsab (2000) and many others, Mukherjee carved her niche even in the midst of the sweeping popularity of Suchitra Sen and Supriya Choudhury in those days. So much so that she was considered the main female face of Satyajit Ray’s films, opposite Soumitra Chatterjee, often the male face.

Of all her contemporaries, Madhabi Mukherjee was the one who essayed mostly non-glamorous characters, yet full of agency, often having more dignity and depth than their male counterparts. Her style of performance was subtle and relied heavily on facial expressions and on her eyes.

Acclaimed author Andrew Robinson in his book, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, said, “Madhabi Mukherjee, in Mahanagar all natural grace and intelligence; in Charulata is so finely tuned that we can enter her every thought and feeling. That, far more than her physical appearance, which can look quite ordinary, is what makes her profoundly beautiful.”

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

Amitava Nag quotes Chidananda Dasgupta, a close Ray associate and renowned film critic, in his book Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines: “As the traditional middle-class housewife finding new worth in herself, Madhabi Mukherjee is the perfect embodiment of the woman torn between self-abnegation and self-respect.”

Dasgupta continued, “Even her looks are of the housewife lost in her chores who has secretly, in her somewhere, all the enticing mystery of woman.”

While Ray had full faith in her canvas-like face, which he shot the most in close-ups, Mukherjee was, over the years, chosen by various directors for the most relatable female characters of different age groups from the Bengali household.

In 1970, she received the National award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a woman who ruins her own and everyone else’s lives for being stuck in a forced marriage in Diba Ratrir Kabya.

She also became part of Tarun Majumder’s critically acclaimed Ganadevata (1978) and Bhalobasa Bhalobasa (1985), Tapan Sinha’s Bancharamer Bagan (1980) and Antardhan (1992), and in Rituparno Ghosh’s National award-winning film Utsab (2000).

In a career spanning more than three decades, Mukherjee appeared regularly in more than 60 films till 1995. Thereafter she only chose to take up the occasional film.

In 2013, Mukherjee appeared in a small but crucial part in another National award-winning film, Bakita Byaktigato, by Pradipta Bhattacharyya. “I wanted to cast Madhabi Mukherjee in my films since I passed out from the institute [Roopkala Kendra]," Bhattacharyya said. "Charulata the film and Mukherjee herself are my favourites. I initially wanted to cast her in a short film but could not. Then I thought of her while conceiving Bakita Byaktigato.”

The director went to the veteran actress, tense, with his script. “First she heard the script, then we discussed the character," he recalled. "I had told her we would be shooting in the extreme heat of May and staying in the villages. She agreed and said shooting in the heat would not be a problem.”

Bhattacharyya had given her the script and Mukherjee reportedly called him to discuss minute details of her character.

In the film, Mukherjee plays a grandmother who lands up in the mysterious village of love called Mohini with her granddaughter and never goes back to Kolkata.

“It was evident she had read the script with the fullest attention,” said the director, who was very excited at the prospect of working with her.

Bakita Byaktigato was the first film to be shot entirely with a DSLR camera. “Naturally, she did not have any idea of shooting a film with a DSLR camera. We told her how we were going to operate and also explained the pattern of acting, which was going to be quite different from normal film acting,” said Bhattacharyya.

“We had intense discussions and she was extremely helpful in every possible way. I was a bit scared as it was too hot and I was worried about her health and thought that she might get annoyed. However, she was not only there with us consistently, but she also kept advising us to have more water and was extremely concerned about the entire unit," said the director who gained in confidence as Mukherjee cooperated throughout.

"She was quite amused as we were shooting almost without light and with such a small camera," said the director who had his dream fulfilled as Mukherjee completely fit into the character. "She has been my favourite since I watched Charulata. She was completely in synch with Charulata. I have always been fascinated with her acting, personality and appearance."

Strangely, Mukherjee could never make it to the screenings of the film. "I tried to show her the film quite a few times," said the director, who is indebted to the veteran. "She also asked me to hand her the film. Unfortunately, I could not, though we met later at the funeral of Ramananda Sengupta and again discussed the film."