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Supriya Debi's remarkable turn as Ritwik Ghatak's Nita in Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) – Death anniversary special

The actress said it was not very difficult for her to identify with the tragedy of the film, having herself come to Calcutta from Burma with her family as refugees during the War.

Shoma A Chatterji

Last November, when the 24th Kolkata International Film Festival paid homage to the memory of veteran actress Supriya Debi, who had died on Republic Day 2018, the film chosen was Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960).

It may be unfair to box Supriya Debi in with her performances in two Ghatak classics, the second being Komal Gandhar (1961). And yet, there could not have been a better choice to demonstrate not only Ghatak’s unique cinematic language, but also to show how a relatively new actress, marginalized till then, could perform under a gifted director with the knack of getting the best out of his artistes and technical crew.

Having made her debut in 1952 in a Bengali film called Nagpash under Vanguard Productions — the film was never released and is believed to be lost — Supriya Debi aka Supriya Choudhury went on to become a much-in-demand heroine when she re-entered the industry after her arranged marriage broke up.

Born Krishna Banerjee in Myitkyina in Burma, then a part of British India, in 1933, Supriya Debi belonged to a family deeply rooted in art, culture and theatre. Her father, Gopal Chandra Banerjee, was a noted lawyer and Krishna was the youngest of eight sisters and three brothers.

Her acting debut happened when, as a seven-year-old, her father made Krishna step in to play two roles in two plays directed by him. The plays were Shah Jehan and Nar Narayan and the little girl played male characters in both.

During the Second World War, when there was a great flight of Indians back to India from Burma, Supriya Debi, still only a child, walked to Calcutta with the entire family which settled down in the southern parts of the city.

Supriya Debi was the first Bengali actress to boast of a voluptuous figure, a set of beautiful teeth that enriched a bright smile, and a sexuality that remains unmatched. No wonder then that whether she was paired with Soumitra Chatterjee or Uttam Kumar in umpteen films, she stood out more for her sexuality than for her performance.

It is a pity that Supriya Debi as an actress remained largely unexplored as scripts often found her marginalized against the larger-than-life screen persona of Uttam Kumar in the films they did together, such as Jiban Trishna (1957) and Sonar Harin (1959).

However, she stood out on her own despite the star status of Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee in films like Swaralipi (1961), Ayananta (1964), Lalpathore (1964), Kal Tumi Aleya (1966), Sudhu Ekti Bachhar (1966), Chowringhee (1968), Chiradiner (1969), Jiban Jijnasa (1971), Bonpalashir Padabali (1973) and Devdas (1979).

Her pairing with the two best-known male stars of Bengali cinema ushered in a new genre in mainstream Bengali cinema, defined by and shaped into a fine blend of strong storylines, rich music, beautiful songs and controlled direction.

Like Nargis before her in Hindi cinema, however, Supriya Debi came into her own with outstanding performances in films that did not feature Uttam Kumar.

Actor-producer Prosenjit once made a telling comment. “Even if Supriya Debi had not acted before or after Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara," he said, "she would have left her footprints on the sands of Bengali cinema forever.”

She was born in Burma and the family was forced to make it to India entirely on foot to dig new roots in a Calcutta that was, for them, a new city with a new culture. “So, though I was very young when we came in as refugees in Calcutta, much later, it was not very difficult for me to identify with the tragedy of Nita in Ritwikda’s Meghe Dhaka Tara,” she once said. 

“Dada, I want to live,” cried Nita in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara. Nita died, however, because oppression and poverty did not let her live. But the woman who played Nita lived on, to give 50 years of her life to some of the best cinema Bengal has produced.

Supriya Choudhury completed 50 years in films way back in 2003. She was the reigning star of Bengali cinema for many years, a contemporary of the enigmatic top-draw Suchitra Sen.

Ghatak’s three films, Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1962), dealt with the ravaged psyche of the victims of partitioned Bengal. The three together are regarded as a complex, trend-setting, cinematically splendid trilogy.

Ritwik Ghatak and his melodrama of Partition – Death anniversary special

Ghatak claimed that Meghe Dhaka Tara was "the greatest of all my films". It is a corrosive, complex account of a refugee family with an incredibly stoic protagonist, Nita.

Meghe Dhaka Tara painted a brutally frank picture in stark black and white images, of the family as a cannibalistic consumer of one of its own members.

Nita personifies courage. Yet, she is by no means an aggressive woman. Not once do you find her imposing herself either on her immediate family or on the man she is in love with.

She has no complaints and harbours no hatred towards her close ones. In fact, when her boyfriend Sanat, fascinated by the beauty of a grown-up Gita, gapes at her and says, "Gita has become a beauty", Nita responds, "Yet she does not even get to wear a good sari." She is neither cautious nor suspicious of the fickleness of his affections.

No one will be able to place any other actress in place of Supriya, then a young woman who performed the role without makeup or any grooming whatsoever.

Her realization of her position within the family — or the lack of it — emotionally and politically, leads to an unbearably tragic climax though, all the time, one can see and feel it coming. Nita holds the family together. She also holds the film together. There cannot be any film left after Nita's death.

Yet, Nita is also the family's sacrificial goat. She realizes this through the small twists and turns in her life — younger brother Montu's accident, older brother Shankar leaving to seek fresh pastures in Bombay, younger sister Gita's seduction of Sanat, Sanat's betrayal, her mother's brazen manipulation of the relationship between and among Nita, Gita and Sanat — and slowly finds herself surrendering to it all quietly.

The only changes are in her slow retreat into the shell she creates for herself and in the quality of her smile. It is no longer as broad as it was during the opening frames of the film. It is a sad, quiet smile, head lowered, face wistful.

The shell she creates is also an extension of her protectiveness towards the family. She does not wish to infect them with the TB that is eating away into her. Secondly, she does not want them to know about her fatal disease.

The reaction of the family to this change in Nita's behaviour is strange if not shocking. It does not occur to her mother to ask why she is behaving the way she is. Her father seems to understand but does not do anything beyond grumbling and mumbling about the tragic destiny of his elder daughter.

Nita's courage is defined by her quiet submission and surrender to the wishes of the very people who 'consume' her as fatally as her tuberculosis does. One is not very sure in the end whether it is TB that takes her life or her family and boyfriend are responsible. The line between the family's brutal cruelty towards her and the spread of the disease within her body gets increasingly blurred as the narrative moves towards its dramatic climax.

Her desperate cry, "Dada, I want to live," underscores the family's total indifference to Nita as a human being, leave alone a young woman who is also its sole earning member. The family as 'consumer' of the very member who holds it together marks the uniqueness of Ghatak's presentation of decaying values in the impoverished scenario of the refugee family.

The real Nita passed into the ages a year ago, but you can always go back and watch her in this classic.