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Filmmaker Atanu Ghosh remembers Supriya Debi's talent and commitment

The filmmaker recalls how she performed a small part in his telefilm Mishraraag so well that the unit feared she had suffered a real heart attack.

Supriya Debi and Indrani Haldar in Mishraraag

Roushni Sarkar

Actress Supriya Choudhury was known as much for her sensuous screen presence as for her cerebral performances.

Padma Shri awardee Supriya Debi attained legendary status with her performance in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and was praised just as much for her performance in Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar (1961).

It is said that at a time when actresses in Hindi films mostly adorned the screen as shadows of their male counterparts, Supriya Debi unabashedly performed characters having full agency and explored complex shades of feminity and sexuality.

She was just as unapologetic about living life on her own terms. While she drew audiences to watch films for an actress’s performance more than just her graceful screen presence, she did not mind shattering the Bengali bhadralok’s moralistic ideals by living in with Uttam Kumar after he left his wife.

A fashion icon in the true sense, Supriya Debi was also compared with the Italian screen goddess Sophia Loren for her bold screen presence, sculpted figure and enigmatic personality.

While her personal life was almost always embroiled in controversy, she never stayed away from her professional commitments, even in the latter phase of her career.

After working in 51 feature films in a career spanning five decades, she worked in television series, telefilms, and theatre productions, even performing in the Jatra.

Supriya Debi died on Republic Day last year.

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

Supriya Choudhury's film career began with the Uttam Kumar-starrer Basu Parivar (1952). She mesmerized audiences and also won the appreciation of the accomplished classical dancer and actress Vyjayanthimala for her performance as a dancer in Amrapali (1959), a role the latter was to reprise in the Hindi film of the same title in 1966.

The following year, Supriya Debi played the arrogant daughter of a rich father, who has no respect for a common man who is entrusted with the task of escorting her on a journey in Suno Baranari (1960). She brought alive with ease the transformation in her character when she finally senses the honesty in the simple man, earning the film immense popularity.

Apart from her performances in Ghatak’s films, Supriya Debi’s act as a beautiful Bengali widow who chooses to be a zamindar’s escort in Lalpathore (1964), or as a five-star hotel hostess in Chowringhee (1968), a successful and liberated singer in Bilambita Lay (1970), and in many other films, including Bonpalashir Padabali (1973) and Sanyasi Raja (1975) won the hearts of audiences and critics alike.

In 2016, National award-winning filmmaker Atanu Ghosh had approached the then 83-year-old to appear in a telefilm, in which she would have just two scenes. “It was quite natural that she initially refused to act in only two scenes, that too in a telefilm," Ghosh recalled. "However, she later read the script and changed her mind.”

Telefilm Mishraraag featured Indrani Halder in a leading role. Halder played a celebrated singer who is a divorcee with many male friends and companions but who at times feels lonely in her apparently secure life.

Halder catches a glimpse of an interview programme of a veteran actress, played by Supriya Debi. The chronicles of her relationships with men make Halder feel vulnerable and insecure.

“I can never forget the experience I had while shooting the telefilm,” said Atanu Ghosh. “There is a sequence in the telefilm in which while talking she [Supriya Debi's character] suffers a heart attack. It was a continuous sequence in which she was recollecting the men in her life. I could see that gradually her face was turning red. We directors are generally very selfish and at certain moments, we don’t think of anything as more important than the intensity of the shot. We often don’t interrupt and wait for the shot to get over.

"I could see that her face had turned crimson. She was gasping and her eyes were vague. Finally, the shot was done and the moment I said cut, she just fell on the bed with a thud!” The director and other unit hands rushed to help the veteran and Supriya Debi took some time to regain her senses.

“I asked her whether she was feeling sick," Ghosh said. "She replied that she was better. After that, she told me she had stopped breathing.” The director was astonished when she told him she had been holding her breath for 25-30 seconds.

“When I asked her the reason in surprise, she replied, 'Yesterday I realized that I won’t be able to make the scene look natural just with my acting and so I decided to hold my breath so that all the physical restlessness of a heart attack comes naturally in my performance.'

"I was amazed not only to see her experience on the tools of acting but to also experience her immense passion that led her not to disclose her idea without a care for the risk she was taking!”

Ghosh found Choudhury perfectly suited for the character of a yesteryear actress in the telefilm. “Honestly, I did not expect her to accept the role because it was not even a feature film. I think she only agreed to do the film because she was attracted to that scene.”

Besides Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghosh is a fan of Supriya Choudhury's performances in Chiradiner (1969), Bonpalashir Padabali, Sabyasachi (1977) and Dui Prithibi (1980).

“I feel Supriya Debi had an extraordinary Western sophistication in her personality," explained the director who is reminded of Loren and silent era Hollywood star Greta Garbo when he thinks of her. "Her style of acting was very distinct from [that of] Suchitra Sen and Sabitri Chatterjee. Even in the latter days of her career, when she appeared in television serials, she retained her personality, which is so rare in the majority of Bengali actresses.” He also pointed out that Supriya Debi was perhaps the first Bengali actress to be conscious of the need to stay in shape.

Twice winner of the Filmfare and BFJA [Bengal Film Journalists Association] awards, Supriya Debi also appeared in a few Hindi films, like Kishore Kumar's passion project Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein (1964) and Aap Ki Parchhaiyan (1964) opposite the "very handsome" — her description — Dharmendra. However, as she herself admitted, the actress never had the desire to build a career in Hindi cinema. More's the pity.