Article Bengali

Mahua-di was never happy in her life, remembers co-star Debashree Roy

The veteran actress recalls some moments with Mahua Roy Chowdhury, who was a big star in Bengali cinema until a kitchen fire snatched her on 22 July 1985.

Roushni Sarkar

The word ‘mystery’ has forever been associated with Bengali actress Mahua Roy Chowdhury after her death on 22 July 1985. Roy Chowdhury suffered severe burns, reportedly after a stove burst in her home. She then struggled for life in hospital for 10 days, ultimately losing her battle on the night of 22 July.

Rumours that Roy Chowdhury, a top star in Bengali cinema at the time, had committed suicide were swirling around as were other speculative tales about fights with her husband, Tilak Chakraborty, before the reported accident took place. However, on her deathbed, Roy Chowdhury herself testified to the accident and all investigations were closed down thereafter.

At the time, Roy Chowdhury, who was credited with helping to revive the Bengali box office with her hit Lal Golap (1984), had been signed on for as many as 15 films. Lal Golap, made on a budget of Rs6 lakh, had collected over Rs90 lakh at the box office. While the numbers were smaller than in Hindi cinema, the film was a blockbuster in Bengal and catapulted its lead actress to the top of the charts.

One of the highest paid and busiest actresses of Bengali cinema, Mahua was born Sonali Roy Chowdhury. She worked with matinee idol Uttam Kumar as well as all the big stars of her time, including Tapas Pal, Dipankar De and Prosenjit. Legendary filmmaker Tarun Majumder had launched her with Sriman Prithviraj in 1973, and it was he who changed her name to Mahua.

Debashree Roy, who also began with a Tarun Majumder film, shared screen space with Roy Chowdhury in Dadar Kirti (1980), a big hit in their careers. After a few moderately successful films of Roy Chowdhury, Dadar Kirti ran in Calcutta for 50 weeks, taking Bengali cinema and her to new heights.

“We were popular dancers in childhood," Debashree Roy said. "Tarun Majumder cast her in Sriman Prithviraj and changed her name to Mahua. She was just 17 when she suddenly got married.”

Roy Chowdhury was married to Tilak Chakraborty, who had worked in films as a child artiste but could not make much of a career in cinema thereafter. Roy Chowdhury thus became the breadwinner of her family. She also used to be depressed now and then.

Roy Chowdhury in Dadar Kirti (1980)

“Mahua-di was extremely moody. Sometimes she would be extremely jovial and cordial and other times she would not even speak,” stated the popular yesteryear actress. “I was quite junior to her and hence she would often tell me what to do and what not to.”

Roy recalled one of their outdoor shoots together. “We were shooting in Shimultala. We took a generator along because there was no electric connection there. We were staying in a palatial house and the entire atmosphere was quite thrilling. We spent some very good time together as we had amazing food made by the thakur. Sandhya [Roy] was also there with us and she would often guide and scold us.”

Roy also worked with the actress in Subarna Golak (1981) and got to know her quite well. “I somehow felt she was never quite happy," she said. "She had eloped and got married but then did not find peace. Perhaps that is why she used to have such mood swings.”

Roy recalled that the mystery of her death was never solved. “Indeed, we are still in the dark regarding the truth of her death. It was quite shocking for us. She had so many films signed at that time and was also supposed to go to Bangladesh for shooting.”

Roy recalled a fond memory when Mahua called up famed makeup artiste Arup Ganguly and asked for a video cassette of Justice Chaudhury, a Hindi film Debashree had done in 1983. “She [Mahua-di] called him and asked for the cassette saying, “Buro [Ganguly’s nickname], Debashree, our girl from Kolkata, has done a film in Bombay, can you please get me the cassette?” It was quite a joy to hear that later they all sat down and watched my film together over a meal.”

Roy also recalled with sadness the last day she met Mahua. “She seemed like a totally different person," she said. "She used to participate in One Wall, which is now called Jatra, like many other artistes of the time. I was shooting for Bhalobasha Bhalobasha (1985) and she was doing One Wall, when we met on the set. Surprisingly, she came into my makeup room on her own and asked how I was doing. I offered her a seat.”

Roy Chowdhury then said she was quite upset. Debashree asked why and she replied that she was to appear for a Jatra event and her entire makeup kit had been stolen and she had expensive stuff there. “Then she congratulated me for appearing in a lead role in Bhalobasha Bhalobasha and suddenly hugged me tight,” she said.

“She was so affectionate that day that it was surprising for me because most of the times she was quite strict with me," Debashree Roy continued, getting quite emotional. "However, that day she was so soft with me. And after a few days, we got the shocking news!”

Mahua Roy Chowdhury appeared in more than 60 films in a career spanning a little over a decade and won a Filmfare East award in 1980 for her performance in Dadar Kirti. She also won an award at the Damascus International Film Festival for her critically acclaimed act alongside Amol Palekar in the telefilm Aadmi Aur Aurat (1984).