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Rare to find an actress of her calibre: Madhabi Mukherjee remembers Gita Dey on her birth anniversary 

Dey, who received the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academy award and the president's award for Lifetime Achievement, began her acting career on stage at the age of six. She went on to work with all the great theatre and film directors of her time and was known for her versatility. 

Roushni Sarkar

There are many talented artistes but there are few who spend almost their entire life on stage and the shooting floor. Legendary actress Gita Dey, who started her acting career on stage at the age of six, was one of them.

On her 89th birth anniversary today (5 August), we remember the actress, a recipient of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academy award and the president's award for Lifetime Achievement. She was undoubtedly one of the most versatile and powerful film, stage and radio artiste of her time.  

In a career spanning almost six decades, Dey worked with almost all the important film and theatre directors of her time, including Dhiren Ganguly, Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, Debaki Bose, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Tarun Majumder. Her acting prowess even caught the attention of legendary British actor Sir Laurence Olivier.

Veretan actress Madhabi Mukherjee, who also started her career at an early age, shared both stage and screen space with Dey, who was her senior. Together they acted in films like Subarnarekha (1965), Adwitiya (1968), Ganadevata (1979), Bindur Chheley (1973), Prafulla (1982), Matir Swarga (1982), Uttar Lipi (1986), Hirer Shikal (1988) and Anjali (1988). The two actresses shared a very close relationship. 

Dey was also noted for her work in Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Ray's Teen Kanya (1961).

Geeta Dey in Adwitiya (1968).

In a conversation with Cinestaan.com, Mukherjee, best known for her performance in Satyajit Ray's Charulata (1964), sheds light on Dey, the woman and the actress. 

Mukherjee knew Dey since her childhood. “She was a stage actress then. I used to play the lead character in Tusharkana, the Bengali version of Snow White. She used to be one of the dancing fairies in it. After that, she started acting at at Srirangam Theatre under Sisir Kumar Bhaduri’s direction. She was there for a long time and I learnt a lot from her since I was also a part of that group,” the actress recalled.

Dey was also a part of Star Theatre, where Girish Ghosh was one of the first theatre personalities to produce plays. In those days, Dey made a name for herself as a versatile actress. “She was one of the most flexible actresses I have ever seen. Till now, it is rare to find an actress of her calibre,” said Mukherjee. 

“She acted in innumerable films. Towards the end of her career, she appeared in the television serial Shantiniketan,” said the Mukherjee. Made by Bishnu Roy Choudhury, the serial featured Sabitri Chatterjee, Supriya Devi, Dey, the actress herself and many other noted artistes. “For some unknown reason, Supriya Devi did not want to continue with the serial anymore. Then the entire slot was given to Gita Di," said the actress.

While everybody knew of Dey’s acting prowess, few were aware of her warm, compassionate nature. “She got married at quite at a young age to a man from a rich family. She used to come and go to the shooting floor in a big car. She looked so beautiful then and it was nice to see her leading an affluent lifestyle. Then we suddenly saw her without all the riches and living in a small home of her own,” said the actress.

The actress in Bourani (1991) 

Apparently, Dey’s husband had refused to take care of her sister and brother. But the actress had promised her dying mother that she would never desert her siblings. “Her husband remarried, but for her entire life, Gita Di lived with and for her siblings, her children and her siblings’ children as well,” said Mukherjee.

Dey not only made a lot of personal sacrifices, but was also always ready to extend a helping hand to anyone in need. “If anyone was in distress, Gita Di would ask him or her to not hesitate to stay with her. These kind of human beings are so rare to find these days. She had a great heart,” the actress said.

The actress had received a cash prize along with the Sangeet Natak Academy award. “After she received the award, I had asked her to put that money in a fixed deposit account. However, she said that she needed to give away that money to many of her needy acquaintances,” said Mukherjee.

Mukherjee recalled another grim story from Dey’s life that speaks of her inherent strength and dignity. “One of her sons was schizophrenic. Nobody used to like him at home and so she would take him along to the shooting floors,” said the actress. Once, she overheard people speaking about the extra number of meals that needed to be provided for her son. “From that day onwards, she ensured that her son got a meal, but she refused her own. She only had a toast, omelette and a cup of tea everyday,” she narrated.

Mukherjee recalled how Dey also excelled in comic roles with Bhanu Bandopadhyay, as well as characters of dreaded aunts, mothers-in-law and grandmothers. “I also remember her brilliant performance as a witch in a play based on Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s Bhusundir Mathe.”

The actress cherishes her acting experience with Dey in a play called Keranir Jiban. “We were entirely engrossed in the play. Mamata Banerjee, who was called the Natya Samragni of amateur theatre, played the eldest sister (Boro Bon), Gita Di played Mejo Bon and I used to play Chhoto Bon (youngest sister) in it. Gita Di used to sing and I used to dance. We used to travel together and live together almost as a family,” she fondly recalled.

Basanta Bilap (1973)

Mukherjee stressed that they were very comfortable with each other and that their bond transcended their professional relationship. Dey never instructed her on the floor, rather they shared a tremendous understanding with each other. Her performances had a deep impact on Mukherjee’s psyche and it is difficult for the latter to pick her favourite characters played by Dey.

Dey, who was very close to Mukherjee, wished to die in her arms but fate had a different plan. When Dey was on her deathbed, Mukherjee, who she called Madhu, suffered an accident and fractured both her legs.

“It was our fate. I was living with my daughter when I received the news that Gita Di was extremely unwell. I used to take updates on her health by calling the hospital and also made sure that she did not face any inconvenience. However, I did not have the ability to go and see her in during her last moments. Perhaps, it was not God’s will,” she lamented. 

Dey passed away in Kolkata on 17 January 2011 at the age of 79.  

The veteran actress continued to work till her mid-seventies in films across many languages. Some of her last films were TV Chandran's Malayalam film Kathavasheshan (2004), Pradeep Sarkar's Parineeta (2005) in Hindi and Raj Chakraborty's Bengali film Chirodini Tumi Je Amar (2008).