The end of an era

Supriya Devi will be remembered for her image of a strong woman, both on and off screen

Published - February 02, 2018 01:40 am IST



Neeta, suffering from tuberculosis, utters her last words, to her singer-brother, in agony :Dada ami kintu banchte cheyechilamDada, tumi ek bar bolo, ami banchbo .. dada ami banchbo… dada ami banchbo .. (Brother, I just wanted to live… tell me once that I will survive. I want to live…brother, I want to live)”.

Bengal’s Sophia Loren

Known as one of the classic scenes in Indian cinema, these poignant and heart rending words of Neeta at the end of Ritwik Ghatak’s cult film, “Meghe Dhaka Tara” (1960), still resonate in the minds of each and every sensitive cinema-goer. Supriya Devi’s role as Neeta took her to the heights of a legend. In her career spanning more than five decades in Bengali film industry, she acted in over 45 films and later, emerged as one of the most prolific actresses in Bengali cinema.

Known as the Sophia Loren of Bengal, she breathed her last in her South Kolkata residence on January26, following a massive cardio-respiratory failure. She left a huge void in the Bengali film industry and her death has brought the end of an era.

“Supriya Devi was an extremely brilliant artist and exceptionally unique. It was a great loss to the Bengali cinema,” says director Sandip Ray. Veteran filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta remarks, “She was one of the best actresses in Indian cinema of her time. She ruled Bengali cinema for some time. Her demise has created a great vacuum in Bengali cinema.”

Supriya Devi was born on 8th January, 1933 in the Burmese town of Myitkyina. During World War II, her family left Burma and came to Calcutta in search of a secured life. Supriya started her acting career from an early age of seven. She acted in two plays Shah Jehan and Nar Narayan , directed by her father, Gopal Chandra Banerjee. Fondly called ‘Benu’ by her close associates, Supriya Chowdhury took the screen name as Supriya Devi. She made her debut in Nirmal Dey's Bengali classic film Basu Paribaar (1952) as Uttam Kumar’s sister, Sabitri Chattopadhyay. But she won the hearts of the audience through her splendid performance in Mangal Chakraborty’s Bengali film, Sonar Harin (1959), where Uttam Kumar played the male protagonist.

The Uttam Kumar-Supriya Devi duo, along with the other two hit pairs – Uttam-Suchitra, and Uttam-Sabitri, almost ruled the Bengali screen in the ’50s and ’60s. The lead pair Uttam-Supriya created magic through their superb romantic roles that enthralled a whole generation. The duo gifted the audience with blockbuster Bengali movies like “Chirodiner” (1969), “Sabarmati” (1969) , “Baghbandi Khela” (1971) , “Bon Palashir Padavali” (1973) and “Sanyasi Raja” (1975). Known as one of the finest actresses of her time, she played a variety of roles that captivated the audience as well as the critics. Roles like Chandramukhi in Dilip Roy’s Bengali film “Devdas” (1979), where Uttam Kumar played the role of Chunnilal, Sujata in “Jadi Jantem” (1974), Ms. Karabi Guha in “Chowringhee” (1968), Sumitra in “Sabyasachi” (1977) , reflected her versatility as an actress. Her role as a Bengali widow in “Lal Pathar” (1964) and a successful singer in “Bilambita Loy” (1970) got critical acclaim across the country.

She wonderfully performed the role of Anusuya in Ritwik Ghatak “Komal Gandhar” (1961), but it was Ghatak’s “Meghe Dhaka Tara” (1960) that gave her a cult status. Popular Bengali film actor Prosenjit Chakraborty said that every actress has a dream to play the role of Neeta and if one works in a classic film like Meghe Dhaka Tara , it will be like a life-changing moment. “Her performance as Neeta was exemplary.”

Her real-life relationship with Uttam Kumar created a furore among the middle class Bengali family in ’60s and ’70s. In spite of being a married woman, she openly admitted her relationship with Uttam Kumar who was also married. Finally, she decided to live with Uttam Kumar as partners. They shifted to Mumbai to start new journey in Bollywood, but later, after the death of Uttam Kumar, she returned to Calcutta in the late 80s. She married Bishwanath Choudhury in 1954, and had a daughter named Soma .She went against the wave because it was a daring task to speak openly about her relationship in a conservative and conventional Bengali society.

Supriya Devi also worked in Hindi films like “Begaana” (1963), “Aap Ki Parchhaiyan” (1964), “Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein” (1964), but her stint in Hindi films was short-lived. She turned down some offers as she was not satisfied with the roles offered to her. When cinema was trapped into the formulaic ingredients, she almost retired . But with the arrival of satellite television in ’90s, she appeared on small screen by enacting a role in “Janani” , one of the most popular Bengali television serial on Doordarshan. She even hosted a show “Benudir Rannaghor” and it proved to be one of the most popular television shows . The last film where she acted as a grandmother was Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” (2006) .

Recipient of the Padma Shri and the Banga Vibhushan, West Bengal’s highest civilian award, she will be remembered for her immense contribution to Bengali cinema. Her image as a strong woman in reel and real life will continue to linger in our minds.

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