On a balmy afternoon last year, I walked into the spacious home of Supriya Choudhury with little hope that the retired actress, now in her 80s, would meet without an appointment. I waited for nearly an hour before Choudhury emerged, holding a dilapidated walker, helped by her maid. And, almost instantly, the frail actress said: “Listen, I know I am no longer an actress, but I do not meet without appointments, do not talk without a fee.”
Fees, I should have learnt, are always important for actors, even if they are without jobs for years. And then, she repeated the words for a dozen times before settling down on a sofa. Strict instructions against photography were issued by the maid. Then Choudhury started talking. She said she did not find time to see Mahanayak, a serial telecast by the Star network, which had veteran actor Prasenjit essaying the role of Uttam Kumar, her second husband after Bishnu Choudhury. “Why I have to see something I have lived with?” asked Choudhury.
There was merit in her claim.
She laughed when reminded of some of her movies, especially the much-talked Meghe Dhaka Tara by Ritwik Ghatak. “Don’t they remember Karabi Guha?” asked Choudhury, referring to her role in the 1968 Uttam Kumar starrer Chowringhee. She reminded me it was a tough role. She signed the papers only after Uttam Kumar assured her of a meaty role. The movie, based on a popular novel of the same name, had something strange.
“Both the characters—Choudhury and Anjana Bose (she essayed the role of air-hostess Sujata Mitra) —die in the movie.”
Choudhury said her role as Nita in Meghe Dhaka Tara, a suffering Bengali girl dumped by her lover and eventually ending up at a TB sanatorium in the upper reaches of Darjeeling still resonate in the minds of millions of Bengali, but there were other movies that she felt were equally brilliant during those days of Bengal’s trail-blazing cinema. It was like a quiz, she prodded to know how much I knew about her movies. I could rattle some names: Bonpolashir Padabali, Bilombito Loy, Basu Paribar, Shuno BoroNari and Komal Gandhar. I sat with her for a little less than an hour. She narrated 11 new, short stories about the man she loved and married, Bengal’s legendary Uttam Kumar. Each one was a fascinating tale of love and hope, distress and pain Choudhury said she endured during her two and a half decades as a top actress in Bengal.
She said she once worked in Bollywood, and rushed back to Kolkata because the directors constantly told her to shed weight, some of them even landing up at her home with cheques and conditions. A newspaper in Kolkata quoted her how she once told a producer of Bollywood that she could not go on a diet, because it was the season for the tastiest, weighty Hilsa fish. The producer, probably thoroughly disgusted, never returned.
Every now and then, Choudhury talked about Uttam Kumar, especially the day the reigning actor got admitted to a nursing home in the city. It was the evening of 23 July, 1980. Uttam Kumar’s last words to his heart specialist were, “Ami bachtey chai” which translate into “I want to live”. Choudhury had said the same words in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara during a chance meeting with her brother, who gave her no hope from the dreaded tuberculosis.
“For people to survive, it is important that there is peace at home,” said Choudhury, referring to her wedding with the superstar and the constant bickering and sledging that continued between her and his first wife, Gauri Chatterjee. Once, a Kolkata lensman took a photograph of Uttam Kumar in front of a spider’s web, the star laughing: “This is my real life.” Choudhury said she asked her husband why he had to comment like that. “He did not answer, but I could make out familial tensions were bothering him to the hilt,” lamented Choudhury.
That she did not get her due from Gauri Chatterjee when Uttam Kumar died and his body was taken to the residence of the Chatterjees, was something that rattled her lifelong. She remembered how she was shunted out by the Chatterjees, and how newspaper reporters in Kolkata gleefully lapped up all invectives hurled against her by the star’s first wife.
Choudhury was supremely talented, some newspapers even compared her to India’s answer to Sophia Loren. Like her husband, she could do a wide range of roles. She could match up to Uttam Kumar in romance and, almost instantly, work in a Ritwik Ghatak film on poverty and helplessness.
I made one more request for a photograph. Choudhury refused to be clicked. She pointed me towards a photograph on the wall, and said: “That’s me and my love.” And then Choudhury, sorry Nita, smiled, got up, held a dilapidated walker and slowly faded away into her bedroom.
Death came home to one of Bengal’s classiest actresses when the nation celebrated its 69th Republic Day.