Bengali Leading Ladies

I've rambled and raved a lot about those Bengali heroes. But what would they be without their partners in crime? As a relative newcomer to Bengali cinema (although, true to form, I've watched quite a few films in a short period of time) there's only five or six Bengali actresses that are even on my radar from the '50s and '60s, The rest are still footnotes in my imagination, even if I've seen them in a film or two.

Six sounds like a very exclusive club, but, it's really not when you consider that the hero position during the same period is dominated by three or four actors (which I would name as Uttam Kumar, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Biswajeet). There are occasional crossovers by Ashok Kumar, and if you get into artier cinema, there's a lot more variety in lead actors (Kali Banerjee is pretty interesting to watch, in my opinion), but I don't get the sense that a quiet social piece by Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen garnered the same public attention or adoration as a commercial romance by Ajoy Kar. Whereas, all of the women below could, I think, claim commercial success.

Here are the leading ladies, in order of my current experiences with and attachment to them. I'd like to sketch out, for the record, what I feel their strengths are, and which films best show their skills. Some of these ladies are still barely in my experience, but that's where y'all come in--you can advise me on what films to see next! Eventually, when I've seen twice the films I have now, I'd like to return to this subject and see how my feelings and opinions about them have been augmented by other performances or films, good or bad.

6. Madhabi Mukherjee

Honestly, except for Charulata, Madhabi is almost completely out of my experience. But Mahanager seems an obvious next step. I've started the film multiple times and I always stop for some reason. Maybe I'll correct that soon. I loved this Outlook piece with Madhabi and Soumitra on the occasion of Charulata's fiftieth anniversary.

What intrigues me about (what I've seen of) Madhabi is that she's not conventionally glamorous, pretty, or even pleasant in her expressions. This reminds me of Supriya Devi or even Waheeda Rehman, except that Madhabi seems to lack even their "nurturing temperaments" that would cover over these "sins." Instead of a womanly or girlish role model, she is fiery and unpolished (which I'm sure Ray must have been looking for in his casting process).

Any other Madhabi films you would recommend?

5. Sabitri Chatterjee

There's only one Sabitri film under my belt, Abak Prithibi. Perhaps it shouldn't even count because the film is about 90% concerned with Uttam and Tarun Kumar's characters, and about 3% driven by her character's choices. Sabitri's character is interesting, but the film is relatively brief, even for Bengali cinema (which is already briefer than its Hindi counterpart), and her one meaty scene is never really followed up upon. However, I quite liked Sabitri in it. She projects a kind of intense mental energy that carved out a memorable place in the film that her character hardly deserved. She's graceful, but not attention-seeking, making her brand of classiness far more approachable than that of Suchitra Sen (the textbook high-class dame of Bengal). She's considered one of Uttam's most popular leading ladies, but I've found their films hard to track down, even without subs. Perhaps I shall see Shesh Anka next.

Plus: Her CUTE GLASSES look and I'm so gone.

4. Aparna Sen

Talking to Beth of BLB, we admitted to a mutual "meh" reaction to Aparna and a ongoing inner question regarding the depth of her craft. She certainly made a name for herself as a director (so very impressive when you consider she started directing in the '80s, and cinema in any film industry is still notoriously a male director's game). But as an actress, I have yet to warm to her. Except, in the occasional song.

It's not that she's a xeroxed collage of other actresses. She's certainly not forgettable, and she brings a lot of energy (if not variety) to her roles. She doesn't seem like a copy of Sharmila or Suchitra, despite the penchant for bouffants. In my mind, she's the poster-girl for the modern woman: independent but also very moral in her own way. Her characters are usually self-possessed and removed from usual concerns of tradition or public opinion. All this *should* impress me, but I have to wonder if her characters hold back/seem independent because she doesn't know how to emote in more than a short range of potential feeling, not because the roles call for that kind of self-confident female.

3. Suchitra Sen

Everyone lines up to praise Suchitra. Like Elizabeth Taylor or Greta Garbo, she's as much a legend as an actress. And of course, she's best known for being half of the dream-couple of Uttam-Suchitra. But, of course, she made her mark as a solo lead as well.

I just saw Deep Jele Jai, which seems to be the solo performance she is most remembered for (beyond Aandhi, which Carla's recent review has convinced me is a must-see) ... and the performance the Bengali press still raves about. To me, this is an odd phenomenon. I realize that Uttam is not in the film (and it's not really a romance), and so, it stands to reason that you would actually get a chance to see Suchitra set free from the bounds of love scenes and family drama. I'm just going to ignore the arbitrary assumption that these elements would somehow restrict an actress' skills.

But, the fact remains: Deep Jele Jai has possibly the most insanity (both intentional and unintentional) per square inch of any Bengali film you will ever see. If it was the main thing I was remembered for, I think I might question my own contribution to history. It's sexist, pagol, terrifying, and seems to have been penned by a delusional Neo-Freudian sensationalist. So maybe let's not remember her just for that, K? However, all her powers of old-school melodramatics are at their most extreme, and it's just insane enough to be entertaining if you go in with the right mindset and prepare for the 5 Stages of the Experience. What Deep Jele Jai DOES prove, is that you can always count on Suchitra to keep you watching. The less sense the storyline makes, the more Suchitra's skills are likely to be cast into definition.

But of course, her more subdued roles (especially if they're not too preachy) are enjoyable as well. In the [relatively] sane Saptapadi or Chaowa Paowa, films with a lot of moments for her formidable personality to shine, she is sure to entertain and win a piece (if not all) of your heart.

2. Sharmila Tagore

My crush on Sharmila is no secret, and certainly knows no bounds of time or place. And I'd hardly be saying something new if I said that Sharmila tended to get more fascinating roles to sink her teeth into when working in Bengali films. It's hard to deny, even though I'm as much in favor of her Hindi films as any fan.

Note: Filmi-Geek has documented much love, perhaps even more than I, for her Hindi scandalous commercial cinema roles, and Conversations Over Chai has a lovely piece on her career as one of Hindi cinema's great divas.

It's quite entertaining to see her cosmopolitan glamour on display in things like An Evening in Paris (in which she is possibly my favorite Pran conspirator yet ... on par with Helen.) And obviously, she's an excellent partner for all those Rajesh Khanna melodramas ... gifting potentially weepy stock characters with strength and humor. But ....

Devi. Barnali. Apur Sansar. Aranyer Din Ratri. Nayak. I mean, these films are the work of two brilliant directors (Kar and Ray) but they are also the work of her genius. She carries so much of the weight of the stories. Ray films without her aren't as satisfying or as lovable. Nayak would be an existential fantasy without her. Apur Sansar glows with her enthusiasm. I don't know if I would have wanted to watch any other actress play the lead in Devi.

My favorite role of all, perhaps (if you made me choose), is that of the complicated sophisticate in Aryaner Din Ratri. A main attraction of Bengali films, for me, is the time devoted to conversation and exploration of philosophical concepts by the main characters. In general, there's not much analytic conversation Bombay films, and Sharmila is even more silent and watchful than the average Hindi heroine. It's not that she is a chatterbox in Bengali cinema. But in ADR, when she has a chance to speak, she speaks so well. It's really a joint performance, though. Sharmila and Soumitra use all the interpersonal knowledge of their past collaborations to create a relationship that breathes and steps out of the silver screen.

These characters are much more worldly than any of their past characterizations. The virginal hues are replaced by more adult tones. But, just like in Barnali, you can almost hear the machinery in their minds turning as they try to listen to one another and really hear. And as in Apur Sansar, they share a heady chemistry that I've never seen either of them conjure up with other actors. Beyond their gift of verbal expression, Soumitra and Sharmila share a talent for communicating through body language and in the relationship of their bodies to their immediate environment. When they as much as turn toward a window, it's almost as communicative as a paragraph of exposition. Perhaps this is what shouts so loud during Ray's protracted silences.

1. Supriya Devi

Early Supriya is my favorite Bengali actress (beyond Sharmila—who is really a trans-regional star) for a lot of reasons. One of them? She feels like a real person in her interactions with other people. Internal processing is evident in her face. In scenes with Uttam, given the chance, you see so many transitional feelings in her… so many uncertainties and wishes. She’s not playing an ideal or upholding a moral position first. She’s a person caught up in the questions and desires of a moment. And she very much has her own agenda.

Exhibit A (because you almost have to see a clip or a gif to get what I mean):

Of the films I've seen her in, it's clear she was at her best in the early 60s. Like other Bengali actresses, she is sometimes the victim of TOO-MUCH makeup, which restricts her ability to emote and react. And that trend seems to get worse in the late 60s. And when I say worse, I mean TERRIBLE. She could be emoting her heart out, but you can't tell with all the face paint in the way.

Oh honey. (Sabarmati, 1969)

My favorite Supriya role to date is Suno Baranari (pictured in the gif above), Surjasikha being a close second. Suno Baranari takes place mostly on a series of train journeys with an heiress and her poor escort--who is taking her to see her potential fiancee. As the film progresses, obviously the heiress starts to look forward to the journey more than the destination. (Hey, it's Uttam-on-a-train, wouldn't you?)

This is quite the dream role for any actress, because the heroine is allowed to transform from petulant and prejudiced (but smart) heiress, to a still-outspoken and brave woman who makes a momentous decision at the end of the film. This is a decision that nobody makes for her and flies in the face of what everyone has told her/tried to force her to do (including both her family and her love interest). AND, and, and, not only does she get to make that decision based on an interesting arc of self-discovery and on her own grit alone, but she totally schools the hero (Uttam Kumar) at the end, letting him know exactly why her way is best. Her character is messy and self-interested and yet, I still love her because she just wants to be happy. One can't blame her for that. When she's manipulative, it's not because she wants other people to suffer, but because she knows she needs to be underhanded and clever to navigate a patriarchal system.

As much as I love Sharmila, this is a role for a woman who isn't afraid to look less than perfect, or to come across as insecure or socially under-developed. Supriya doesn't portray the women I long to be, she embodies the women I am, warts and all.


  1. I loved Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata. Two other films of hers that I would unhesitatingly recommend are Meghe Dhaka Tara and Kaapurush.

    I'm *not* a fan of either Aparna Sen or (blasphemy) Suchitra Sen as actresses. Aparna Sen, of course, is a far better director - she has the most wooden (but beautiful) face in the history of actresses. And Suchitra Sen, even if the Bengalis will kill me for this, has never enthused me = she is too stylised, too stiff - and her chemistry with Uttam Kumar notwithstanding, has never struck me as a great actress. A star, definitely. Actress, no. I've never been able to warm to her craft.

    Sharmila, on the other hand, one of Ray's favourite heroines, has done some fantastic work in her mother tongue. She is an actress I love both in Bengali and Hindi.

    I must confess to never having watched Supriya at all. Which is a shame.

    1. That does give me the extra push to see Kaapurush. But you know, it's actually Surpriya Devi who's the lead in Meghe Dhaka Tara! I have it on my watchlist. It confirms my half-thought above that there are some definite similarities between Supriya and Madhabi. But there you are--you have seen some Supriya after all. I can't recommend Suno Baranari enough (Ajoy Kar delivers again), and it's available on YT with subs.

      You know, I am sympathetic to your feelings about Suchitra. (If you won't tell the Bengalis, I won't! Lol) I do feel there are some roles in which she is lovable and more natural in her dramatic style. Chaowa Paowa (It Happened One Night) is a very uncharacteristic role for her ... perhaps because she was following up Nargis' role in Chori Chori and decided to go more casual and thoughtful. There's almost zero of the usual histrionics in that film. I kind of wish she had done that sort of thing more often. One of my theories is that when Uttam's role is prominent enough, sometimes he seems to calm her performance down.

      Poor Aparna. Her daughter can run circles around her in the performance front (and is more in the vein of the Madhabi/Supriya school of acting). She's pleasant to look at, and I get the sense she would have been a fun young women to have in your social circle, like she had a good sense of humor. I do have to wonder if the make-up and bouffants, once again, interfered with her performances, though. It takes extra work to create a lifelike expression through all that caked on nonsense.

      Sharmila--well, she's just amazing and I could talk about her all day.

      P.S. I was going to link to your Sharmila tribute post, but the thought got lost in my editing process. But, 'tis done now :)

    2. Oh, why did I think it was Madhabi in Meghe Dhaka Tara? :(

      I agree about Konkana - though she is also getting slotted into a certain kind of role. Aparna is a great person to talk to; some years ago, Wellesley College held a retrospective of her films, and I went to see Mr and Mrs Iyer. That was followed by a interactive session with her, and it was amazing. I would so love to have her over for a conversation over chai. :)

      p.s. Thank you for linking to my post. :)

    3. :) So fab that you got to meet her! I'm glad she's as awesome in person as I suspected.

  2. I loved reading your post. I personally feel Madhabi Mukherjee is wonderful in movies where she is directed by great directors like Ray and Ghatak (see Subarnarekha). Otherwise she is not that impressive. Also her range of roles is a little limited. Sabitri is very natural and good at comedy. Supriya Devi, I must admit I can never make myself like her. She is good as you rightly pointed out in her early films like Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and Shuno Baranari (1961), once again lucky to work with Ghatak and Ajoy kar. But these are very rare occasions. In most of her films (and I have watched many) she appears too loud and melodramatic for my taste. Her make up is not the only problem I feel. Her style of acting particularly in emotional scenes and song sequences is extremely affected. ( See Chirodiner, Shudhu ekti Bachar, Chowringhee etc etc). I cannot agree that her style is similar to Madhabi's, sorry, the latter is much much more restrained, but of course you are completely entitled to your opinion and I greatly respect that. Suchitra Sen, I feel, was the unluckiest of the lot. She never got a chance to work with directors like Ray, Ghatak, Sen or even Tapan Sinha. I am surprised that you feel Deep Jele Jai is the performance which defines her. Although It was hugely popular when it was released, I feel it is Saat paake Bandha which is considered a more defining performance by her. Apart from chawa pawa where she shows great comic timing, she is also very good in Indrani, surjyatoran, hospital and Datta. I also found her good in Aandhi (apart from her terrible Hindi accent which uttam kumar also had). Also while she is quite crazy in parts in films like Agnipariksha, and pathe holo deri, there are many scenes in these films in which she is good as well. her performance in Harano Sur or Bipasha is also devoid of dramatics. I think she gradually quietened down with age and experience. While Supriya got from bad to worse, Suchitra Sen I feel became more controlled. Also even in mad and illogical films like Harano Sur and Deep Jele Jai she makes you watch her which is not a mean achievement. I am a great fan of sharmila tagore, but I did not like her in Aranyer Din Ratri where her performance was I feel very affected by Bollywoodish coyness particularly in her dialogue delivery. She also had painted eyebrows very unlike a ray film. I have also not seen her do comedy. As for Aparna Sen, I completely agree that she is impressive outside films and not within them. The only film where I liked her acting was in Samapti (again thanks to the Great Ray). I would personally include Raakhee in this list rather than Supriya who i feel has done well in too few films to be included. However, you are of course entitled to your choice, and i respect it. Thanks for your blogs

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sukanya! I'm glad you enjoyed the read. There's hardly an excess of bloggers or readers interested in this period of cinema, so it's always lovely to find another who shares the obsession.

      Saat Pake Bandha, Hospital, and Datta are all on my list of essential Suchitra films. I might have added SPB to her high profile/most remembered list, but (A) it hasn't come up as much in the articles I read recently, and (B) I have yet to see it. I have no doubt that it's an excellent film, as I have't been disappointed by Ajoy Kar yet. I didn't particularly love Pathey Holo Deri, but I think that was because of some scripting holes. I think my favorite performance of hers is in Saptapadi, but the one I've been the most "impressed" by is probably Chaowa Paowa.

      I enjoyed the Ray take on the Sharmila coyness, as you put it, probably because I first came to Sharmila through Bollywood films, and was happy to find a new sort of depth in Ray's spin on it. It was like the role I had wanted other roles of hers to be.

      Supriya... I will be the first to admit that she didn't maintain her track record in later films. I don't know what happened, honestly. But (for me) she is a step ahead of the others in her roles opposite Uttam in the early years of her career. She has this hilarious "I want to eat you up" look on her face in a lot of their scenes. Suchitra is a bit more classically romantic in orientation, but Supriya is almost lewd (relatively, not objectively) at times in her particular romantic style. Suchitra shows a kind of elevated version of love, whereas Supriya doesn't shy away from portraying an earthy lustiness. It's different, and I enjoy that change of pace. Also, it's an interesting window (real or not) into the kind of worship or desire he generated in others ... something you just don't get from Suchitra's roles opposite him (she's too self-composed to expose that kind of inner adoration).

      I saw Samapti maybe a week ago? I agree that Aparna was better in it than in other things I've seen. She was very raw and I would guess that Ray did everything he could to get a naturalistic performance.

      Rakhee is perhaps my favorite actress in Hindi films EVER (see my House Favorites page) so I would be interested to hear what you think her standout roles are in Bengali films. I think I've only seen one--and it was a brief item girl appearance in Baghini.

  3. Ahh, this is lovely. Seems there are people out here who are interested in old bengali cinema like me.. :) Maybe its time i put to rest my demons of poor english and share my views on cinema with like minded people on a regular basis.

    Well, coming back to this post, i think i can recommend some really good films of all these actresses to you. So here we go-

    1) Madhabi Mukherjee- Just on sheer acting skills, i rate her the best bengali heroine ever. My reccos- Mahanagar( Ray), Kapurush o Mahapurush (Ray again), Subarnarekha ( Ghatak), Calcutta-71 ( Mrinal Sen), Dibaratrir Kabya ( Maybe her best after Charulata), Strir Patra ( Patree), Dholgobinder Karcha, Joradighir Chowdhury Paribar (with Soumitra) and Thana Theke Asche.

    2) Rakhee- I must confess very honestly, i am not a rakhee fan at all, though i must admit that her body of work in hindi is indeed quite impressive. The same cannot be said about her work in bengali films though. Her bangla film output is limited but still one shouldn't miss her Paroma (Aparna Sen) and Shubho Mahurat ( Rituparno Ghosh).

    3) Aparna Sen- Her directorial works are amazing but as an actress she doesn't quite impress me.But that doesn't take away anything from the fact that she did play some memorable roles. My reccos are Aparichito ( Salil dutta film with two heroes- Uttam n Soumitra...Yumm ...delicious),Sujata ( 1974), Basanta Bilap (1973), Shwet Pathorer Thala (1992).

    4) Suchitra Sen- The forever queen of bengali cinema, she is a legend. Great looks, amazing personality, superb screen presence backed with awesome though inconsistent acting skills, makes her a sort of a complete package! My reccos- Saat Pake Bandha, Uttar Falguni, Alo Amar Alo,Kamallata, Grihadaha, Smriti Tuku Thak & Fariyad. The first 2 are just superb n must watch.

    5) Sharmila Tagore- Now i am not a Rinku-di fan. Infact i find her terribly artificial n annoying at times. Also, her body of work in bengali cinema, outside of Ray films is quite small. My Reccos- Seemabaddha (Ray), Chhaya Surja & Jadubangsha ( both Partha Pratim Chowdhury). Jadubangsha though brilliant is somewhat difficult to understand.And yes Kinu Goalar Goli with soumitra is just magic.

    6) Supriya devi- I call her the Sophia Loren of Bengali cinema.. There is something very naughtily sexy about her!! :D. My reccos- Komal Gandhar (Ghatak), Swaralipi (Asit Sen), Swayambara (Asit Sen once more), Nisithe (Agragami), Jibon Mrityu (Hiren Nag),Lal Pathor (Sushil Majumdar) & Teen Adhaya ( Mangal Chakraborty). Last 4 are all with Uttam :D

    7) Sabitri Chatterji- The most versatile actress of bengali cinema.. And the actress with the best comic timing ever in whole of indian cinema in my view. My Reccos- Bhranti Bilas, Mouchak, Nishipadma, Baluchari ( i have a feeling you will not like this one though), Dhanni Meye,Kal Tumi Aleya, Malyadaan and many more...

    Phew ....long list i guess, even though i have omitted some of my fav actresses from this list and only included those ,whom you have written about in ur post. :)

    1. Once again, I must say, how wonderful to meet another Bengali film fanatic! Surprisingly, on the English language internet, it's not exactly common to find other folks who want to watch this era of regional cinema. Also--you shouldn't feel self conscious about your English. It's quite good, and certainly miles ahead of my Hindi, and far, far beyond my Bengali skills :)

      Thank you for these recommendations, I will definitely be putting them to good use.

      1. Madhabi commands a lot of respect, doesn't she? I like her well enough, but haven't caught the "bug" yet. Probably because I'm still stuck in the beginning of Mahanager, for whatever reason.

      2. Rakhee. Rare to find other fans, in my experience. I do love her, but I haven't seen her in anything significant in the Bengali language. The Gosh film is on my list, though. she's obviously at her best in Hindi films in the 70s (Kaala Paathar, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Sharmilee, Blackmail, etc). After that, she doesn't get much in the way of good roles. Exception: Ram Lakhan (1989).

      3. Aparna Sen: I'm growing fond of her--just as a person you feel like you would like in real life, and are happy to see again on screen. Still, some of her performances don't satisfy.

      4. Suchitra Sen: Besides Sharmila, I've seen more of her films than any other Indian actress this year. I nave yet to be bored by one of her performances, unless you count Pothe holo deri, which was a bit of a snore in general. I love her old thespian flavor, she's the type of person who knows what to do with a spotlight.

      5. Sharmila: I first saw her in maybe .... Aradhana? And I can tell you I wasn't swayed either way. But over the last few years she's endeared herself to me. Some of her Hindi films roles feel a little thin, but I've been impressed with all her work with Ray. Obviously much has been said about their mentor-mentee relationship. Ray knows how to bring out her most genuine characterizations.

      6. You are one of the first people I've spoken to who actually loves Supriya. What a relief. I was starting to get tired of holding the torch by myself. She is rather naughty, you're right! I love that about her. She has both saintly and pagol roles that have annoyed me, but when she's at the top of her game, I love her best. Taking note of your recs, here, especially.

      7. Sabitri: Versatile. That's a good point. So far, most of the roles I've seen her in are not carbon copies--she seems like a different person in each. It's nice to see someone not be typecast. The downside is that I don't quite have an opinion on her particular strengths.

      What other lead actresses would you include?

  4. Chanced upon this site as I searched "beautiful supriya chaudhury" in google. I couldn't agree more with the author's description of supriya. She is not beautiful in conventional sense, rather she brings out an inner beauty in some of the films (not all) in which she acted. I am mightily happy that I could feel the way I felt watching her acting -- just a joy to experience the web of emotions she generates.

  5. MANJU DEY in UPHAR and Kabuliwalah


Post a Comment

Popular Posts