Pahari Sanyal was without doubt one of the finest actors that both, Bengali and Hindi cinema have seen.
He was born in the hill-station of Darjeeling on 22nd February, 1906. Though his real name was Nagendranath, he was nicknamed Pahari (one from the hills) and the name stuck throughout his professional career.
From his childhood itself, Sanyal was extremely fond of music and he took training under several famous music teachers of the day. Finishing his school, he joined the engineering course at the Benaras Hindu University but soon left to study Indian classical music at the Morris College of Music in Lucknow. In Lucknow, the young Pahari came in contact with the poet and composer Atulprasad Sen and soon earned fame as one of the best exponents of Atulprasad’s songs. In 1931, he joined the service of the Maharaja of Dewar as his private secretary.
In 1932, Sanyal came to Kolkata and got introduced to PC Barua through his friend the cinematographer Krishna Gopal. Sanyal got a chance to act in the New Theatres production Rooplekha but due to contractual problems he was ultimately unable to appear in the film. But he caught the eye of Debaki Bose and joined the New Theatres as an actor on a monthly salary of Rs 150.
Pahari Sanyal finally made his screen debut as a singer-actor in Debaki Bose’s musical Meerabai (1933) as Chand Bhatta, a role he also did in the Hindi version Rajrani Meera (1933). Both the films were very popular and helped in establishing him as one of the major film stars of the day. In the same year, the famous music director Pankaj Mullick used him to re-record all the songs sung originally by SD Burman for Yahudi Ki Ladki, a New Theatres Production, directed by Premankur Atharthi. As he was fluent in both the languages, Pahari Sanyal starred in most of the Hindi/Urdu versions of the Bengali films produced by New Theatres. In the 1930s, he had a string of hits as an actor and singer in Bengali/ Hindi bilinguals like Bhagyachakra/Dhoop Chhaon (1935), Devdas/Devdas (1935), Millionaire/Karorepati(1936), Bidyapti/Vidyapati (1937), Sapurey/Sapera (1939), Abhinetri/Haar Jeet (1940) and Naukadubi/Milan (1946). Bhagyachakra, one of the first films in India to use playback singing, had Sanyal singing the evergreen Keno Paran Holo Bandhan Hara while in its Hindi version he sang Prem Ki Naiyaa Chali Jal Mein Mori. In Karorpati, he had the hit song Jo Naukri Dila De – a duet with the legendary KL Saigal. In Haar Jeet he sang another wonderful duet, Mast Pawan Shake Hein with Kanan Devi. Woh Kahen Aap Ki Do Chaah Ka Inaam Mujhe, a song sung by him in the film Milan was also very popular. Pahari Sanyal’s performance as Jhumro, a young and audacious snake-charmer who elopes with the heroine Chandan (Kanan Devi) in the film Sapurey/Sapera was extremely well appreciated by both the general audience and critics.
With playback singing getting well established in the late 1930s, Pahari Sanyal cut down on his singing and concentrated more on acting. The 1940s were his salad days as an actor. In 1941, he received the Best Actor Award from the Bengal Film Journalists Association (BFJA) for his brilliant performance as Kumarnath in the film Pratisruti directed by Hemchandra Chunder. After this, he went to Mumbai and acted in films like Mouj (1943), Mohabbat (1943), Insan (1944), Anban (1944), Preet (1945), Milan (1946) and Shravan Kumar (1946).
Back in Kolkata, Sanyal, as he got older, gradually transformed himself from the dashing hero into an outstanding character actor. He made his mark playing the roles of a sophisticated urbanite with a heart of gold. Along with Chhabi Biswas and Bikash Roy, he developed the technique of delivering dramatic dialogues first in English and then uttering the same in perfect Bengali. His major films during this period include Sadharan Meye (1948), Rang Berang (1948), Ulto Rath (1949), Vidyasagar(1950), Babla (1951), Sadanander Mela (1954), Shap Mochan (1955) and Saheb Bibi Golam (1956). He was greatly appreciated as the poet-dramatist Girish Chandra Ghosh in the biographical film Mahakobi Girish Chandra (1956). Sanyal continued as a character actor in films such as Prithibi Amare Chhaye (1957), Pathey Holo Deri (1957), Harano Sur (1957) as Roma’s (Suchitra Sen) ever understanding father, Deep Jele Jai (1959), where he acted the role of a psychiatrist, and Hospital (1960). He was also greatly appreciated in the role of the understanding father to Suchitra Sen in her award winning film Saat Pake Bandha (1963). That same year Sanyal played the role of a Hindu ascetic (the Swamiji) in the Merchant-Ivory film The Householder. He won the BFJA Award as the Best Supporting Actor for his efforts in Jaya (1965), a film by Chitta Basu. He also had significant roles in Grihadaha (1967), Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana (1969) – an undertsanding and sympathetic father to the heroine Sharmila Tagore, Nimantran (1971) and Shesh Parba (1972). Kaya Hiner Kahini (1973) was his final film.
Pahari Sanyal made a cameo appearance in the party scene in Satyajit Ray’s Paras Pathar (1957). He also excelled as the bird-loving Jagadish in Ray’s Kanchanjungha (1962) and as Sadashiv Tripathi in Aranyer Din Ratri (1969). In the latter film, he sang Atulprasad’s song Shey Daake Aamare Bina Shey Shokhare in his own voice.
Pahari Sanyal was an extremely sophisticated man in real life. He was fluent in Hindi, Urdu and English and read French literature in the original language. When he died on 10 February 1974, Bengali cinema lost one of its leading lights.