Sabitri Chatterjee ranks among the most gifted actors in the annals of Bengali cinema. Neither a classic beauty in the Suchitra Sen mould nor a screen siren like Supriya Devi, Sabitri has received immense praise for her versatility – an actor equally at ease in romantic, dramatic and comic roles. Soumitra Chatterjee once remarked, “Sabitri is undoubtedly the finest actor I’ve worked with… She had a charisma of her own, a wonderfully expressive voice and a fantastic ability to express a wide range of emotions…”
Sabitri Chatterjee was born on 22nd February, 1937 in the small town of Kamalpur in the Comilla district of modern Bangladesh, the youngest in the family of ten daughters. Her father, Sashadhar Chatterjee, worked as a station-master in the Indian Railways. When the riots following the Partition of India broke out, the young Sabitri was sent to the safety of an older, married sister’s house in Kolkata located at Tollygunje – the hub of filmmaking in Kolkata. In Tollygunje, she got the opportunity to see the movie-stars of the day shooting at the famed New Theatres Studios. In an interview at the peak of her career, Sabitri would wistfully remember that one day while she and her friends were hanging around the studio lot, Kanan Devi had commented on the beauty of her expressive eyes and presented the little girl with a piece of chocolate. This she admitted ‘created an intense desire to be a diva like the incomparable Kanan Devi.’
Sabitri Chatterjee and her family had to fight against extreme poverty during the days after the Partition and just after Independence. The large family lived in a tiny one-roomed tenement room and even during her schooldays she tried to support her family by working as a junior artiste (then disparagingly called extras) – which she remembered ‘paid ten rupees but the extras had to give up half the money to the agent.’ When she was in class ten, she caught the eye of the great comic actor Bhanu Bannerjee and joined the theatre group Uttar Sarathi who were doing a play on the refugees from East Pakistan titled Natun Yahudi. The play was being directed by Kanu Bannerjee – the actor who would later gain fame as Harihar Roy in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Aparajito. Natun Yahudi would turn out be extremely popular and it also received critical praise for its gritty realism and fantastic performances. Sabitri also acted the film version of the play which was released in 1953.
It was during the rehearsals of Natun Yahudi that Sabitri’s histrionic talents caught the eye of Binu Bardhan, a member of Uttar Sarathi who also was an assistant to the film-director Sudhir Mukherjee. Bardhan and Bhanu Bannerjee’s recommendations gave her chance to appear for the screen-test for Mukherjee’s film, Pasher Bari (1952). She grabbed the opportunity with both hands got the role of the female lead in this comedy film. Pasher Bari was a huge hit as was Sabitri with her uninhibited style and her comic timing.
Sabitri Chatterjee’s next film assignment Subhada (1952) – a film based on a novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee and directed by Niren Lahiri – saw her match skills against established thespians such as Chhabi Biswas and Pahari Sanyal. In this film she played the role of an unfortunate girl named Lalana and demonstrated that she was equally adept in tragic and serious roles too. At the height of her fame, Sabitri would gratefully acknowledge that she learnt a lot about the finer nuances of screen acting from the veteran actor Sunanda Devi, the producer of Subhada. In the same year, she appeared in her first film opposite Uttam Kumar – the evergreen family drama Basu Parivar (1952), directed by Nirmal Dey, which had Supriya Devi in the role of Uttam Kumar’s sister. Sabitri and Uttam Kumar had been close friends since 1951, when impressed by her abilities after watching the rehearsals of Natun Yahudi, Uttam Kumar had visited her dingy one-room house in Tollygunje with an offer to act in a theatrical production to be produced by his group Krishti O Srishti. The Uttam-Sabitri combination became a favourite of the Bengali cine-goers and their friendship withstood strong but false rumours of marriage. They would be responsible for a series of memorable films including Lakh Taka (1953), Sharey Chuattar (1953), Kalyani (1954), Anupama (1954), Rai Kamal (1955), Nabojanma (1956), Punar Milan (1957), Marutirtha Hinglaj (1959), Raja-Saja (1960), Dui Bhai (1961), Bhranti Bilas (1963), Momer Alo (1964) and Nishipadma (1970). They also had major roles in Mrinal Sen’s first feature film Raat Bhore (1955) and Tapan Sinha’s second effort, Upahar (1955). Uttam Kumar’s screen partnerships with Suchitra Sen and Supriya Devi were mainly limited to romantic melodramas but his association with Sabitri would encompass both romantic and the comic genres. Sharey Chuattar, Bhranti Bilas and Dhanyi Meye (1971) rank high among the best of popular Bengali comedy cinema. These films avoided crude slapstick and were light hearted situational or romantic films in the classic comedy of errors mould.
Marutirtha Hinglaj – which follows the terrible trials and tribulations of a team on a pilgrimage to the holy Hinglaj temple in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan – saw Sabitri give one of her greatest performances. She played the Padma, a pilgrim girl who falls in love with Thirumal (Uttam Kumar) – a young ascetic also on the same journey. Sabitri’s anguished shriek, ‘Thirumal! Thirumal!’ in one of the most dramatic moments of the film – when she helplessly watches her beloved Thirumal being slowly sucked into deadly quicksand – was one of the highlights of this epic film directed by Bikash Roy. The film was shot on location – the sand dunes of the coastal resort of Digha were imaginatively used as a substitute of the deserts of Baluchistan.
Nishipadma, directed by Aurobinda Mukherjee – the younger brother of the eminent writer Banaphool and one of the more accomplished and refined filmmakers working within the parameters of popular Bengali cinema – was another showcase of the Sabitri’s dramatic skills. Her portrayal of Pushpa – a sex worker who struggles to find a life of dignity for the sake of her son – won her high praise. The film also saw a brilliant performance by Uttam Kumar who played Ananga Roy – Pushpa’s patron and saviour. So great was Sabitri’s talent as an actor that at the time when Nishipadma was having a great run at the box-office, another of Sabitri’s comedy films, Kanamacchi, was released where she played the romantic interest of Anup Kumar – the actor who had played the role of the older Pushpa’s son in Nishipadma. Kanamachhi’scommercial success is an indicator of Sabitri’s acceptability among the audience in both the films.
Sabitri Chatterjee continued her glittering career in the 1970’s. In Shanti (1970), she gave an extremely realistic portrayal tea-garden worker, while in Putuler Ma (1973), she was a woman hawking petty items in local trains for the sake of her family’s survival. Shila (1970) starring Sabitri and Subhendu Chatterjee was one of the early commercial successes of Subhendu. Sabitri and Soumitra Chatterjee first acted together in Mrinal Sen’s Pratinidhi (1964). Aurobinda Mukherjee’s Mantramugdha (1970) and Ajoy Kar’s Malyadaan (1971) were two memorable hits of Soumitra and Sabitri. Malyadaan won the National Award for the Best Bengali Feature Film for the year 1971. Sesh Parba (1972) and Seyi Chokh (1976) are two more important films of her during this period. Brajabuli (1979) was her last film with Uttam Kumar. Sabitri had plans of producing a film based on Ashapurna Devi’s novel Seemarekhar Seema starring her and Uttam Kumar but the project had to be aborted due to Uttam’s death on 24th July, 1980.
In the early 1980s, Sabitri’s screen appearances became limited but her career had a revival in the late 1980s when the director-scriptwriter Anjan Choudhury made a series of potboilers and family dramas – Mamoni (1986), Anandalok (1988) and Haar-Jeet (2000) were big hits – revolving around the character played by Sabitri. These films were primarily gross melodramas aimed at the moffussil and rural audiences and hardly required the sophisticated acting skills of a performer of her calibre but she adapted well with the demands of such films. She continues to act in typical mother and older women roles in commercial Bengali films till date. The Bengal Film Journalists’ Association (BFJA) honoured her with a Life Time Achievement Award in 2004. Podokkhep (2006), Teen Murti (2009), Hemlock Society (2012) are among her last few screen appearances although she continues to act in numerous television serials and tele-films. She is one of the stars of the mega soap opera, Sonar Harin, which has had a run of more than 1000 episodes.
Films aside, Sabitri Chatterjee is considered to be one of the greatest female actors of the popular Bengali theatre circuit. She acted in the role of the maid servant Padma in Adarsha Hindu Hotel – a play that had a run of more than 500 shows at the Rangmahal Theatre Hall. Her performance as the deaf-mute Shyamoli in the play of the same name staged at the famous Star Theatre is considered as one of the legendary performances in the history of the genre. Although Uttam Kumar was the male lead in the play it was Sabitri’s acting that amazed the audience who as Sabitri recalled ‘used to invade the green-room in hordes to check out if she was actually deaf and dumb!’ She also acted with aplomb in Rajkumar opposite Soumitra Chatterjee, directed by Soumitra himself. Amar Kantak with Subhendu Chatterjee was another of Sabitri’s extremely successful theatrical efforts. At the height of her stage career she was given the title of ‘Manchalakshmi’ by her awestruck fans, elated producers and directors.
Sabitri Chatterjee’s long innings in the silver screen and commercial stage has seen her performing in a wide variety of roles unmatched by her contemporaries. She is truly a living legend of Bengali cinema and stage …