Sandhya Roy is perhaps one of the most under-rated actresses in Bengali cinema in spite of having given some truly memorable performances from the end 1950s to the early ’80s. She began acting in an era when acting schools were still non-existent and directors were the only guiding factors. It was also, fortunately, a time when one did not need to show skin or do item numbers to keep afloat. Those were the days when Bengali cinema drew generously from the huge melting pot of Bengali literature and Roy was not only one of its fortunate beneficiaries, but also a rich contributor, who almost always vested her characters with a spirit of their own.
Roy’s entry into films happened purely by accident. Born in 1945 (?) and orphaned by the time she was nine, she had to leave her schooling and shift to Kolkata to live with her elder sister and brother-in-law. In Kolkata, she had gone to Radha Studio to watch the shooting of Mamlar Phol (1957) when she was around ten. A crowd scene was being shot that day and director Pashupati Chatterjee asked her to feature as one in the crowd – as an ‘extra.’ She did not even understand the word but she was in the film. Noted filmmaker Rajen Tarafdar then offered her a role in his Antariksha on a princely honorarium of Rs.150/day. This was followed by films like Nagini Kanyar Kahini (1958), Brindabon Leela (1958), Ganga (1959) and many more box office successes that established her in a niche of her own. In particular, Roy’s riveting performance in Tarafdar’s Ganga is a milestone in her career. The film was based on a path-breaking novel by Samaresh Bose with Roy playing Gamli Panchi, a young girl who is infatuated with a man, Bilas, who does not love her back. With Ganga, Roy became the sweetheart of every Bengali filmgoer of the time investing her portrayal with an infectious charm that followed in most of her films.
The other big turning point in Roy’s career came with Maya Mriga (1960). The film is a family melodrama directed by Chitta Bose with a screenplay by Moni Burma that was adapted from a story by Nihar Ranjan Gupta. The film pairs Roy with a dashing young actor, Biswajeet, the popular pairing sticking together over the next decade. The film is counted among the 100 biggest hits in the history of Bengali cinema with an an ensemble cast that featured some of the biggest stars of the Bengali film industry at that time – Uttam Kumar, Bikash Roy, Sandhya Rani, Sunanda Bannerjee and others. But even in that formidable crowd of actors, the romantic scenes of Biswajeet and Sandhya Roy stand out as highlights of the film.
Roy’s career is dotted with unforgettable roles in memorable films where she broke the stereotype within what deceptively appeared to be conventional. The best among her films are those directed by Tarun Majumdar, who she married in 1967, though they later went their own separate ways. Roy, being a very private person, never went public about her personal life. Some of the outstanding roles of her career are in Palatak (1963), Suryatapa (1965), Monihar (1966), Baghini (1968), Nimantran (1971), Kuheli (1971), Thagini (1974), Phuleshwari (1974), Sansar Seemantey (1975), Ganadevata (1978) and many others that remain archived in the history of Bengali cinema.
Roy stole the hearts of the audience as Chhutki in Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket (1973), as a young wife in the village whose husband is not around. Unable to bear the pangs of hunger when a man-made famine strikes the village, she surrenders to a trafficker for food and migrates to the city. Roy perfectly brought out the pathos of the character that offers a counterpoint to the priest’s wife, Ananga, who persuades her not to go away, in vain.
Roy’s career resume comprising around 400 films covers every genre one can imagine from thrillers (Kuheli), literature-centred adaptations (Nimantran, Ganadevata, Deeper Naam Tiyarong), musicals (Amargeeti (1983), Khanaa and Monihar), light romance (Ektuku Basha (1965)), costume dramas (Jhinder Bandi (1961) frothy comedies (Bhranti Bilash (1963)) and mythologicals (Baba Taraknath (1977), Harishchandra Shaibya). Even during her peak years, she had no compunctions about doing character roles and supporting characters. Among these are films like Balika Badhu (1967), Palatak, Teen Adhyay (1968), and Sriman Prithviraj (1973). The range of characters she portrayed is endless though people tend to label her as perfect only for village backdrops. In Sansar Seemantey, she portrayed a cheap prostitute living in a red-light area in Kolkata opposite Soumitra Chatterjee, a thief. In Kuheli, she plays the the ghost-wife of a zamindar who haunts the mansion and tries to mesmerize the daughter. In Suryatapa, the original Bengali version of Shakti Samanta’s Kati Patang, she portrays a woman forced to step into the role of a young widow with a child to restore the child to the family it belongs to. In Thagini, she played a young girl trapped in her father’s fraudulent manner of trapping young men to marry his daughter and then running away on the wedding night with all the gold. Trouble brews when she falls in love with the man she marries the last time. In Baghini, Sandhya Roy gave a brilliant performance as a young woman who is involved in a bootlegging racket and brews the liquor in her own home with her sisters. She kills a young man who tries to rape her and confesses to her crime.
Roy worked with practically every leading man of Tollygunge during her time beginning with strong and successful pairings with Biswajeet and Anup Kumar and followed by a string of outstanding actors like Soumitra Chatterjee, Uttam Kumar, Samit Bhanja and many more. She retired from the big screen once her days as a leading lady came to an end and was seen later in senior character roles in films like Debipakshya (2004), Nabab Nandini (2007), Maa Amar Maa (2009) and Aarohan (2010). Her trump card lay in her typically Bengali looks that fit into the mould of the simple, Bengali girl with a rounded face, lovely smile, petite frame and naïve demeanour. She could chop and change her appearance and her style according to the demands of the role set against a rural or an urban backdrop.
Roy also worked in some Hindi films such as Asli Naqli (1962) directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Tarun Majumdar’s Rahgir (1969), the Hindi version of his runaway Bengali hit Palatak, Shakti Samanta’s Jane Anjane (1971), and the southern film, AVM’s Pooja Ke Phool (1964).
Roy won the Best Actress Award for her work Nimantran and Sansar Seemante, besides the Best Supporting Actress Award for Teen Adhyay, all from the BFJA. In 2012, The West Bengal Government bestowed upon her the special Chalachitra Award.
It is one of the tragedies of the Bengali film world that one of its finest performers, Sandhya Roy, is today living a life of forced retirement with little work coming her way.