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Supriya Devi (Choudhury) nee Bannerjee was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished actors who have graced the Bengali screen. Though popular for her glamorous on and off-screen persona, Supriya Devi was also an accomplished performer who won great critical acclaim for some of her realistic roles.
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Supriya Devi was born in the small town of Michkina, in Burma (modern Myanmar), on 8th January, 1935. Her father Gopal Chandra Bannerjee was a successful advocate. Her mother Kiranbala Devi was a housewife extremely interested in music and dance. Supriya Devi herself was a keen dancer since her childhood even receiving an award from Mr. Thakin Nu, then the Prime Minister of Burma, who was moved by one of her dance recitals.
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In 1948, the Bannerjees left Burma for good and re-settled in Calcutta, now Kolkata. They had been refugees before in 1942 when the Japanese forces occupied Burma. The young Supriya and her family were forced to undertake an arduous trek on foot to the safety of Calcutta. In Calcutta, she resumed her dance lessons and trained under Guru Muruthappan Pillai and later under Guru Prahlad Das. Supriya and her family were in friendly terms with Chandrabati Devi, a popular character actor, who was their neighbour. It was through the Chandrabati Devi’s inspiration and contacts Supriya Devi stepped into the world of Bengali films and a legend was born.
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Supriya Devi made her screen debut in 1952 in a film called Nagpash. The film however was never released and is now lost. It was with her second film, Basu Parivar (1952), a family drama which also was an early smash hit for Uttam Kumar, that Supriya Devi made her mark. Interestingly in this film, she played Uttam Kumar’s sister. The same year, she had two more releases Prarthana and Madhurati, both of which were reasonably popular. These films firmly established her as one of the rising stars of Bengali film industry. She was the first actress of the Bengali cinema who projected an overtly sensual screen image combining it with her dramatic skills.
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In 1954, Supriya Devi married Bishwanath Choudhury and a few years later her only daughter, Soma, was born. She retired from films for a while before returning with a bang in the late 1950s. Unlike many glamour girls, marriage and motherhood had not diminised her screen popularity at all.
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Shonar Harin (1959) saw Supriya Devi play the lead opposite Uttam Kumar. As they began to act in more films together, the two got involved off screen as well. In fact in 1963, Uttam left his wife and stayed with Supriya for the next 17 years till his death. The two of them went on to do several films together – These films including Uttar Megh (1960), Shuno Baro Nari (1962) – Supriya played the role of a sex-worker, considered a strict no-no for established stars of the period), Kaal Tumi Aleya (1965), Bilambit Laya (1970), Ban Palashir Padaboli (1973), Sanyasi Raja (1975), Bhola Moira (1977) and Dui Purush (1978) belong to the most popular films of Bengali of all times. Even today, these films are screened regularly on various television channels and get quite high TRPs. Many of Uttam’s films with Supriya too were huge successes at the box office but there was a marked difference in audience perception to these films as compared to his films with Suchitra Sen. With Suchitra, what superceded everything was their screen romance whereas with Supriya since the audience was aware of a personal relationship as well, they always went to see these films with that firmly in their mindsets.
Supriya’s greatest performance, however, came in Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), the Ritwik Ghatak classic,which made the best use of her immense histrionic abilities. She played the role of Neeta, a refugee girl struggling for a better life in the face of massive odds. Her portrayal captured the pathos of millions of refugee women who fought for a better life. She later recounted that under Ghatak’s able tutelage she was able to discover her hidden talents and in her portrayal of Neeta she had to dig deep into her soul-wrenching experiences as a refugee from Burma. Some scenes of this memorable film – Neeta’s duet of the Tagore song Je Rate Mor Duarguli with her brother (played by Anil Chatterjee), her sad and walk through the streets of the refugee colony in her torn sandal – are still etched in the memory of thousands of cine-goers. Neeta’s anguished cry, “Dada! Ami Kintu Bacchte Chai!” at the end of the film makes one hair stand on end and has entered the pantheon of Indian films. It was an absolutely stunning performance and is one of the most memorable performances ever, not just in Bengali Cinema but in the history of Indian Cinema. Ghatak also directed her in Komal Gandhar (1961). In this film too, she played the role of a refugee from erstwhile East Pakistan and again received major critical acclaim.
Supriya Devi did act in a few Hindi films too like Begaana (1963) and Aap Ki Parchhaiyan (1964), both opposite Dharmendra and Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein (1964) with Kishore Kumar but her Hindi films were not too successful. However, she continued to reign in Bengali Cinema. In 1968 she won the prestigious Bengal Film Journalist Association (BFJA) Award for her role in Teen Adhyay. She also won the BFJA award for the best Supporting Actress for her role in the film Chinnapatra (1972).
Supriya Devi made a smooth progression from the glamour babe image to mother or mother-in-law roles in the late 1980s, playing these clichéd roles with great gusto. She had substantial roles in potboilers such as Mejo Bou, Chhotto Bou, and Maar Shapath. The boom in vernacular television rejuvenated her career and her performance in the chart-buster mega-serial Janani (late 1990’s to early years of the new century) won her many new fans. In 2006, she made a cameo appearance in Mira Nair’s The Namesake as Ashima’s grandmother.
Films apart, Supriya Devi also acted in a few Bengali commercial theatrical productions. The majority of her stage appearances were at the famed Biswaroopa Theatre in North Calcutta, considered by many to be the hub of this genre. In recent years she has also been active in the Jatra (a highly melodramatic traditional theatrical form popular in small towns and rural area) circuit. Her immense popularity even to this day is borne out by her numerous commercials endorsing wide range of products like mustard oil, saris and cooking masalas.
Acting aside, Supriya Devi is also well-known for her culinary skills. Legend has it she won Uttam Kumar’s heart through her cooking. She utilized her talents to the hilt in her television cookery show Benudir Rannaghar (1998-2002) (Benudi’s Kitchen). This afternoon show was immensely well-liked and a generation of young housewives developed their skills in cooking traditional Bengali cuisines under the expert and lively guidance of their beloved ‘Benudi ‘, Supriya Devi.
Supriya Devi’s career coincided with what is perhaps the golden years of Bengali commercial cinema. She was one of the brightest stars of the age and remained a much admired and respected celebrity right till her death on January 26, 2018 in Kolkata due to cardiac arrest.