I was introduced to her as Manju, shortened from her original name – Manjula Sanyal. She had come to our Mumbai flat along with former New Theatres actress Leela Desai and was staying with her, awaiting her break in Hindi films. Leela Desai, who used to live in a beautiful ground-floor apartment on Worli Sea Face, had started acting classes for aspiring young girls who came down from Kolkata hoping for a break in Hindi films. Manju was the most talented and the prettiest among them all.
While we were talking – she looked a bit older than me then – she told me that she had acted opposite Uttam Kumar in a Bengali film released in 1960, Khokababur Pratyabartan (The Return of Khokababu), based on a famous short story by Rabindranath Tagore. I was stunned because I just could not match this pretty young girl with slightly Oriental features with the young bride in the Bengali film. She was from Darjeeling she said and as she had studied in a missionary school, was fluent in English. But that was hardly a qualification for her to step into filmdom in Mumbai. Her film name at that time was Sucharita Sanyal which was later shortened to Sumita Sanyal. She had no influence, no family background in films and Leela Desai was almost an anonymous figure at the time.
Was she lucky? Not really. Because film offers were few and far between though she was a spontaneous and natural actress. Her acting was always low-key, subtle and controlled and her soft, sonorous voice was another asset she was born with. She got married to Subodh Roy, an editor in Bengali films, and settled down in Kolkata. She acted in around 40 Bengali films but very rarely as leading lady and this is one of the mysteries of her career as an actress even if she did work with some extremely gifted filmmakers. Hrishikesh Mukherjee worked with her in Aashirwad (1968), Anand (1970) and Guddi (1971). In Anand, she acted opposite Amitabh Bachchan when Bachchan was hardly known. In Guddi, she played the affectionate and caring sister-in-law to Jaya Bhaduri. Among other Hindi films she did was Mere Apne (1971) that marked the directorial debut of Gulzar.
In Bengali, one of her most important roles was in Tarun Majumdar’s hugely successful detective thriller, Kuheli (1971), that starred Biswajeet and Sandhya Roy in the lead. Tapan Sinha took her in for a substantial role in Sagina Mahato (1970) co-starring Dilip Kumar. Among some of her best Bengali films, one can easily pick out films like Kanchan Kanya, Deya-Neya, Swargo Hotey Bidaye, Godhuly Bela, Anustup Chhanda, Eki Angey Eto Roop, Dinanter Alo, Surer Aagun, Kaal Tumi Aleya, Nutan Jeebon, Harano Prem, Nishachar and Notun Surya. She also featured in a few television serials but without much success.
But no film buff of Indian cinema will ever forget her performance in that very brief role in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (1966). It was a night scene. She played a frustrated housewife who desperately wanted to make it big in films. She gatecrashes into the house of the famous matinee idol Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) and tries to seduce him. She begins to cry when he asks her to please leave. Then, she suddenly bursts into a fit of laughter, stops as suddenly and then, looking into the eyes of the hero, wipes the tears off her eyes, smiles at him charmingly and says, “See? I do not need glycerine.” It is one of the most mesmerizing scenes in the entire film and also, in the history of Bengali cinema.
I met her when the two of us, Sumita and myself, were featured in a panel discussion for Doordarshan’s Bengali programme last year. She was much older, had gained some weight and hid her lines with thick make-up. She was lucid in her talk and spoke freely of her experience of having worked with some of the best directors in Mumbai and Kolkata, with the best of actors and actresses but insisted that luck played a significant role in the life of an actor never mind your talent or your dedication or your family ties. I tried to find out if she could recognize me but she could not. Our worlds, after all, had taken us to different destinations.
RIP Manju. I will never forget that fresh-faced, bubbly teenager with the soft romantic voice sitting in our Shivaji Park flat talking 20 to the dozen about her dreams and aspirations.