Bengali, India, Profile

Anjana Bhowmik

Though yesteryear actress Anjana Bhowmik did not have a very long sting in Bengali cinema, even within that comparatively short period, she amazed the Bengali cine viewers with her performances. Her extremely natural throw of dialogue, her down-to-earth expressions and her spontaneous body language made her stand out among the actresses of her era. Even if her repertoire of films is not very large, Bhowmik would always be remembered as the ill-fated air hostess in Pinaki Mukherjee’s Chowringhee (1968), based on a Bengali novel of the same name by Shankar (Mani Shankar Mukherjee), and the popular pairing she made with Bengali cinema’s ‘Mahanayak’, Uttam Kumar.

She was born Arati Bhowmik on December 30, 1944,  in Cooch Behar in West Bengal. She did her higher secondary education from the Suniti Academy, a higher secondary all-girls school in Cooch Behar and then enrolled at the Sarojini Naidu College for women in Calcutta, now Kolkata. She made her cinematic bow in the Bengali film Anustup Chanda (1964), when not quite 20, after her parents shifted base to Kolkata. For the film, her first name was changed for the screen from Arati to Anjana and it stuck. Anustup Chanda, like most of her films, is based on a classical piece of Bengali literature and she was cast among several well-known veterans of Bengali cinema. The film has Basanta Choudhury playing a much older man who falls in love with her. The film was adapted from a novel by Saroj Kumar Roy Choudhury, directed by Pijush Bose and was a reasonable success. It also won the Certificate of Merit for Second Best Feature in Bengali at the 12th National Awards declared in 1965.

Following Anustup Chanda, Bhowmik mostly played leading lady roles in all her subsequent films. And though not considered a conventional beauty or a glamour girl, she more than made up with her innately natural and convincing performances. What’s more, she shared a palpable on-screen chemistry with all her male co-stars, be it Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee.

Bhowmik’s first film with the ‘Mahanayak’ was Thana Theke Aaschi (From the Police Station, 1965). The film, directed by Hiren Nag, was an adaptation of the English play, An Inspector Calls, by JB Priestley. The film starred Uttam Kumar as Inspector Tinkari Halder enquiring about a death by suicide. The film boasted of a fine ensemble cast including Madhabi Mukherjee, Kamal Mitra, Chhaya Devi and of course, Anjana Bhowmik.  Bhowmik excelled as she played a character with some negative shades who might have played a role in the death of the woman whose suicide is being investigated. Thana Theke Aaschi, deservedly regarded as one of the finest thrillers of Bengali cinema, was a big success at the box-office.

Bhowmik would go on to act with Uttam Kumar in a series of films including Rajdrohi (1966), Nayika Sangbad (1967), Kakhano Megh (1968) and Roudra Chhaya (1973). In Nayika Sangbad, she portrayed a film star, who, while travelling to a location, misses her train and has to stop somewhere in the middle. She makes friends with the station master (Uttam Kumar) and over time, falls in love with him because she finds in him an honesty and a simplicity she does not find within the film industry. It was deftly directed by Agradoot showcasing a fine performance by Bhowmik aided by some extremely melodic songs on the film’s soundtrack. She also acted opposite Soumitra Chatterjee in the critically acclaimed Mahashweta (1967).

I was not a journalist when Bhowmik was shining like a ray of bright sunlight in the Bengali cinema sky. But I liked her the most in her role of the fatally-doomed air hostess in Chowringhee (1968), her most well-known film by far. It is a magnum opus and spills over with many interesting characters set against the backdrop of a five-star hotel, Hotel Shahjahan, in Kolkata. There is a love story woven into the film between the character played by Uttam Kumar (Sata Bose), the receptionist of the hotel, and the one portrayed by Anjana Bhowmik (Sujata Mitra) in the midst of many top actors of the time. Bhowmik plays an air hostess who frequents the hotel and who falls in love with the ‘Mahanayak’ and the two decide to marry. She resigns from her job but tragically, is killed in an air crash on her last flight. The film is regarded as one of the greatest films in Bengali cinema and a landmark for all those associated with it. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a huge success at the box-office.

Bhowmik never allowed the media into details on her personal life. So, when she suddenly got married to defence officer Anil Sharma, a Punjabi, and migrated to Bombay, now Mumbai, everyone was surprised. She settled there and only when her elder daughter, Nilanjana Sharma, stepped first into television and then into Bengali films did she decide to live between Mumbai and Kolkata. Nilanjana is now a successful producer of films and serials and is married to the top star of Bengali cinema, Jisshu Sengupta. Bhowmik’s  younger daughter, Chandana Sharma, also tried her luck in films but was not as fortunate.

This writer met Bhowmik only once many years after she had quit films. This was on the sets of Subrata Sen’s film Swapner Pheriwalla (2002) in which daughter Nilanjana was debuting in a lead role. We began talking without any formal introductions and I discovered that she was as grounded in real life as she appeared in her performances on the large screen. She sat in one corner, so that no one would notice her, but I did and began a conversation. She did not interfere in her daughter’s work nor cut into the director’s commands needlessly and I liked her as a person as much as I loved her acting.

Bhowmik passed away in a Kolkata nursing home on February 17, 2024, after a long battle with respiratory problems.

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