Satyajit Ray once remarked, “I doubt if I could ever make the film Jalsaghar without an actor of the calibre of Chhabi Babu. Probably not. Biswambhar Roy’s pride and recklessness, his passionate love for music and his obsessive love for his only son and finally the tragic downfall – only a genius like him could portray these myriad emotions.” Ray, the master of casting and actor-handling, was paying homage to Chhabi Biswas, one of the finest actors ever to have graced the Bengali silver screen.
Chhabi Biswas, best remembered for his numerous roles as the quintessential aristocratic patriarch, was himself the scion of a rich and cultured North Kolkata family. He was born on 12th July, 1900. His father Bhupatinath Biswas was well known for his charitable works. He was christened Sachindranath but his mother nicknamed her handsome son Chhabi (a beautiful picture!) and the name stuck through out his life and career.
Passing his Matriculation Examinations from the Hindu School, Chhabi Biswas got enrolled at the Presidency College and later at the Vidyasagar College. It was during this time he got into amateur theatrics and got in touch with Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, the legendary star of Bengali theatre. The young actor was deeply impressed by Sisir Kumar’s histrionic abilities and he got heavily involved with several amateur theatrical clubs. His powerful performance as Sri Gouranga in the play Nader Nimai sealed Chhabi Biswas’s popularity among the theatre lovers of the day. He then took a break from acting and joined an Insurance company and later started a business dealing in jute products. But soon, unable to resist the temptations of the stage, Chhabi Biswas rejoined the theatre circuit and made his debut as a professional actor in a social-melodrama Samaj. Even after his success as a film actor Chhabi Biswas continued his association with professional stage and Jatra circuit. His performance in major roles in hit plays like Shoroshi (1940), Sita (1940), Kedar Roy (1941), Shahjehan (1941), made him a much admired figure both among the audience and his peers.
In 1936, Chhabi Biswas made his cinematic debut in a film called Annapurnar Mandir. The film was directed by Tinkari Chakraborty and Chhabibabu played the role of Bishu, the husband of the heroine. Trained in the over melodramatic acting style of the contemporary Bengali stage, Chhabi Biswas soon grasped the finer nuances of acting for cinema. He became a regular in films produced by the New Theatres and had major roles in Chokker Bali (1937), Nimai Sannyas (1940) and Pratisruti (1941). He was absolutely marvellous as a 90 year old ascetic in Debaki Bose’s film Nartaki (1940). Ironically, it was the success of his acting in Nartaki that limited his opportunities in lead roles but his reputation as a character actor par excellence was by now firmly in place. Chhabibabu’s second innings as an actor began with this film and he almost became an automatic choice as the pater familias or the suave noble. Using his perfect English diction to the hilt Chhabi Biswas (along with Pahari Sanyal and Bikash Roy to a certain extent) developed a unique way of delivering a dramatic dialogues first in English and then after a pause repeating the same in Bengali. Films such as Ashok (1942), Parineeta (1942), Dwanda (1943), Matir Ghar (1944), Dui Purush (1945), Biraj Bou (1946) and Mandana (1950) showcased his talents as an actor of great quality.
At the peak of his career Chhabi Biswas directed two feature films, Pratikar (1949), an adaptation of a short story by the eminent litterateur Premendra Mitra, and Jaar Jetha Ghar (1949). Both the films were produced by New Theatres and were modest box-office successes.
In 1956, Chhabi Biswas played the protagonist in Tapan Sinha’s screen adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala. As Rehmat Khan, the big burly Afghan dry-fruits merchant and money-lender with a golden heart who develops paternal love for the little Kolkata girl Mini (played brilliantly by Tinku, Sharmila Tagore’s sister), Chhabi Babu gave one of his most memorable screen performances. He used his hefty frame and the typical Afghan costumes to great effect and his Bengali dialogues in the broken, guttural Afghani accent were extremely realistic. In fact such was the impact of his acting in Kabuliwala that the image of Chhabibabu as Rehmat Khan became the proto-type of all Afghans for in the minds of generations to come. But if there was one flaw in this film, Chhabi Biswas’s make-up especially his beard looked quite poor and artificial because, as Tapan Sinha remembers in his memoirs, Mone Pore, Chhabi Babu’s steadfast refusal to use spirit-gum. When Kabuliwala was screened at the Berlinale in 1957, The Times, London remarked, “He is so good that he makes you forget about his beard.” The story was remade in 1961 by Bimal Roy and directed by Hemen Gupta. In spite of Balraj Sahni’s fine performance in the film, die-hard Tagore fans still swear by Chhabi Babu’s interpretation of Rehmat Khan.
The same year in 1961, Dada Thakur a biography of Sarat Pundit, the renowned satirist, scholar and social reformer, saw Chhabi Biswas gave yet another memorable performance. Going against the typecast of the strong patriarch, he played the role of a typical Bengali Brahmin pundit humble yet strong in his belief and convictions. In fact Chhabi Biswas was so good he earned praises from Sarat Pundit himself.
Jalsaghar (1958), the Satyajit Ray classic brought Chhabi Biswas national and international recognition. His role as Biswambhar Roy, the music-loving feudal zamindar doomed to a lonely and tragic end, was according to the Screen magazine undoubtedly one of Biswas’s best characterisation on screen. Satyajit Ray in his book, Bishoy Chalacchitra, fondly remembers Chhabi Babu’s intense dedication to his craft a totally unmusical person in real life he practiced for hours to perfect his finger and bow movements on the esraj strings for the scene where Biswambhar Roy provides musical accompaniment to his young son’s vocal exercises. Chhabi Biswas also played the role a feudal tyrant erotically obsessed with his young daughter-in-law (Sharmila Tagore) in Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960). In Ray’s Kanchanjungha (1962), he was brilliant and absolutely spot on as Rai Bahadur Indranath Chowdhury, the cigar-smoking Anglophile industrialist caught in time-warp and a dominant father who lords over his upper-class family.
Chhabi Biswas, a big-hearted jovial man was also an active philanthropist. He along with Kanan Devi galvanised the film fraternity of the day to organise various relief efforts during the Great Bengal Famine of 1942-43. Chhabibabu was one of the founder-members and the first secretary of Abhinetri Sangha (Artistes Guild) of Kolkata, an association dedicated to the rights and welfare of cine-artistes and technicians, established in 1952.
Tragically, Chhabi Biswas died in an automobile accident on 11th June, 1962. After Biswas’s demise in 1962, Ray admitted that he did not thereafter write a single male middle-aged part that called for a high degree of professional talent.
Chhabi Biswas was decorated with the Sangeet Natak Academy Award for the best actor in 1959.