There is no brief on her in Wikepedia anywhere. Nor does her name figure in Wikepedia’s detailed bio on her husband, Mrinal Sen. I tried to scourge imdb but nothing beyond three lines there on her. Sadly, Gita Sen was in every national and regional newspaper only after she passed away on January 16, 2017 at the age of 86.
Gita Sen began her life as an actress in IPTA plays. She acted mainly in the plays staged by Utpal Dutt and Sobha Sen’s Little Theatre Group. As a young woman, Gita Sen portrayed the role of Inge, the fiancée of the son of Professor Mamlock in a play called Professor Mamlock in which Utpal Dutt played the title role in the play authored by Friedrich Wolf, a Jewish doctor married to a non-Jewish wife, in 1933. The play portrayed the hardships a Jewish doctor suffers from under regime of Hitler in Germany and is said to be one of the earliest works dealing with anti-Semitism. “She appeared in scene two of the play and changed the entire tenor of the performance and tok it to a new dimension altogether. She raised the standard of the entire performance even during the rehearsals. Her emotions and expressions of the panic, the anxiety, the fear and the impact of torture as a Jewish woman came across so poignantly and with such great realism that I, a small girl then slated to come in the next scene, just had to continue in the same strain and Utpal Dutt praised my performance. But till this day, I give the entire credit to Gita Mashi,” says Aparna Sen who states that she found a lifelong friend in Gita Mashi from then on.
The films she worked in are but just a handful and mostly in character roles. As a young woman, Gita Sen was very pretty, slim and had long, black hair so one wonders what kept filmmakers from casting her in the female lead. Few are aware that she played an important role in Ritwik Ghatak’s Nagarik (1952) and her name in the credits appear as Gita Shome because she was not yet married to Mrinal Sen. In the film, she did the role of Shefali, the sister of Uma who the protagonist Ramu is in love with. Shefali, placed in historical context, comes across as one of the first consequences of extreme poverty set in by the impact of the Independence who, unable to cope with the desperate poverty they are being steadily steeped in, walks away silently with a man.
A rare appearance she made in a film not directed by Mrinal Sen was Shyam Benegal’s Aarohan (1982) in Hindi. In this film, Gita Sen played Kalidashi, the distant, widowed aunt of Hari Mondal, the poor farmer portrayed by Om Puri, who is forced to work as a domestic maid when she migrates with her growing daughter Paanchi to Kolkata. Her suffering when she learns of her daughter Paanchi’s suffering has to be seen to be believed. She believed in playing it low-key with restraint adding to the realism of the character.
She was a natural actress without pretensions on screen for the characters she portrayed. “She mostly played the mother or a senior member of either a very poor family or a low middle-class family. But she would never buy saris for her role nor use her own saris that looked fresh or new. She would actually step into the homes of local people when we shot on location which was mostly the case, borrow the saris from the women and wear them. She did not believe in ‘’weathering’ the sari because, the original sari carried the smell of the woman who wore it and whose cinematic reflection she would be representing in the given film,” said actor Koushik Sen who had done the role of her younger son in Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Pratidin when he was just a school boy. “In other words, she believed in ‘living’ the character which the clothes would give her that no new sari or her own saris would be able to give,” he added.
Her roster of films under the directorial baton of Mrinal Sen is not very big. But the characters she portrayed in them are unforgettable and were versatile though they might apparently seem similar. In Akaler Sandhaney (1980), she plays the wife of a bed-ridden, paralysed husband whose speech only she can understand. The once-affluent and aristocratic family has fallen on bad days and, in the film, are trying to cope when a film crew arrives from Calcutta to shoot a film on the Bengal famine of 1943. The husband and wife are the only two people who live in one corner of the now dilapidated mansion. She talks of the bad days that have befallen them to the film actress (Smita Patil) who plays the leading lady in the film-within-the-film in a very no-nonsense manner, and there is no attempt on her part to evoke sympathy. When the actress says she would love to have tea, the lady’s face lights up in a small smile.
In Khandhar (Hindi, 1984), we again see her living in a large mansion now in ruins with her daughter (Shabana Azmi). As the tormented and ill mother, bedridden and practically waiting to die, Gita Sen is very impressive despite lying on bed through the entire film. Her life hangs by the thread that the man who promised marriage to her daughter Jamini, will come back to take her hand in marriage and she can die content. Jamini knows that this man will never come back. So, taking advantage of her growing friendship with Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah), a photographer who has come from the city to photograph the ruins, she persuades him to pretend to be her fiancé. He does and the mother dies, peaceful in her belief that Jamini will be taken care of.
In Ek Din Pratidin, Gita Sen as the mother of Chinu (Mamata Shankar) who does not return home one night, expresses the metamorphosis in the mother after a night’s experience of anxiety, introspection and guilt. This woman who was scared of facing social censure and had disappeared from the courtyard when Chinu returned, emerged a stronger person in the morning. She went about her daily chores as if nothing had happened. The inquisitive neighbours who had raised questions the night before did not dare to ask her about Chinu now. In another scene, she lashes out at her good-for-nothing husband who produced four children but did not have the means to bring them up or look after the family. The film remains Sen’s strongest indictment on the social hypocrisy and double standards of morality by which the Bengali middle-class measure and judge their women.
Chaalchitra (1982) finds her as the mother of an ambitious son (Anjan Dutt) who wants to become a journalist completely oblivious to his mother’s tremendous struggle to keep the kitchen fires burning in extremely impoverished conditions where a smoke-filled air permeates into the kitchen and she is forced to keep the only window shut adding to the suffocation of her condition. In Kharij (1982), she plays a brief cameo as a friendly neighbour in a middle-class home where a small servant boy dies of carbon monoxide poisoning and his employers, a young couple with a small son, finds itself in great trouble.
Sreela Majumdar, who played her daughter in around six films, proudly says that it was Gita Sen who ‘discovered’ her for films and not Mrinal Sen. “She became my second mother as we both grew through the films we worked in as mother and daughter. Sometimes, we were not mother and daughter but she would scold me a lot and correct me when I was wrong. In fact, I would often break into tears and young that I was, the unit members would crowd around me to console me, asking me what happened. But that was a great learning experience and I still think of her as another mother I had and have now lost,” she says.
Many years ago, when I went to interview Mrinal Sen at his Deshapriya Park flat, I had seen Gita-di quietly bringing in cups of tea into the crowded and small living room of their small flat. She always wore a smile on her face. Once, during one of these visits, I had told her that one day, I would like to interview her alone about her work as an actress. Thanks to the charismatic personality and conversational skills of Mrinal-da, the promised interview never took place because one tended to be drawn like a magnet to this charismatic man with a disarming personality. Later, when she disappeared from the world of films, I wanted to ask her whether she had done it of her own volition, or, whether she had done it because her husband had become too busy and famous so she needed to be there for him all the time. She never looked back on her work as an actress but now that she is no more, we will never know whether she was happy doing what she was doing, or whether glimpses of her work in films and theatre brought back memories – some painful and some joyful.