Rabi Ghosh was one of the most versatile and talented actors in Bengali cinema who, because of his petite frame, amusing appearance and funny voice, tended to get stereotyped within the confines of comedy. Still, in his long innings of nearly four decades, he acted under every known director in Bengali cinema and in diverse roles some of which remain carved in the memory of those who saw them.
Ghosh, born in Kolkata on November 24, 1931, dropped the Dastidar from his two-pronged family name and retained the Ghosh. He got involved in theatre seriously when he was employed in Bankshal Court. He joined Utpal Dutt’s Little Theatre Group and became an ardent student of this great theatre personality. Director Aurobindo Mukherjee, noted for some of the most wonderful mainstream films during the Black-and-White era, noticed his performance in the play Angar and picked him for his under-production film, Ahoban (1959). In 1960, Ghosh was bestowed the Ultorath Award for his outstanding performance in Angar. Utpal Dutt’s classic play ran for almost 300 nights, which was history in those days. The same year, Aurobindo Mukherjee produced Kichhukkhan, a beautiful film about a train getting stalled midway on a journey and how the people cope with the changed situation for a few hours. Ghosh did a cameo in the film and essayed it in his original and distinctive style. He later formed his own theatre group under the banner Chalachal. Interestiingly, one of his closest friends during his theatre days was still photographer, Nemai Ghosh. In fact, Nemai Ghosh is very grateful to this lifelong friend for having introduced him to Satyajit Ray that changed the history of the photographer’s life.
Ghosh was part of the huge cast of Tapan Sinha’s celluloid interpretation of Hansuli Baanker Upakatha (1962) and had done an interesting cameo in Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan the same year He portrayed Rama, the hero Narsingh’s right-hand man and his performance got high praise from the critics and the audience alike. Abhijan was also one of Ray’s biggest box office successes till then. But the turning point film for Ghosh was Tapan Sinha’s wonderful fantasy-satire Galpa Holeo Satyi (1966), in which, for the first time in his illustrious career, he portrayed the protagonist. The film was a box office hit and Hrishikesh Mukherjee later made Bawarchi (1972), a Hindi version with Rajesh Khanna stepping into the shoes of Rabi Ghosh. Ghosh plays a manservant cum cook who shows up one day at a very dysfunctional family who is suffering a crisis – lack of domestic help and consequently chaos reigns in the household. They hire him. He immediately takes over and takes complete control of the running of day to day affairs. He handles everything so masterfully, adding to his performance the wit, intelligence and entertainment it demands.
Ghosh’s biggest career landmark was undoubtedly as Bagha, the drummer-companion of the magic singer Goopy in Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). After that, there was no turning back. He played the same role in the sequel Heerak Rajar Deshe, released 11 years after the first one and Goopy Bagha Phire Elo 22 years later. By then, both the actors, namely Tapan Chatterjee, who played Goopy, and Rabi Ghosh were middle-aged men. The last film was directed by Ray’s son, Sandip, and all the three films were big box office hits. Ghosh played the role of a drummer who is thrown out of his village, Hortuki, because he made local people crazy with his very bad drum playing. His blithe comments dotting Goopy’s songs after the ghost king had blessed them with three boons are etched in one’s memory.
The art of Ghosh’s comedy lay in his freshness of approach, his manner of delivering his lines in a naive manner, his lively expression and his innocence. He was always in control of his character and never made a mockery of himself on screen. Though in those days, theatre personalities who stepped into films were criticized for carrying some of their theatrical mannerisms into the film roles, Ghosh could never be accused of doing this. His performances were funny and what’s more, they were natural. This does not mean however, that Ghosh did not do serious roles. His role in Abhijan had a serious undertone. In Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri (1969), he played one of the four friends Shekhar, who decide to take a holiday from Kolkata to travel into the forests of Palamau. Though Shekhar is considered to be the jester of the party, there is a serious undercurrent. He is the only one among the four who does not have a job and he realises the difference between the others and himself. He has a roving eye but stays sober when his friends get drunk and vent their frustrations. For Raja Mitra’s Nayantara, Ghosh won the Special Jury Anandalok Award playing a theatre middleman who tries to get work for the out-of-job, impoverished theatre actress. It was a serious role with no comic element in it whatsoever.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee took Ghosh in two Hindi films, Satyakam (1969) and Sabse Bada Sukh (1972), but the films did not do well and Ghosh did not go to Mumbai again. He could handle any kind of role. Over his long career, he worked under the direction of Goutam Ghose (Antarjali Jatra (1989) and Padma Nadir Majhi (1993)) and also acted in Tarun Majumdar’s Balika Bodhu (1967), Baghini (1968), Thagini (1974), Ganadevata (1978) and Shahar Theke Doorey (1981), Bijoy Bose’s Arogya Niketan, Ajoy Kar’s Prabhater Rang (1964), Utpal Dutt’s Megh (1961) and Jhor (1979), Dinen Gupta’s Pranta Rekha, Kalankini and Aajker Nayak, Sushil Majumdar’s Lal Pathor (1964), Chitta Bose’s Griha Sandhaane, Mrinal Sen’s Chorus (1975), Partha Pratim Choudhury’s Raj Bodhu, Hansa Mithun, Jodu Banghsa and Shubha O Debotar Grash, Tapan Sinha’s Hansuli Baanker Upakatha, Nirjan Saikatey (1963), Arohi (1965), Galpa Holeo Satyi, Apanjan (1968), Sabuj Dwiper Raja (1979) and Bancharamer Bagan (1980), Salil Dutta’s Amar Saathi, and many, many others. He was also called upon to play the villain and other negative roles and coped with them with the fluidity a gifted actor like him would.
Ghosh also traveled extensively abroad for his performances in Berlin (1969), Mauritius (1988), USA and Europe in (1995). In 1970, he participated in the Berlin Film Festival representing Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne. He also directed Sadhu Judhishthirer Karcha and Nidhiram Sardar. Ghosh was married twice. His first marriage was to actress Anubha Gupta who was much older than him and had been married once. After her demise, he married Bisakha Devi. He passed away of a massive heart attack while he was shooting on February 4, 1997.