Tulsi Chakraborty is undoubtedly one of the finest comic and character actors to have graced the Bengali screen. In a galaxy that includes comic thespians like Bhanu Bandopadhaya, Jahar Roy, Santosh Dutta and Rabi Ghosh, Tulsi Chakraborty’s contribution is still remembered with much fondness and respect, in particular, his performance in Parash Pathar (1957) immortalizing him..
Chakraborty was born on 3rd March, 1899 in the small village called Goari. His father, Ashutosh Chakraborty, was an employee of the Indian Railways and the family had to move around various places in undivided Bengal. So, young Tulsi had to spend a lot of time in Calcutta staying with his paternal uncle Prasad Chakraborty. Prasadbabu was a talented tabla and harmonium player who was an employee of the renowned Star Theatre the legendary Bengali commercial theatre stage and production company. It was through his uncle’s contacts that Tulsi was able to watch the finest actors of the generation at work and this fostered his own ambitions to become a singer-actor.
In 1916, impressed with the teenager’s dedication and sincerity, Aparesh Chandra Mukhopadhaya the actor-director who was also the boss of Star Theatre took him under his wings as a trainee artiste. Under Aparesh Chandra’s guidance and patronage Tulsi honed his acting skills. He also became an excellent singer of the tappa genre and also learnt to play musical instruments like the tabla and the pakhwaj. In 1920, Tulsi Chakraborty made his stage debut for Star Theatre in Durgeshnandini, a melodrama based on Bankim Chandra Chattopadhaya’s best-selling novel. He continued working in Star Theatre productions until 1927 when he joined Manmohan Theatres. Tulsi Chakraborty was regular on the Bengali theatre circuit until 1950 when health problems forced him to restrict his stage appearances. His last play Shreyashi (1960) was again a Star Theatre production and here too Tulsi acted with aplomb. Tulsi Chakraborty had major roles in about 42 stage productions and worked for well known theatre companies such as Rangmahal, Sriranagam and Minerva Theatres (from 1944-1951).
Tulsi Chakraborty’s first screen appearance was in the film Punarjanmo (1932). The film was produced by The New Theatres and was directed by Premankur Atharthi, one of the more successful directors of the early sound era of Bengali cinema. A few small roles followed, Sri Gouranga (1933) and Dakshayagna (1934). It was with the film Sachidulal (1934), another New Theatres production, that Tulsi Chakraborty made his mark as an actor. His next major film Manmoyi Girls School (1935) was an adaptation of a popular farcical play. The film was directed by Jyotish Bannerjee and produced by Radha Films. In this film, Tulsi played the role of Damodar (husband of the protagonist Manmayi played by Kanan Devi) and established his credentials as a comedienne par excellence.
Following the commercial success of Manmoyi Girls School, Tulsi became one of the major character and comic actors of the Bengali cinema. His acting made him a favourite of both the common cine-goers and established directors such as Tulsi Lahiri and Jyotish Bannerjee. Following the hiatus in the Bengali film industry due to the Second World War, Tulsi resumed his screen acting career with Naranarayan and Samapika, both of which were released in 1948. In the same year, he played the role of refugee from East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) in a film named Sankha Sindoor – one of the earliest films about the partition of Bengal. The film created quite a stir among the audience of the time. Sankha Sindoor was directed by Manujendra Bhanja and the screenplay was written by Dr Pratap Chandra Chunder, who later became the Union Minister for Education in the Janata Dal government (1977). In 1949, Tulsi played the lead role in the Debaki Bose film, Kabi – this musical exploited his singing talents to the hilt and the songs of the film became extremely popular. Alas, given the precarious nature of film archiving in Calcutta, these songs are now lost forever. Tulsi Chakraborty was also a fluent Hindi and Urdu speaker and so he acted in more than 20 Hindi films produced in Calcutta during the late 1930s and early 1940’s. Among these was Jantrik – an adaptation of Tarashankar Bandopadhaya’s famous novel, Pather Daak.
Tulsi appeared in the small role of Prassana-Gurumoshai, Apu’s teacher in the village school, in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). The highlight of his career was undoubtedly Satyajit Ray’s Paras Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone). This 1957 film, which Ray described to the great film critic Marie Seton as a sort of combination of comedy, fantasy, satire, farce and a touch of Pathos, showcases Tulsi’s histrionic abilities to the maximum. He plays the role of the protagonist Paresh Dutta, a petty bank clerk who accidentally finds the mythical Philosopher’s Stone (the stone that transforms iron into pure gold) and then goes through a roller-coaster ride of fame, fortune and the inevitable downfall. The bald and dhoti-clad Tulsi’s subtle facial expressions as he contemplates touching the Howrah Bridge with his Stone and finally decides against it elevates the scene to one of the greatest in the history of Bengali comedy. So too is the party scene, where a totally drunk Paresh boasts about the Stone’s magical properties and causes immense discomfort and jealousy in the heart’s of the assembled glitterati of the city. The final breakdown and confessional scene at the police station is also recognised as one of Tulsi Chakraborty’s most memorable performances.
Tulsi Chakraborty was a bohemian character who never cared much for fame and fortune. Although he had acted in over 316 Bengali films, he never hankered after money. He acted in many films for free or just a token remuneration. Old-timers of the Bengali film industry recall that he was paid a mere Rs 1500 for his efforts in Paras Pathar. He lived in a small house in Howrah. In a fit of generosity, he donated his house to his regular priest. A massive cardiac arrest caused his untimely death on 11th December, 1961 leaving his wife Usharani almost in state of penury. His last film Ami Ratan, directed by Ajit Bannerjee, was shot in 1961 but was released after a long gap in 1978.