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Arclights out, actresses fight poverty

- Shunned for their profession then, forgotten by fans now

Bhubaneswar, Nov. 25: The arclights have long shunned them and it has been years since they last heard “lights, camera, action”.

Long past their prime, Bhanumati Devi and Manimala Devi — two noted actresses of Odia film industry — are battling sickness and acute financial crisis. Both belonged to the first generation of film artistes and were revered for their histrionics. Now, the audience as well as their successive generations of the film fraternity have forgotten them.

While they were initially shunned by the society for having chosen acting as a career just like the handful of other women who dared to follow their dreams in the olden epoch, society has changed much today, feel film personalities, especially younger actresses. Today, the fact that girls are being encouraged and sometimes forced to get into the glamour industry illustrates a sea change in Odia society.

Bhanumati Devi entered the world of acting at the age of seven when she started performing at the Annapurna Theatre in Puri. She started her film career at the age of 19 in 1953 with Aama Gaan Jhua, which won a lot of acclaim. With 12 films, all of which were hits, and many celebrated Odia plays, the actress had carved a niche for herself. However, today she is ailing with chronic diseases and is bedridden. Her daughter takes care of her in Puri.

Reminiscing her struggles, the actor says: “I wish I was not born in Odisha where artistes are most neglected. My family had shifted from Burma to Aska in Ganjam during the Second World War. Though my parents encouraged me to act on stage and then in films, the villagers shunned me and I had to move to Cuttack since acting was considered a disgraceful profession.”

Her daughter Swarnalata said the pensions from central and state governments do not come on time and the meagre amount does not suffice for her expensive treatment.

“My mother was always respected in the film circles. But she had to struggle before and after marriage to continue working in films, which was her passion. She lost well-wishers among relatives and neighbourhood who would criticise her for choosing this profession. Today, she is alone in her old age and has nobody to turn to, except me. All this, just because she had chosen films as a profession,” she said.

The 87-year old Manimala Devi, who has been lying paralysed since 1989, is also in a critical condition. Her son, Shankar Ghose, a tabla player, takes care of her.

“My mother was an orphan. Noted actresses of her time such as Radharani Devi had encouraged her to act in Annapurna Theatre in Puri and Cuttack. But no one in her neighbourhood ever showed respect towards her. Rather, she was always looked down upon. Also, she never used to demand any honorarium for any film she acted in. Today, actresses decline offers to act in films if they are not paid the amount they seek. But, she used to remain happy for whatever she was offered,” he said.

The narrow-mindedness of olden days that has disappeared today comes out in the anecdote narrated by celebrated veteran actor Sarat Pujari. “In one of my films released in the 1960’s, my heroine had made the director oblige to a condition before the shoot started. She said she would act in the film only when I maintained a distance of more than three feet in our scenes. But during one scene, we had to come close and she was livid fearing her husband would be upset,” said the veteran.

Many also believe there was much truth in the rumour that the 1962 film Dasyu Ratnakara, since the crew could not convince any actress to play the female lead because of social barriers, they had to hire a social outcast for the role.

Film researcher Surya Deo felt things started changing only in the late seventies and eighties. “A lot of changes were visible when women started gaining attention for their performances. Even in earlier days, actresses such as Jharana Das and Parbati Ghosh had done films wherein women were the protagonists. But with Parbati Ghosh taking up direction, it did give a fillip to female artistes in the fraternity. Moreover, things have changed over the years in terms of remuneration too. From being paid nothing or just peanuts, female artistes now command a good fee for their craft,” he said.

Indeed, well-known actresses such as Mahasweta Ray and Aparajita Mohanty started ruling the audience with many women-oriented films. However, with more commercial films coming into the realm of Odia film industry, skin show in item numbers started as did the gossips about casting couch.

Yet, noted actresses deny such experiences.

“Casting couch probably exists. But for those who are crazy to become stars overnight. For me, it was a very homely and family atmosphere on the sets always,” said Aparajita Mohanty.

In today’s times, it is family members who seem to opt filmdom as the career for their girls. While the young and successful Archita Sahoo is seen accompanied with her mother always on and off sets, popular actress Anu Choudhury gives her family the credit for her entry into films.

“I love films. It was my dream to pursue acting and my family gladly supported me,” said Anu. “Today, people are more conscious and aware about the artistic skills and intellect needed for films,” she said.

Talking about the comparison of remuneration and financial security for a female artiste in the past and now, Anu said: “To ensure professionalism, the practice of discussing the remuneration with the film makers is in the best interest of all artistes. And even after earning a lot one may die a bankrupt. It all depends on one’s planning for future and lifestyle.”

Aparajita said: “The entertainment industry is volatile. So, we must be prepared for the future. The state government must take care of the veteran stars, but, at the same time, we should also be responsible for own financial security.”