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Making a new life on stage

Dolly Basu cannot sit in peace in the verandah of her CF Block house any more. There would be stares of recognition or a question or two coming her way from excited passers by. To them, she is Apala Roy, the iron rod-wielding mother-in-law in Rashi, the popular Bengali soap. This onslaught of public recognition leaves the veteran theatre personality somewhat bewildered. “A friend of mine says: ‘You have gone from the classes to the masses’,” she smiles ruefully. But she also is alive to the affection that comes with the loss of privacy. “At the Dubai airport, a group of Bengali boys recognised me and would not let me carry my own luggage!”

Rashi completed two years in March and is still going strong. This is Basu’s second mega serial after Hero, where she had played an Anglo-Indian woman. But she is such a success as an upper class Bengali lady in Rashi, that viewers would be hard put to believe that Bengali is not her mother tongue.

“I was born Dolly Wahi and brought up in Ballygunge. I am a Dover Lane girl,” she trills with schoolgirl effervescence at the memory of walking to Ballygunge Shiksha Sadan. Even her college was in the neighbourhood. “In those days, Rani Birla Girls’ College was housed on the fourth floor of the Modern High School building. We were the last batch before they shifted base.”

Thanks to her father’s encouragement, young Dolly was into music, dance and painting. She joined Anamika Kala Sangam too as a child artiste. But when he expired, the 15-year-old’s dreams of studying in Mumbai’s JJ School of Art were crushed. Her conservative brother would not let her join even the Government School of Art & Craft. “I quit painting I was so upset,” she recalls.

Another jolt came post-marriage when the 21-year-old was told in no uncertain terms not to pursue a career. She had married into the first family of Bengal, her father-in-law being the chief minister of the state. Though her in-laws are no more and her ties with the Basu family severed, she would not name who it was that issued the diktat.

“My first two daughters were born soon and I got busy raising them. But coming back to theatre must have been destiny,” she reflects. “Once an artiste in Sohagdi (Sen)’s group left after a tiff before a show and she asked if I could pitch in. One evening on stage and I realised this is where I belonged.”

Over the next five-six years, she renewed ties with Swaran Choudhury, who directed the creative wing of Anamika Kala Sangam, and also started working with Usha Ganguly. All this while, she was doing either Hindi plays or getting her lines written in Hindi script if she had to mouth dialogues in Bengali. “I was playing cosmopolitan characters and could slip into English on and off.”

But when she accepted the role of a middle-class woman in the play Akorik around 1996-97, she started taking Bengali lessons. She later even spoke dialect as a zamindar’s wife in a Bengali film called Ullas, based on a Mahasveta Devi work.

While working for Rituparno Ghosh’s Dahan, she and her mentor Asit Mukhopadhyay firmed up plans to set up the theatre group Choopkatha, which is now housed in the ground floor of her house.

It is 25 years now that Basu has shifted to Salt Lake. “Payel was 10, Koyel 8 and Doel barely one then. Sohagdi was worried if I could commute to Tivoli Court for rehearsals. But it took me barely 20 minutes. There were less cars then and after 9pm, the Bypass would be deserted.” Even today, her friends living in ‘the city proper’ consider the township out of bounds. “As if it’s a different island,” she exclaims, rolling her eyes.

CF Block got to reap the benefits of a resident theatre veteran when she staged Dui Taranga once during Puja. “I always go over to the mandap for anjali on Ashtami and on Dashami.”

Today all her daughters are away. Payel and Koyel are married and settled in London and Delhi respectively. Doel, who as a teenager shone as the deaf-mute Hellen Keller in the Choopkatha production Janmadin, is working as a solicitor in London.

“My eldest is a go-getter. I don’t know how she balances being a mother of two, cooking at home, writing her blog and directing a PR firm. They don’t have domestic help there like we do,” wonders the proud mother. She remembers her being a finicky eater who picked up the ladle only when she started missing home food once she went to England for higher studies.

When Payel, aka Mallika, published a cookbook in 2010, many back home credited her genes. Her mother is a wonderful cook, whose Continental delicacies were a favourite with her father-in-law Jyoti Basu till his last days.

Does she mind that the state government has refused to build a memorial for the state’s longest serving chief minister at his official residence Indira Bhavan? “When his own family did not care to preserve his ancestral house where he spent so many years why expect others to do so? Had I remained a part of that family I would never have agreed to demolish the Hindusthan Park house,” she replies.

Today, television keeps her busy for 19-20 days a month. “Working for TV is more stressful than on stage where you have enough time to rehearse. And since in Calcutta we work with only one camera, one has to act the same scene over and over every time they want to capture a different angle.”

What is closest to her heart now is her work with children. “Thrice a week, Choopkatha trains children in an integrated set-up. It is so satisfying to see the shiest of kids deliver his four lines on stage,” she muses.