A sultry June afternoon in the mid-80s: a young woman storms into a small room atop Maniktala market and persuades Montu Gupta, an accomplished actor-director of Bengali theatre, to join her Rajdhani Jatra Unit in Chitpore for a play.
He was hesitant but agreed. And thus began a long association with Susmita Banerjee, until it was cut short by Taliban bullets.
Theatre doesn’t excite the septuagenarian Gupta anymore and he frowns at everything unless it’s about “that strong-willed woman” who never “left me or my wife since our first interaction”. Gupta spoke to Metro on Friday about his long association with the Kabuliwala’s wife…
Susmita had just set up a repertoire and her first jatra, Pratighat (based on a 1987 Hindi film of the same name), was a hit. It was sometime in the 80s when she came to me for her second play Arabya Rojoni (Arabian Nights). I hesitated initially but she was persistent. “Aami kono katha shunbo na (I wont listen to any of your excuses), Montuda,” she said and sort of forced me on board.
Till January this year when she last came to meet me before heading for Afghanistan, Susmita was much the same. She would not listen to anyone on anything she had set her eyes on: jatras, kabuliwalas, books or trips to Afghanistan.
Susmita had that strange habit of turning up one day and disappearing for months. Years after we did the last play together — Priyadarshini on Indira Gandhi with Susmita in the lead — she turned up one morning. “Dada, I have decided to get married… to a Kabuliwala. He is a nice man.”
I didn’t know how to react and asked her if she was sure. Susmita didn’t answer and left after asking me to meet her near Sabir hotel in central Calcutta next afternoon.
Jaanbaaz Khan was a decent young man. He was an obedient husband, too. In their rented house in Jadavpur, Susmita would call the shots.
He had just one complaint: Susmita’s high-decibel voice. Whenever they came to Maniktala, Jaanbaaz would constantly remind his wife to lower her pitch and we would laugh our heads off.
Susmita was unconventional to the core: a soft heart, a resolute mind. She changed houses very often after her marriage but ensured that her parents were with her everywhere she went.
On a January afternoon, she turned up at my house and told me to accompany her. Where? She said: “You have to go with me to my new flat in Dum Dum before I fly off to Afghanistan.”
I asked her why? She smiled: Achha jabo na.”