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‘If you say something, you must speak out the whole truth. Or else, don’t say anything at all’
Tête à tête

Some images defy age spots. One such enduring moment in cinema is that of Charulata, looking at the world outside her window with a pair of opera glasses. Sheathed in light and shadow, the bored young home-maker — Madhabi Mukherjee at her best — smiles as she traces the footsteps of a particularly rotund passerby.

Madhabi Mukherjee is not smiling right now. She is involved in a minor spat with the cleaning lady — though it is the latter, really, who has been holding forth in a shrill soprano. We have reached her middle class home in south Calcutta before time, and the actress is in a nightie. She grabs a housecoat and ushers me into the drawing room once the cleaning lady has departed with her broom and her tirade, and switches off the television.

“Can’t watch all this,” she says. “You know, every animal has its call —or daak, as we say. When these gyrating boys and girls sing on television, I always think, this is the human being’s animal sound.”

So what did one expect? That she’d be in a sari worn with the pallu draped in front, and in a blouse with elbow-length sleeves lined with lace, embroidering ‘Home Sweet Home’ on a framed piece of cloth? That she’d be, ΰ la Greta Garbo, or nearer home, like the elusive Suchitra Sen, isolated from the world outside, cocooned in an unlit home and behind dark glasses?

She is none of that. Madhabi — over whom, legend has it, a top director once left home — is like anybody’s aunt, though the eyebrows are still perfectly arched, and the toenails glossy. Her room is nicely messy, with magazines and books strewn over a divan.

The lounge is the only give-away that we are in the house of an actress who once ruled Bengali cinema. Awards and mementos line cupboard shelves while the walls display Madhabi in different times. One large painting is an artist’s homage to Charulata — it depicts her in a scene from Satyajit Ray’s award-winning film.

Forty-five years ago Madhabi first appeared in Ray’s Mahanagar. A year later, in 1964, she acted in and as Charulata. For decades, there was speculation about her relationship with Ray, something that Madhabi, now a grandmother, no longer wishes to talk about.

“But let me say one thing. I acted with Satyajit-babu in three films, and Soumitra (Chatterjee) acted in 14 films directed by him. I am surprised that nobody ever said anything about that,” she says.

Ray’s widow Bijoya Ray’s book on her life with the director, released in Calcutta on April 28, mentions without taking names a relationship that Ray had with one of his actresses, and the subsequent trauma that Bijoya went through. Bijoya Ray writes in Amader Katha, earlier serialised in Desh, that she felt let down because she thought the star was not up to the director’s standards.

Madhabi says she hasn’t read the book. “What does it say,” she asks, sounding both indifferent and curious. And then, after a pause, she says, “I have always believed that if you say something, you must speak out the whole truth. Or else, don’t say anything at all.”

At 66, Madhabi has oodles of charm, and a funny streak that pops up like a jack in the box. She lugs a packet of Pan Parag — a chewy tobacco — with her and eats some every now and then. “My doctor keeps scolding me. But I tell him that I can list a number of people who didn’t drink or smoke but died of cancer.”

Madhabi, unlike Sen who has been a recluse for the last many years, has been up and about. In 2001, she came out on the streets after the Trinamul Congress pitted her against chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya for the Jadavpur assembly constituency.

Her political journey actually started with a fire at the Star Theatre in Calcutta in the 1990s. Madhabi, a former stage actress, led a campaign to rehabilitate those affected by the fire. She asked Marxist leaders Jyoti Basu and Bhattacharya for help — but it was Calcutta mayor Subrata Mukherjee who finally came to the aid of the artistes. “I had then told Subrata Mukherjee that I would do anything in return.”

Mukherjee demanded his pound of flesh three months before the West Bengal election when he asked her to contest against the chief minister. “I counted till three under my breath — and said, Yes!”

She lost the election by 30,000-odd votes but Madhabi has no regrets about not making her mark in politics. “It is not a world that I would like to be in. As an artiste, I want to be in a beautiful world, not in an ugly one.”

The actress does have a mild regret, though — and that’s for failing to note recent changes in Hindi cinema. In the late sixties, Raj Kapoor wanted her to act in Mera Naam Joker. He waited for six months for her to say yes and then finally approached Simi. Then, some years ago, Pradeep Sarkar offered her a role in Parineeta. Madhabi turned it down, saying that she didn’t act in Hindi films.

“In our days, we were rather uppity about Bengali cinema, which was so much more superior to Hindi films. But there has been a change, and one failed to grasp that Bengali cinema had long been overtaken by Hindi films.”

When she joined the industry, Madhabi was about eight. Her parents separated as her family moved to Calcutta from Bangladesh. Madhabi — then known as Madhuri — lived with her mother. “Our financial situation was such that I had to work. So I started acting in plays,” she says. Her first roles in cinema were in Dui Beyaai and Kankantala Light Railway in 1950. She was given the name Madhabi when she was introduced as a lead actress in Mrinal Sen’s Baishey Shravan (1960).

Then one day Ray sent her a message saying he wanted to meet her. Madhabi wasn’t sure if he was serious about giving her a role. She went to meet him reluctantly — and only after the crew offered her the taxi fare. “We talked for a while, and then he said, okay we’ll get back to you. To me, it sounded suspiciously like what you’d expect the father of a groom to say to the girl’s family if he wasn’t keen on the match.”

But Ray did get in touch — and sent Madhabi a script of Mahanagar. Later, of course, there was Charulata, and then Kapurush in 1965. Ray never worked with her after that.

Madhabi also worked with the other Bengali giant — Ritwik Ghatak — in the 1962 film Subarnarekha. Ghatak went back to her with another script, but — or so goes the story among cinema buffs — Madhabi advised him to cut down on his drinking. A furious Ghatak stormed out of the house, apparently kicking her pet Pomeranian on the way.

“They — Ray and Ghatak — were both immensely talented. But Ghatak lacked temperance, which was really unfortunate,” she rues.

In a self-deprecating manner, Madhabi talks about being both busy and lonely. “This is the problem of a mother whose children have grown up,” says the actress, who lives in a flat by herself but regularly visits her husband, former actor Nirmal Kumar, who resides elsewhere in the city. She talks about her two daughters and their concern about her rising sugar levels. “I know walking is the best exercise for me, but I am such an ‘eminent’ person,” she says, indicating the quote marks, “that whenever I go for a walk people stop me and say, Please come in and sit!”

But she keeps herself busy, she says. She is on the board of Prasar Bharati, and is planning to direct a film. And then there is a long-forgotten autobiography that she may well take up again.

So what will it be? A story that tells all, or nothing at all? Or were those famous last words?

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