In first person: Sabitri Chatterjee

Nostalgic about a bygone era

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Sabitri Chatterjee.

In "Swasur Barhi". Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

In "Lakh Jaka". Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

In "Abak Prithibi".

In "Nishi Padma".

100 years of Indian Cinema

I GOT into the entertainment business when I was a small child. After Partition, my parents and I moved to Kolkata, and here we lived in dire poverty, having left all our possessions behind in East Bengal. It was through Bhanu Banerjee (Samyamay Banerjee, the legendary Bengali comedian) that I was offered my first role in a play. They required a girl who could speak in the Bangal dialect (spoken in East Bengal). But the people of the theatre did not think I was suitable for the role, being too young and too skinny. Some time later, the same people approached us again and I got the part. The play did very well and ran for several hundred shows. We even went to Delhi and other parts of the country with it. It was a story about refugees. With the play becoming a hit, I started getting offers for small roles in films.

Around that time Sudhir Mukherjee, the director of the film Pasher Bari (The House Next Door), was looking for a heroine. Once again Bhanuda took me there. I went through a lot of tests by them, but again I was thought to be too young and too skinny to play opposite the hero.

But they could not find a heroine to their liking, and after quite some time they decided to give me another try—see how I performed. My performance on the very first day’s shooting impressed them, and they took me in the movie. When the film was finally released, after some hitches on the way, it was a super-duper hit. Then there was no looking back, as hits followed one after another.

But I came into films out of poverty. This whole terrain was absolutely new to us, and it was a big struggle; and it still is a struggle for me. I never learnt any acting; it came very naturally to me. I would learn from the directors. In those days the directors and the actors were so great, and it was such a pleasure working them that it is hard to express my feelings in words. Let me just say that the difference between the scene that was prevalent in those days and the one prevalent today is the difference between heaven and hell.

The manner of making films has changed so completely. In yesteryear there were no fancy cameras, but the directors were so good that they could produce gems with those broken cameras. Those were great directors, Debaki Kumar Bose, Sushil Majumdar and others. Of course, there have been great directors later as well, like Satyajit Babu [Satyajit Ray], Mrinal Sen, Goutam Ghose, but they are a different kind of film-makers.

Now the stories lack power…

In the earlier days, the stories of the films were also so beautiful. Nowadays, the stories lack that kind of power. I don’t really watch contemporary Bengali films, but maybe that is what is wanted in this day and age. What I want to say is that in those days, there were such great artistes and the atmosphere in the studios was so wonderful—vibrating with life and energy. I used to feel bad leaving the studios after a day’s work. These days it’s just the opposite for me, now I cannot wait to go home. There is no proper discipline these days, the schedules go awry, and it makes working very difficult, particularly for us, who are old and have been used to working in a disciplined, professional way.

There is a marked difference in the attitudes of the actors of my generation and the present-day stars. I still feel that I have a lot to learn, whereas many of the stars today behave as though they know everything already. We have to make these adjustments with them. Naturally, there is not much warmth and understanding in our relationship.

The reason why it appears that there were much bigger stars in my days than today is perhaps that at that time they were not so exposed to the public as the present-day stars are. There were not that many television sets and hardly any live public performances. So you will not get the kind of craze for any actor like there was for Uttam Kumar.

I am not putting down any of the present-day actors and stars—after all, they are accepted by the public. But to me, the tunes of Hemantababu [Hemanta Mukherjee, the legendary singer and music director] are far more appealing than the bands of today. But this is what the public wants, I may not like it, but that does not make it bad. I suppose the taste of the public has changed.

But in the age that I belonged to, the music, the stories, had power, the directors had vision, the actors were extraordinary. Where are those great actors now? Chhabi Biswas, Bhanu Banerjee, Jahar Ray, the great stage actress Prabha Devi, Pahari Sanyal—can there ever be actors like them again? Among the great actresses that I have seen there was Sandhya Rani, Chhaya Devi. They were also such wonderful human beings. Nowadays, things work in a clique, there is groupism, it is all so strange that I cannot even try to explain it you.

In spite of all this, I still love acting. It is inconceivable for me to sit at home and not act. Even now I feel delighted when I get a good role; I spend time over it, think about it and work on it. And because I love my craft, I adjust with the times. I have a position and standing in the industry, and I will maintain that. The reason why I am still loved is that I behave in the same manner with everyone—be it a child or an old person.

As told to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay