I wanted to kill myself after Ghare Baire.....Swatilekha Sengupta
It has been a difficult few months for Swatilekha Sengupta. First she came out of her shell to return on screen. Then, the popularity that came along with it, has been hard to handle. Now that she has almost conquered her home and the world, she can laugh off the fierce criticism that followed post her screen outing in Satyajit Ray's Ghare Baire. Sitting in the drawing room of her Vivekananda Road residence, she says all of it is now dead and buried. A month after the release of Belaseshe, she speaks to us about Ray, her immense love for husband Rudraprasad Sengupta and why locking lips with Soumitra Chatterjee — 30 years back — was just another job at hand. Excerpts:
In Belaseshe, you've paired up with Soumitra Chatterjee 30 years after Ghare Baire. Going back a little, how did the Ray film happen?
I am from Allahabad, where Ray's Charulata and Mahanagar would run every Sunday at a local theatre for a time. My friends and I were permanent fixtures at these shows. Just before my school final exams, I was so disillusioned with studies that I wrote a letter to Manikda (Satyajit Ray) asking for an opportunity to work with him. I don't know if the postal address was correct or if he ever received that letter. My results came out and to my surprise, they were rather good. I went on to do my graduation and Masters.
I even joined a university as a lecturer and worked there for three months. After that I left everything and came to Kolkata. I was going through a rough patch in my personal life, but I don't want to talk about it now. In the city, I joined Nandikar and got busy with theatre. I had a small role in Shambhu Mitra's Galileo and Manikbabu came to watch one of the shows. After three months, a call came to Nandikar and I was told, `Manikda wants to meet you'. It didn't strike me who this Manikda was. I asked, `Who is this?' and the man on the other side of the receiver said, `Robi Ghosh'. I thought it was a hoax and didn't pay any heed. Then, another theatreperson called me to say the same thing. He got me the address.
The day I went to meet Manikda, there was a complete traffic shutdown because of a meeting. I walked all the way from my house on Vivekananda Road (north Kolkata) to his Bishop Lefroy Road residence. It took me two-and-a-half hours. He had called me at 1.30 pm and I reached by 1 pm and kept waiting for 30 minutes. When I pressed the doorbell and he stepped out, his first reaction was: `How did you come?' I said, `You had called, so...' He told me, `So what? I'm not god that you will come on a day like this'.
I sat in his chamber and he started making a few sketches. He even gave me the script and asked, `Have you read the novel?' I said no and he insisted that I don't. So, I didn't need to feign intellectual superiority ... All he said was that I was there in his film. I remember I was staring at a harpsichord and he asked if I could play it. I said I play the piano and he asked me to try my hand at the one in his room. I played a Beethoven piece and he was mighty impressed.He took out a big fat book on Beethoven and whistled a few of his pieces, an impossible feat... In 1985, a review of The Home and the World (Ghare Baire) in a prestigious New York newspaper read: `The film is acted with immense grace by its three leading actors'. It also mentioned, `Swatilekha Chatterjee is the pretty, surprisingly willful Bimala'.
But back home, wasn't there a lot of criticism after Ghare Baire?
I don't remember everything, but it was a difficult phase. I had heard that some agitated women actors of the time wanted newspapers to carry critical pieces on me. I don't want to raise that issue, as it might create unpleasantness. One critic wrote a line, `She never lived nor looked the role'. It was filled with vendetta. He was the husband of an actress. I sunk into depression and wanted to take my life. I was almost on the brink and didn't want to live in this horrid world. Just then, Manikda started sending me a lot of reviews that had come out abroad. He said, `Don't read the local reviews, read these. You are not a political person, don't get involved in this'. Manikda guarded me all the time. See, I never expected Manikda to take me in his film or say , `For 25 years I have been waiting for someone like you'. No one could wax eloquent about my beauty, but Manikda would say instead, `She is my most intelligent actress'. That was my driving force.
In 1984, the film was competing for the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes. Ray was bedridden, but sent both Soumitra Chatterjee and you to the festival. Are there many memories?
Manikda was unwell and I didn't feel like attending the festival, as he had become a guardian to me. Lying on the hospital bed, he insisted that I go. He said, `Fill in for me.' The first time I saw myself in the film, I flipped. I was uneasy and didn't like myself at all. But those around, came and hugged me. Also, the French are less inhibited about hugs and kisses. After all that, I was relieved. On watching the film for the third time, I realized I wasn't that bad after all.
In some articles, Ray was even accused of substituting the lack of passion between Sandip (Soumitra) and Bimala (Swatilekha) with two kisses that apparently went on to shock the audiences abroad. Do you think the Indian janta wasn't fully prepared to witness a fullblown kiss back then?
Honestly speaking, I didn't think of all these things; it was pure work. My husband, Rudraprasad Sengupta, was extremely supportive of me. He said, `Manikda's film demanded it.' Back then, I was married for just a year. I was shooting for 45 days. Every night I would come home and see that Rudrababu had kept my dinner ready. He used to cook for me. What he said was kind of a verdict for me. I knew Manikda wasn't waiting for so long to film just a kissing scene. He wanted to show fulfilment in a relationship. He didn't even use the scene for posters or ads. So, it was definitely not for titillation.
For so many years, you stayed away from films. Did criticism get the better of you?
I got over the criticism; it didn't affect me so much. What bothered me were the roles that I was offered. One day, someone came to me with the offer to play goddess Lakshmi. But even Lakshmi had shades of Bimala. I didn't want to repeat myself. Also, I had a lot of pride in me. After Manikda, I didn't know who to work with. Already , I had got used to his royal treatment. Later, many, including Soumitrada, understood that I was not here to compete with anyone. Also, I didn't get great offers. Again, one has to say , `Dada, dada' to get a role and I — with my academic background and pride — couldn't bring myself to do it.
So, you finally worked with Onir in Chauranga and then with Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee in Belaseshe. What's your take on new-age directors?
I know nothing about them. Also, coming from Allahabad, I'm more clued into Hindi films than Bengali cinema. In Chauranga, I did a bit role. I was only meant to read Ramcharitmanas, as I'm good in Hindi. I would leave at 4 am for Santiniketan and wait there all day with my makeup on. I did that for days on end. I've heard a lot about Onir, who was helming the production. But he himself was going through a troubled phase because of his run-in with the Federation. See, Manikda would always be ready with his storyboard. Everything was sketched from before, including how a scene would look, to how the costumes would be. I remember even a towel used in Ghare Baire had Bandemataram written on it. I had the impression that Shibu (Shiboprosad) would go haywire. My daughter Sohini (Sengupta) had warned me against losing my cool. But Shibu surprised me. He was thoroughly organized. Though he did not have the sketches ready, he had every thing chalked out in his head. Also, he would scold me lovingly and feign anger. He was my student in Nandikar at some point in time. In the beginning, I was scared. It was an intense role and I didn't know how to go about it. But once they said `Bah', I started ope ningup. Nandita, on the other hand, never left me on the sets. When Shibu and the rest would say, `Excellent shot', she would quietly whisper into my ears, `Try doing it this way'. I was dependent on her.
The film throws up a pertinent question: Does love get reduced to a habit after a point? Being mar ried for so many years, what does your experience say?
With my husband, not one moment can be called a habit. I have tremendous love for Rudrababu. He is totally dependent on me, so am I. I have no one else in this world barring him. Love, or rather the madness it entails, doesn't last forever. But just like Arati, my character, I feel there's love in habit and that habit is also love. I used to feel very possessive about Rudrababu 30 years back. But then I felt, if I do so, I wouldn't be doing justice to him. The way he would call me with a lot of endearment — he wo uld do so to another person. For a young girl, it could be very painful. But he is very endearing as a per son. While I'm shy, he loves to call a spade a spade. I have always given him a lot of space. I've seen his priorities change — at times, it's our daughter, another time, it's a man on the street. If an artiste in Nandikar gets into a problem, he forgets his family or me. His priority becomes that man.
Biswanath tries to make Arati independent in the movie. What about you?
By being dependent, I don't mean Rudrababu has to book the cooking gas or take care of the house. I can do all of that. But when I'm unwell, he has to be around.
Yours is a house full of actors, does acting gets discussed at the breakfast table?
There was a time, when people in hordes would stay over at our place. I have cooked khichudi for dozens during every meeting. But Rudrababu has now drawn a line between his personal and professional life. Earlier, if someone was on the verge of quitting Nandikar, he would break his head over it. Now he knows, thus far and no further.
Sohini, who did a cameo in Belaseshe, is both an actor and a theatre director. Do you complement each other or is there healthy rivalry between you as well?
It's a difficult subject to touch upon. Today , I know she understands theatre more than me. I can act, but Sohini knows all aspects of theatre like the back of her hand. She can also extract the best out of all actors. She can utter one line in 25 different ways. This is a quality even Shibu has. What I've achieved is not my credit alone. Sohini is extremely intense though she gets angry at the drop of a hat. When she is angry, she will not speak to you for 50 days, but on the 51st day, things will be back to square one. Though emotional, she loves everyone a lot. She also loved my acting in the film. She even said, no one could have done it better than me.
What about feedback from Rudraprasad Sengupta?
Oh, he couldn't stop crying. He ev en went to watch the film alone, without telling me, after catching the premiere show. He said, `I'll have to see it alone'. He was all praise for it.
Theatre caters to its own audi ence. But film today has a wider reach. How are you dealing with your newfound stardom?
I'm on seventh heaven. But it's a little embarrassing when elderly people touch my feet. I recently went to Gangtok with my husband and almost everyone in the hotel came out to meet me. But in my neighbourhood, things are different. People are uptight and will not say a word even if they have watched the film. One day, a doctor came to me with a lot of sweets. Both Rudrababu and I don't have sweets, so I distributed them among my para people and asked them to watch the film. Though they had the sweets, no one went for the movie.
Belaseshe Kolahol, which inspired the film, is also directed by Sohini. But right now, you have decided not to play the matriarch in the play for at least some time...
The film has become very popular. Sohini directed the play for Swapnasuchana, where Biswajit Chakraborty essays Biswanath's character. He does a great job, but the script borders on outrageous comedy. I don't like to make people laugh forcibly. I did the play because of Sohini. She said, `Ma you can turn a bad play into good by your acting'. I have even told the director of the group that the play is just not up to the mark and I don't want to be part of it. Sohini has time and again cautioned me, saying their feelings might get hurt, but I said let me give an honest opinion. Now Sohini understands why I am not keen on doing it. Biswajit has also called me. I have said, I'm not going to do Belaseshe Kolahol before December. I don't think I want to do the play ever again.