Beyond time: With legendary actor Chhabi Biswas
The characters that Chhabi Biswas played seem to be possessed by him.
After months of awful, humid heat distressing the coasts of Arabian Sea, it was a pleasure waking up to the trance once again on that beautiful Mumbai morning. The breeze, the music, the smell, the rhythm! Monsoons have finally arrived. Unrelenting downpours, vigorous and unapologetic, unwilling to stop even for a minute! The darkness that lasts even after night is left behind. Half the world still asleep. Banging windows demand attention. Some isolated clothes hang from the balcony; they were meant to be dried. And there I sat back lazy, staring outside from my window, unwilling to pull them off. Let the fury take over and spoil whatever it can; I'll start afresh with the leftovers. I was humming something…a tune from my childhood that stayed since I heard it for the first time. The Lepcha song that played with the titles in Satyajit Ray’s 1962 film, ‘Kanchenjungha’, embellished with soft accompanying music and a little thin-eyed boy on screen who was lipping the words. There is an unexplained bonhomie about the tune, celebrating beauty with a soulful non-aggression, positioned consciously against the powerful patriarchal Chhabi Biswas in the film, exploring the character of industrialist, Indranath Roy, through his non-negotiable brand of dominance and authority!
As the rains drenched more than the earth, and the droning sound orchestrated its own beats within my brain, I was transported into those days when television had only one channel and we, as kids, didn’t have the choice to dump a masterpiece for things that required less intellectual investment! My childhood hence was shaped with the participation of some soulful cinema, which explained themselves differently when watched at various stages of growth. So this morning when I went back to the ‘Kanchenjungha’ of 1962, watching on as the Lepcha song stopped after the titles, I was possessed with a desire to understand more of this artist called Chhabi Biswas and explore the source of his power-packed creative energy.
Chhabi Biswas started in the 1930’s but during his peak, the Bengali cultural space in popular media was frequented by stalwarts like Bikash Roy, Pahari Sanyal, Santosh Dutta, Utpal Dutt, Chhaya Devi, to name a few. None of these artists were regular as protagonists, and were visible more in character roles, and yet, each had a unique language to represent their art. That was the richest period of Bengali cinema!
Chhabi Biswas, though a little typecast in his portrayals of a strict patriarch practicing dictatorship, however, didn’t ever feel like a repetition because such characters were present very much within the courtyards and corridors of almost every Bengali household. If they were not our fathers, then certainly he existed within the sovereign of our grandfathers! These dominating elderly men housed within them myriad experiences, adventures and emotions, which becomes tough on the tenderness with which a human being would probably have carried himself otherwise. It was this toughness that created a rock-solid psychological upper layer that refused to crack up easily to affection or could not handle disobedience with grace. My grandfathers, like many others, had left their homes, belongings, investments, prosperity and savings to migrate to West Bengal post partition and resettle there. Of course this resettlement was never the same as it was in Bangladesh, or East Bengal then; but their relentless pursuits to trade in peace and security did bring their wives and children some plots of land in Kolkata where they eventually built their establishments and rehabilitated. But having been through so much, breaking down not being a remote option as a huge family of dependents were looking up at them expecting sustenance, these men had probably changed overnight. Even those who were very much a part of West Bengal had to face the heat of partition as they parted from or lost their relatives, or shared their resources to accommodate new members and had a huge intellectual reshuffling to go through! Most of these men would roam around in dhoti-kurta, reminiscing the days and people and property that is gone. Some, who would still nurture a soft corner for the British sophistication, and were rich, preserving their wealth with methods best known to them, would be visible in well-crafted suits. This entire genre of men was represented by Chhabi Biswas in most of the films he graced, and he was numero uno in his craft, actor Kamal Mitra being a distant second!
These were proud people. Our ancestors! Proud of their achievements, if not success. Proud to have sustained, if not lavishly prospered. Having lived a difficult life, they had started believing in luck, were God fearing, and softly or distinctly superstitious. Their confidence had considerably taken a toll but they were too much of a “man” to acknowledge their incapacities. We saw glimpses of these in films like Debi or Devi (1960) where the father-in-law starts worshipping his daughter-in-law publicly, going against his “modern”, practical sons, after he dreamt that the newly wed woman in his house is goddess Kali in her human form! More than the illogical superstitions of Kalikinkar Chaudhury, that takes the audience through a soul-baring tragic journey, what shown strongly were the monarch’s insecurities that outcast all wisdom that education or experience should have supposedly brought!
In the houses of my maternal and paternal relatives, I have seen the lavish kitchen-craft being shared even with those who were not a part of the immediate household! Resources were less, yet festivals and Satyanarayan pujas were decked up with gifts and offerings. Rich Bengali dishes soaked in spices and mustard oil came out of my grandmother’s kitchen from either sides. Houses might be small, but hearts of the immigrants did not reduce a bit to fit into it. They maintained their ancestral rituals of sharing, caring, distributing. No one who visited the house left unfed. Anything special cooked on a particular day went out in small bowls to the neighbours, however little be the quantity.
‘Jalsaghar’ (1958) was perhaps a throwback to this class, of course a more grilling concept, mourning the end of Zamindar era where landlord Biswambhar Roy is self-driven to live up to his family prestige and show-off the inherited riches, trying his best to hide from the world the meagre status of his wealth and too powerless to work or earn for bringing back the lost glory. ‘Kabuliwala’ (1957) was yet another tale of belonging, to an innocent heart, and unbelonging, to a place, for an Afghan fruit vendor who couldn’t go back to his family when he wanted to or when he needed to. In countless films like ‘Pathey Holo Deri’ (1957), ‘Indrani’ (1958), ‘Saptapadi’ (1961) and others, Chhabi Biswas played the dominant, temperamental father to adult protagonists, trying to impose his doctrines forcefully on the progeny, taking their disobedience way too personally.
And then ‘Kanchenjungha’! One of the most hard-hitting statements on unfair patriarchal dominance to vainly protect that futile family-reputation at the cost of personal happiness suffocating restlessly, demanding freedom and space to emote without the burden of instructions or expectations! During and after a period of volatile socio-political status of the state, it was more than apparent that in their ruthless attempts to provide security, the heads of the families would assume a state of superiority which harmed as much as it blessed, but ended up influencing the youth, literature, poetry, cinema and others nevertheless.
Accepting Chhabi Biswas as the representative image of fathers and grandfathers who were “in control” of the households, were reasonably but not expressively affectionate, set some rules for the families that were not always fair and yet meant to serve the best, it was interesting to walk back into time and explore how this person really was till he wasn’t bound by a script! I had read actor Biswajit Chatterjee’s experience while working with the legend in a film called ‘Dada Thakur’ (1962). He found Chhabi Biswas to be a father figure on the sets, covering him with blankets and mosquito nets at night during outdoor shoots when Chatterjee complained of insects and mosquitos raking up his night sleep.
Actor Aloknanda Roy, who essayed the role of Indranath Roy’s younger daughter Monisha in ‘Kanchenjungha’ has a different view to offer. She had been with him in his last few days before he left his mortal form in 1962 in an unfortunate accident. “When I went and touched his feet for the first time, he asked, who are you? I said I am Monisha, your younger daughter!” recalls Roy. “Chhabi babu was a man of great personality, reserve and sober most of the times. But he was very tender and gentle towards juniors; he cared and extended his best help when any of us would seek his benevolence. Not that we could reach out to him at the drop of a hat. His charisma, his talent, his tall persona made him magnetic, yet intimidating. I was too junior, and young then, and it felt more appropriate to watch him from a distance. He too did maintain that distance, consciously or unconsciously! I never asked him to help with my scenes but I often found Arun Mukherjee (played Ashok in the same film) sitting with him trying to learn a lot of things. And yes, he had a subtle sense of humour which was bestowed unpredictably upon those who happened to be around him at a particular moment. I was given a coat to wear in the film and one day when I was trying to put that on, he suddenly chided Arun Mukherjee saying, these days young actors have lost their chivalry; see the young lady is struggling there with her trousseau and you are standing here watching instead of helping her out with the damn coat!”
Even veteran actor Sabitri Chattopadhyay vouches for that sense of humour, which Chhabi Biswas effortlessly carried with himself. “Working with him was a pleasure because he could pull the impact of a mundane scene to quite some notches higher. His humour reflected in his regular communication with his peers. Even while having a simple conversation, he entertained his audience with that spark of intelligence and humour, which often left us wondering what dig he had taken, and once realised we would burst out laughing! His goodness reflected in his being. I have worked with him in many films and feel he was one of the most underutilised actors of our times, in spite of those path-breaking characters he had given to Bengali cinema. I still remember him, convey my regards to him, thank him for his contributions, every time I receive an award,” reminisces Chattopadhyay.
The characters that Chhabi Biswas played seem to be possessed by him. Anyone who has watched his films would agree that if those characters ever had a face then that face would be his. Satyajit Ray lamented after Biswas breathed no more, saying that the later had taken with him all those middle aged or senior characters that could still have embellished Ray’s films but there can’t be a replacement for Chhabi Biswas!
That June morning in 2015, revisiting Chhabi Babu while watching the film ‘Kanchenjungha’ once again at an inordinate hour, heavy clouds delaying daylight, unrestricted downpours unfolding in fury, all felt like a flawlessly coordinated event timed with perfection! From the window of my hall, the sky is visible in bits and parcels, its blue and grey interrupted by some huge high rise buildings; but there is a vast sky beyond the status of those buildings! Spending time with a person, virtually, who was always too far and yet too close, locked in the heart and his image personified tirelessly by some elderly men in our homes and in my community, I’m not sure whether I was looking for Chhabi Biswas or my own grandfathers in the 1962 film. But as I write this, I find, 11th June of this year, when the first seasonal showers splashed Mumbai and I was glued to those moving images and voices on my laptop, was coincidentally the death anniversary of the legend!
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