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Bharati Devi — Documenting Memories

November 10, 2009 | By

Bharati Devi had been, and still is the sole torchbearer of the most important historical era of Indian Cinema.

You surprise me! You don’t remember any films of Saigal saab apart from these few?

Seriously…No.

– In our childhood, we used to fall head over heels for him. when I find young girls haven’t even heard of his name, it appears to me that I am getting old…!

– I got to know from you. And now I will search about him. That’s how people learn…

– Where would you search my child? I don’t think even the film critics have written authentic details about the New Theatres studio era.

…Thus was our conversation. This old lady is Bharati Devi (that is easily guess-able). A neglected actress of a less inhibited time of Indian Cinema. I would not boast of the fact that I have done a great job by unravelling her. Rather, this graceful, young-at-heart octogenerian lady came off as a revelation for me. A window to an unknown world.

Where to begin?

Bharati Devi — Documenting Memories

Bharati Devi

In the first place, let me admit humbly that I didn’t have, and still don’t possess the skills of filmmaking. I finished my debut documentary and only realised that I have made a film. I have stepped into a different world. All credit goes to my ‘Subject’, Bharati Devi.

I came accross this gentle, amicable lady in a fine morning at Kolkata Airport in 2005. I was about to fly to Hyderabad. We happened to board on the same flight. Her seat was beside me and throughout our journey, we discussed about many things especially films. I was neither familiar with her acting career since she belongs to the New Theatres, the premeaval era of cinema in Bengal and India at large.

While talking to her I discovered certain interesting facts. A lot has been talked about the ‘cultural amnesia’ of modern generation. I admit that ignominy hands down.

Our memory at best recollects a few films of Uttam Kumar Suchitra Sen, or to some extent Soumitra. Era before their entry is not excavated with proper attention and care. We can only get a few articles on PC Barua or KL Saigal, but unfortunately, most of the film prints of this era are lost or destroyed. The other fortunate film reels who still survived the passage of time, are in such a deplorable conditions that it is now difficult to retrieve.

In short, during that one-hour long journey from Kolkata to Hyderabad, I got introduced to a mine-house of memories.

Bharati Devi, who was doing a few soaps and serials by then, was already a person who deserved far more importance and attention. Not many people were aware that, she had been, and still is the sole torchbearer of the most important historical era of Indian Cinema. The only surviving actress of the New theatres era.

A gutsy girl

1930’s period had been significant in history for socio-political upheavals. On the cultural front, India had passed on the silent era phase. With the film Dena Paona in Bengal, the advent of talkie was heralded. The audience from Bengal was starting to savour the taste of talking frames and gradually adopting themselves into this new mode.

Even then, women performers in Cinema were almost absent. Women were considered the repository of familial tradition and values. Those who treaded on the path of films were considered ‘fallen’ women.

Bharati Devi hailed from a rich and conservative business class family. What brought her into the world of Cinema is quite an interesting tale. No less arresting than a popular Bengali film script.

She was born as Mahamaya Das. She was married off at the tender age of thirteen by her parents. That was quite a common practice during that period.

Rays of enlightenment did not quite reach all social strata. In the name of family tradition, girls who were married off in adolescent period had to suffer a lot at their in-laws house. They had to stay back even if they were tortured to death.

Bharati Devi’s experience at her in-law’s place was even more painful. (Here I would like to state that, when I started interviewing her pre-shooting, I had to assure her that I would not reflect too much upon this phase of her life.) But unlike other girls of her age, she dared to protest and return to her father’s place. In the documentary she told,

My father was a gem of a person, when I returned from my in-law’s place and wanted to live in my father’s place, he spoke in my favor. Although my relatives were dead against keeping a married girl in her father’s place and advised me to patch up, I did not agree. My father had been a great inspiration and strength.

Mahamaya, then girl of mere fifteen dared to defy the age-old notion of “good” woman.

At that time, Hindu law did not approve of divorce. Her father Harendrakrishna Das sought the best of Lawyers’ advice. He practically made the divorce happen by converting her into Muslim religion. Her name was changed into Selima bibi. After six months of divorce, she was again converted to Hindu and gained her previous name. She started living an independent life thereon.

First step into the film world

Bishnucharan Ghosh, popular body-builder of that time was a friend of her father. When Bharati Devi started living with her parents destiny brought her to the New Theatres in 1939. At that time, stalwarts like K.L Saigal, Prithviraj Kapoor, Raichand Boral, Nitin Bose were ruling the scene. She made herself prominent in her very first film Daktar which was released in 1941. It was directed by Phani Majumdar. Late actor Jyotiprakash Bhattacharya acted opposite her.

Throughout her career, she has worked with every legendary director, starting from Devaki Bose of New Theatres period to Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. She is still working with modern generation filmmakers like Rituparno Ghosh.

The Preparation

Although I started making the documentary by chance, I was well aware that the year 2009 is remarkable because, this is the 70th year of Bharati Devi’s career in Indian Cinema. She is 87 now. I used to visit her very often. And while chatting with her, I could easily fathom her heart, vibrantly ticking away the passage of time. She has got a terrific sense of humor. Even in the most distressing condition, she could look at the sunnier and merrier side of things. Slowly I could understand that, she had made it into practice.

Before I took the initiative of this documentary, we talked about a lot of subjects, starting from the recent political conditions to the plight of commercial Bengali serials. During these informal chats, I delved deeper into her person while she talked about her romance in her primetime.

Idea of filmmaking

On returning from Pune film Institute (FTII) after finishing Film Appreciation course, when I told her that I am going to document all that she had told me so far, she was a bit shy. She told me that all things cannot be told to the world. Therefore, in my documentary, I had to resist my temptation to some extant. But when the shoot started, this octogenarian lady did not disappoint me.

Bharati Devi

Bharati Devi in Tapan Sinha’s Nirjan Saikate(1963)

The very first take was 26 minute long. It could have been longer had she not become thirsty. It was obvious that she is losing herself in the memory lane. Her impeccable storytelling power left us enthralled. Except for the crew members, some of my friends from the film fraternity were present at the shoots.

I did not shoot her at a stretch. It was impossible notwithstanding her physical condition. Rather I chose to shoot at regular intervals of a few weeks. Indeed that incurred unexpected results. In the interim period, she used to rehash her ‘memory card’. My task had been easier therefore. Bharati Devi was astoundingly camera-friendly, so my task became much easier.

Documenting memories

She had become physically invalid, but her memory power had been crystal-clear. In this documentary, Bharati Devi talked about her illustrious life and times. Anyone carefully listening to her story would find an uncanny similarity with grandmothers’ tale. Such enthralling is her way of talking.

As I said, earlier, she was spotted right from her first film. In those days, New theatres used to make double-version films. Hindi versions were made for the national audience. Bharati Devi acted in double-version films like Kashinath, Saugandh, Protishruti etc. Actors used to work under monthly salary system.

I was allowed to do only three films a year with any other production house. Ashok Kumar took me to Bombay. I worked there in a few hit Hindi films including Baghdad, which had been a major hit throughout India,

Bharati Devi.

She reminisced about veteran actors like Pankaj Mullik to Pahari Sanyal, who had been teachers more than co-actors. She paired up with Asit Baran in films. Bharati Devi-Asit Baran had been a hit pair before Uttam Kumar sovereignty in Bangla film Industry. Point to be noted that, Bharati Devi switched over to supporting actress roles after acting opposite of Uttam Kumar as heroine. Uttam Kumar had been her last hero.

Pioneering brand ambassador

No. The term brand ambassador was not coined during that era! But Bharati Devi will be counted one of the pioneers of modelling scenario without doubt. In early forties, she was approached by Lux company for modelling for their product. At that time, Lux was an international brand. However, she did not demand any remuneration because – ‘They clicked just a few snaps’.

All I had to do is just holding the soap and smile! Why should I charge anything for such a simple task?

She retorted when asked about the reason for not taking remuneration. Later on, Lux company sent her bucketful of soaps and other products for another 20 years, in order to compensate her remuneration. During her birthdays she used to get flowers and cakes from Lux.

At the end

I understood, or it is through my realisation that, Bharati Devi belongs to that rare breed of actress who never craved to steal the limelight. Staying miles away from rumor and controversy, she sailed through tough times of her life and preferred a simple living after her primetime. Even she got lucrative offers from Hollywood.

Moreover, her story inspires every progressive-minded girl of any time, and inspire her to take tough decisions of life with ease. She dared to come out of the cloistered world called home, at a time when the society was not as liberal as today. Her story is undoubtedly an asset of the world of cinema since the audience would get a rare chance to revisit the long-forgotten era of Indian Cinema.

Most of the shooting was done at the present residence of Bharati Devi (Since she was unable to move outside due to health problems) with PD 170 camera. This film is a part of a research project of National Archive of India, Ministry of Information and broadcasting, Government of India.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Sharmila Maiti is a film journalist and an amateur cartoonist. 'Bharati Devi: A Beautiful Heart' is her debut documentary film which has been screened in Kolkata film festival, Assam film festival and International Women’s film festival. She has worked in several media houses across the country.
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