Chhabi Biswas was truly the first international actor of Indian cinema – an actor for whom probably no laurel is worth enough. Silhouette Magazine pays tribute to this legendary charismatic actor on his birth anniversary today.
In 1956, in the 4th National Film Awards the Best Film was awarded to Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala based on Rabindranath Tagore’s immortal tale with the same name. Kabuliwala went abroad and won many a laurel for Sinha as well as for Indian cinema. Chhabi Biswas as the Afghan gypsy staying in Kolkata gave a riveting performance – something which was recognized as sublime by quite a few foreign critics as well. This is however overlooking the fact that in Kabuliwala, Chhabi Biswas sported a horrendous makeup to bring in the Afghan look. His heavy built and imposing features probably made it easy for Biswas to step in to the shoes of Rahmat who had a stern exterior but the heart of a child. Chhabi Biswas (born 12th July 1900) was already past 50 by then but he brought a charismatic élan as the young Rahmat who befriends Mini a young Bengali girl and her novelist father.
To Biswas’s credit, to generations of film-goers, Chhabi Biswas as Rahmat remained an epitome of the Kabuliwalas in the streets of Calcutta, so much so, that in many cases they were universally referred to as ‘Rahmat’. The flow of Afghan migrants who had come to Calcutta in the early part of the last century to do trade – mostly dry fruits have dwindled over the last few decades. However due to the endearing story of the bonding between an aged Afghan and a little Bengali girl transcending the barriers of language, cast and creed is what appeals even today. And, the last representatives of the Kabuliwalas in Calcutta even today take pride in their references with the iconic character.
Did Chhabi Biswas do a lot of homework to represent the Afghans in the streets of the city with such perfection? It is not surely known. He being a theatre actor and having seen the greats including the legendary Sishir Kumar Bhaduri there is no doubt that he had an immaculate control over his histrionic prowess. What however remains significant is the fact that most of the top actors of Bengali cinema even after him seldom got a chance to portray a non-Bengali (leave alone a non-Indian) character who will remain etched in our memories 60 years after it was released.
The range of Chhabi Biswas’s acting can be illustrated in another film the same year which was awarded as the best Bengali film of the same year. Ek Din Ratre (1956) was a RK Films production starring Raj Kapoor in his maiden Bengali film. The film was also important since it was directed by Sombhu Mitra, the scion of Bengali theatre. Chhabi Biswas played the role of a drunk happy-go-lucky chap and excelled in it – a sharply different role from the stoic Rahmat of Kabuliwala. The film also had the famous song ‘Ei duniyay bhai sob e hoy’ picturized on Biswas which remains popular even today.
Ei duniyay bhai sob e hoy (Ek Din Ratre, 1956)
However the film that catapulted Biswas to international fame was as Biswambhar Roy in Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece Jalsaghar (1958). By then Chhabi Biswas had already proved his mettle as the representative of the aristocracy – in most cases as the dominant male. In film after film, Biswas essayed roles as the dominating father of the hero or the heroine who is in some way or the other coming in the path of their romance. Though he played important roles in these films including award winning film Chhele Kar (1954) where he played the father of Bikas Roy, most of these films never had substantial screen time for him.
Jalsaghar (and Kabuliwala before that which had Biswas as the central character alone) was one film which was centrally focused on the ageing zamindar who had to deal with a sagging financial fortune and the ignominy of the rise of a petty money-lender trying to be his competitor. Biswas carried Roy on his shoulders – from the flashbacks when his zamindari was in full flow to the flagrant present as we see him in the end.
Near the end when he takes up the challenge from the money-lender to host the most promising dancer to perform in his zamindari Biswambhar Roy enters his music room. We find him as a miniature ape moving from one image to the next and then looking at himself on the mirror – a forlorn look, vacant as if he is looking at himself after a long time. Chhabi Biswas who is famous for his excessive reactions, his domineering veneer for once looks so vulnerable. As if, he has been robbed off his sheath, Biswas uses minimal techniques to convey the most – a blank look, a soft waving of his palm and he essays the inner conflicts of the zamindar with aplomb.
If Biswambhar Roy is one surface of the prism the other one is definitely Indranath Choudhuri of Satyajit Ray’s first colour film Kanchenjungha (1962). Choudhuri is an industrialist and the dictating head of a wealthy family. He loves being subservient to the British and takes pride in his western manners and habits. As observed both Biswambhar and Indranath are the two sides of the same profile – overbearing, proud and someone who by virtue of his social status likes to belittle others. Yet, as opposed to the complete ‘native’ outfit in Jalsaghar, in Kanchenjungha Chhabi Biswas’s portrayal representing a section of the spine-less Indians is apt and articulate. And like Roy, Choudhuri also finds himself alone in the midst of his own mien.
The only other film that Biswas did with Satyajit Ray was in Devi (1960) as Kalikinkar Choudhuri. Completely different from his any other role, as a devotee of Goddess Kali who dreamt that his daughter-in-law is the Kali-incarnate, Biswas was superb in his rendition as the fanatic devotee who can worship even his daughter-in-law. Like in the other characters as well there is this streak of ‘madness’ in the character which is an excess that Biswas has always expounded successfully on screen.
There are two other films which showcase Biswas’s glorious acting in a career spanning over 250 films. One is 1962 film Dada Thakur which is a bio pic of Bengali maverick writer and social critic Sarat Chandra Pandit. Dada Thakur remains an affable character in the Bengalis psyche for his fearless stance against the hypocrisy of the Bengali ‘babu’s or the high-handedness of the British governance. Contrary to the other haughty characters, as Dada Thakur, Chhabi Biswas played a down-to-earth man who is immensely talented, with a heart of gold – he never misses a smile. Even after his son dies, Dada Thakur remains calm since personal tragedy cannot supersede the hardship of more hapless individuals.
In Headmaster (1959) Biswas plays the role of a retired Headmaster who comes to the ruthless city of Calcutta with his family of young kids in search of a job after retirement. It is hardship and his clash with the other around him on questions of morality that sets him apart. Again a very subdued performance yet playing the retired school teacher under the skin, Biswas makes him completely believable. In the end when he is stripped off from his job since he didn’t comply, rather he started educating the uneducated staff of the company, it is difficult not to empathize with him. In that he represents the typical Bengali middle-class educated individual who may be poor from an economic standpoint but who definitely has a wealth of moral virtues. This is a characterization in which Soumitra Chatterjee excelled much later in the ‘80s, but back then even for Biswas as well this was a different profile.
Chhabi Biswas died in an accident in 1962 at the age of 62. He was truly the first international actor of Indian cinema – an actor for whom probably no laurel is worth enough.
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