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How Suhas Met Mr Bhuvan Shome

December 24, 2023 | By

Suhasini Mulay recounts the experience of becoming the leading lady of the milestone film — Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, to Ratnottama Sengupta

Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome - an Indian Nouvelle Vague experience

Suhasini Mulay in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

It was still the 1960s, the decade that had sizzled with hits like Mughal-e-Azam (1961), Sahab Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), Sangam (1964), Waqt (1965), Guide (1966), Padosan (1968). The faces that riveted viewers — Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Vyjayanthimala, Waheeda Rehman – were being joined by a Hema Malini and a Rekha. On to this landscape breezed in a film with the unlikely title of Bhuvan Shome. It ushered the fresh wind of New Wave Cinema through the minimalist story of how a rustic woman in a far-flung village of Saurashtra becomes a catalyst in changing the rigid mindset of a lonely bureaucrat from the Big Bad City. Critics loved everything from K K Mahajan’s cinematography to Vijay Raghav Rao’s music and the playfully sardonic narration of a new voice, Amitabh Bachchan. Above all, they loved the smiling face of debutant Suhasini Mulay.

Bhuvan Shome won the President’s Gold for Best Feature Film. The award for Best Director marked Mrinal Sen as a force in World Cinema. And Utpal Dutt, already a legend in the world of theatre, became a sought-after presence in Tinsel Town Bombay. In the Birth Centenary Year of Mrinal Sen, when the 29th Kolkata International Film Festival – KIFF – paid a special homage to the maestro, Suhasini Mulay recounts the experience of becoming the leading lady of that milestone, to Ratnottama Sengupta

Ratnottama: It has been said that, on a landscape glittering with divas like Sadhna, Sharmila and Saira, Suhasini came like a morning breeze. So tell me how you came to play Gauri in Bhuvan Shome.

Suhasini: Let me start at the very beginning. My mother, Vijaya Mulay, was in Bombay and I was staying in Delhi with my aunt, Sushila Ambike. She used to teach Sanskrit at the IP College (Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University) while my mother was with the Censor Board, as the Central Board of Film Certification was known then. She was in Bombay for two years, then she got transferred to Calcutta for two years. So I went from Senior Cambridge to West Bengal Higher Secondary Board. And when she went back to Bombay, it was decided that I will stay with my Aunt in Delhi. That way my curriculum would remain the one I was familiar with. Otherwise I would have a real tough time since I was never a very good student.

Before Delhi, while I was in Bombay, I had done an ad for Pears soap (1965). The next part of the story hinges on that though I heard it later. Apparently, Mrinal Da had gone to the Film Institute of India — FTII — to look at the students there, and didn’t find anybody who might be suitable. They were all young girls who wanted to be actresses and had trained in acting. And his brief was that Gauri had to be someone who was alhad — not nyaka, not boka — simply innocent. Unsophisticated perhaps, but not naïve, nor pretentious. So he didn’t find anyone at FTII and came to Bombay.

There he met Uma da Cunha. She was not married at that time, she was still Uma Kripanidhi. She was working with Lintas and was interested in the Film Society movement. She knew my mother who was deeply into the Film Society movement. Mrinal Da mentioned to Uma — like he did to many other people — that he was looking for a girl somewhat like this. Uma said, “Mrs Mulay’s daughter might fit the bill. We’ve done an ad with her — why don’t you see that and decide if you would like to meet her?”

He apparently did. And discussed with Uma what kind of a person I was. She said, “Suhas doesn’t have any stage fright. But she has no idea how good she is. This might prove difficult. She has never acted before the camera and has no assessment (of what her input has to be), but she has done this little ad. Why don’t you try her?”

I knew nothing about this backstory when, one morning, my mother called my Aunt. And do remember that, in the mid-1960’s India, you had to book a trunk call and wait and wait… She told my Aunt, “Mrinal Da is coming to see Suhas, for some film. So tell her that when she’s back from school she should not stay in her dirty uniform. She should have a bath, comb her hair and wear her best frock.”

Ratnottama: Did you know Mrinal Da then?

Suhasini: No, I didn’t even know who Mrinal Sen was. I had watched some films with my mother but you were not allowed to watch most Film Society movies until you were eighteen. So, as far as I was concerned, a gentleman in white clothes walked in and introduced himself. Then he said, “I’ll tell you a story.” It was the storyline of Bhuvan Shome. I listened to it, and when he finished he said, “I want you to act in my film.”

“Oh!” I said, “what role do you want me to play?”

He said, “Gauri!”

“You want me to do the main role in a film?!” I was taken aback. I had acted in all my school plays but never in a film, so I didn’t know what that involved.

“You don’t worry about that,” Mrinal Da said.

I said, “Okay, but you have to promise me one thing. You try me for one day, and if I’m not good enough, you will tell me that.”

At that time I had no idea that when you shoot a film, with the kind of infrastructure and everything else that goes into it, it was virtually impossible to try someone for one day and send her back. But he agreed.

It never occurred to me to ask who else was in the film, or who was playing what. It was literally as casual as that.

Mrinal Sen on the sets of Bhuvan Shome

Mrinal Sen on the sets of Bhuvan Shome (Pic: Shoma A Chatterji)

Ratnottama: What thoughts were playing in your mind when you were told that you will play Gauri?

Suhasini: The only thought that was running in my head at that time was that all this was coinciding with the preparation time for my Secondary Board examination. At that time Class XI used to be the final year of school. Plus, I had moved from Calcutta just months before this, so I was taking 3-4 tuitions in a day to catch up with Chemistry, Maths and subjects like that. So my big worry was that the shoot will happen at the time of my preparatory leave.

Mrinal Da went back and spoke with my mother. They had a lot of letters going back and forth which I saw only after my mother passed away. Till then I didn’t know about this Patra Vyavahar literature. My mother’s judgment was that “Suhas has done a number of school plays, so I assume she can act. Beyond that it’s upto you, you are the director.”

Then the most exciting thing happened in my life: I was sitting in a plane going from Bombay to Bhavnagar! It was a Dakota — one of those aircrafts with a propeller. And I still remember the thrill of sitting below the wings! That was, for me, the most memorable thing that could happen in my life.

I landed in Bhavnagar. My mother had accompanied me, so we got picked up. I went to the location and met Utpal Dutt. That’s when stage fright set in. I had seen Utpal Dutt’s Angar, on the coal mine strike, and Kallol, on the mutiny on board a ship. So I knew who Utpal Dutt was. “What is he doing here?!” I asked my mother. She said, “I presume he’s acting.” And that’s when the penny clicked.

Ratnottama: And then?

Suhasini: Next I saw Shekhar Chatterjee. He had acted in Kallol. I walked up to him and asked, “Weren’t you… in Kallol?”

“Yes,” he replied.

Now I sat down and told myself, “Suhasini Mulay, you better tie up your shoelaces. This is serious stuff.”

But Mrinal Da was very casual. That set me at ease.

Suhasini Mulay

Suhasini Mulay (Pic: Wikimedia)

Ratnottama: Any quirky — or fascinating — incident that stands out in your mind 55 years later?

Suhasini: I remember that he had bought some costumes for me. He must have told the shopkeeper it’s for a fifteen-sixteen year-old-girl but I tried them on and found they were way way way too small for me. We went back to the Bhavnagar market and overnight the blouses were stitched. The ghaghra is a ghaghra but I didn’t know how to drape the odhni, so next morning someone came and showed me how to drape it.

In the market Mrinal Da said, “You want to pick up some jewellery.” “Yeah,” I said, “I like this, and I like that…” He wanted me to pick up one necklace and one set of earrings. I liked a hansli which is worn close to the neck. The shopkeeper said, “Hansli is not worn by itself, it is always worn with a long mala.” So we acquired two necklaces and two sets of earrings — Mrinal Da bought a second pair in case one fell off!

So I came back happy with the shopping. And the next morning I went to shoot as Gauri…

Ratnottama: This is a lovely preamble to Bhuvan Shome you know — even for me! I, who watched the movie prior to its release! I have known Mrinal Da as a friend of my father. And I, who has seen at close range the transformation of the Indian cinema in 1970s — after its release in 1969.

So tell me, did Bhuvan Shome train you to become an actor who would bring home 5 National Film Awards?

Suhasini: Seriously, I never ever thought that acting was one of the things I would do in my life! I must tell you this: Because Mrinal Da was so easy about it, it didn’t look difficult. And then you had an ace actor in Utpal Dutt. So when I did something wrong, he was able to manage because he was so experienced and so skilful.

I remember the first day of shooting. We went there and I was given a dialogue to do. The dialogue was one of the earliest ones when I come on screen, about halfway through the film. I come and look at the buffalo ‘Sheetal’ while Sekhar Da is shouting at me, “This buffalo of yours! Look at what has happened to Sahab! Look where he is!” And he is supposed to be on the tree there, right?

So I had a dialogue to give at this point. And what happened is that every time I said a line I tended to look at my mother, whether I did okay…

Ratnottama: For her approval...

Suhasini: (Laughs). Ultimately Mrinal Da told my mother, “Bijoya Di you come behind the camera so that Suhas will look at the camera, not away from it.” But looking at the camera was worse – I was more scared. I told her, “You go and sit in the car — (otherwise) I can’t do this.” Because she was shaking from nervousness! It was the first time in my life that I had seen my mother nervous — and it was the last time in my life I have seen my mother nervous. She was, as you know, the rock of Gibraltar for us.

Ratnottama: I know! I know!! I have known Tai as well.

Suhasini: So she was dutifully sent away from the set. And Mrinal Da coaxed me, “You are doing fine. You just imagine that this man is on the tree.” And Utpal Da was NOT on the tree, right? So I looked at him and burst out laughing. Which is one of the famous scenes…

Ratnottama: The signature laughter — which got Suhasini Mulay right into the character of Gauri…

Suhasini: I didn’t know anything about getting into the character. I think what happened is basically I played myself throughout Bhuvan Shome. That possibly is one of the reasons why it works. People still say, “Oh! You were so natural!” And I was natural because I didn’t know what else to do!

bhuvan shome mrinal sen

The signature laughter (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

Ratnottama: But what about the dialogue? You had to speak a dialect, right? Gujarati – Kathiawadi…

Suhasini: Yeah, but it’s not as if I had not acted before. I had done school plays, right? And there was just a little bit of Gujarati thrown in. I had lived in Bombay for 2-3 years. My mother knew Madhuri Ben Shah — a very well-known educationist and all that. I had been to her home. And I speak Marathi. So my accent wasn’t alien. Of course, the environment was alien but the language wasn’t.

And the dialogue writer was sitting right there. If I couldn’t say something the line could be changed to something simpler. Effectively it was two or three lines of Gujarati thrown in for good measure. And if you speak Marathi and Hindi, then Gujarati isn’t that difficult.

But I didn’t train for the role, and that role didn’t get me the Lotus. I did eventually get a National Award for acting, but that was a good 30 years later, for Hu Tu Tu, in 1999.

Ratnottama: And that was probably unexpected, a Lotus for that supporting role of Malti Bai?

Suhasini: I’m pretty useless – I don’t expect any award till they actually land. I didn’t pursue acting as a career. Although I’m by now a 50-film-old actress, I think the only films I have competed with and hoped for any award are the near-40 documentaries I made. I got NFAs for four them: The Official Art Form (1998) — Best Art/Cultural Film; Chitthi (1989) — Best Educational Film; Bhopal Beyond Genocide (1988) — Best Non-Feature Film; An Indian Story (1983) – Best Non-Feature Film.

Ratnottama: But subsequently you didn’t do any other film with Mrinal Da! Of course, you enrolled in McGill University and went to Canada to study Agricultural Technology and specialised in Microbiology, and mastered Film Radio and Television Journalism… But even after you returned…?

Suhasini: No. I’ll tell you what happened. I studied in Montreal till about 1974, and then I came back. But by then I had changed direction. I was more interested in being behind the camera. So when I came back I worked as an assistant to the secretary of the jury (Y K Krishnaswamy) of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) that year. Which is where I met Satyajit Ray. Manik Da. He must have seen how you work like a dog, because everything was so disorganised. So Manik Da offered me the job of an Assistant Director for Jana Aranya (1976). So that’s how I started doing work behind the camera in India.

And then I assisted Mrinal Da in Mrigaya (1976). But only in the post production stage. Because his Hindi speaking assistant fell ill and had to go back to Bombay. So I was there for the edit and dubbing and sound correction and all the post-production work of Mrigaya.

And then I left Calcutta and came to Delhi because my mother was by then posted there.

Suhasini Mulay and Satyajit Ray on location during the shooting of Jana Aranya (1975) – Photo: Nemai Ghosh (Pic: IMDb)

Ratnottama: But, after the stupendous success of Bhuvan Shome, didn’t you miss being in front of the camera? After the mind-blowing adulation you got for your portrayal of Gauri!

Suhasini: Not particularly. Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I never pursued acting as a career, and that too in mainstream cinema, until much later. I didn’t even miss it because in my brain, acting was not really what I thought I wanted to do. Somewhere, because of the fact that my mother was involved in the Film Society movement, I had seen so many serious movies…

Ratnottama: And you assisted Ray and Sen, who epitomised serious movies on the Indian screen!

Suhasini: So the idea of Suhasini Mulay running around the trees defeated my imagination.

Ratnottama: That’s what happened when Shabana Azmi did one or two of the running around the trees, na? Viewers couldn’t digest that though she, being a trained actor, was quite okay doing them.

Suhasini: No but I’ll say one thing that, at that point of time, if you were not ‘gori’ – fair complexioned — you in any case started with a disadvantage. Which I think is a real pity because Shabana is a very good actress — and I find her incredibly good looking.

I remember when I saw — no, not Ankur (1974), where I thought she had too much makeup.

Ratnottama: Nishant (1975)? She looked so sensuous!

Suhasini: All her subsequent films, especially the one she did for Mrinal Da, Khandhar (1984). Oh! I thought she was exquisite in it. She was, you know, incredibly beautiful.

Ratnottama: And she was so photogenic — she looked so gorgeous on screen. Like Smita Patil – she was also so beautiful on camera!

Suhasini: Yes but Smita was actually not as dark as Shabana. She was only a shade or two darker than me. You see, Shabana is so beautiful but not in the conventional sense — a bow-arched eyebrows, straight Roman nose, those classic features of beauty. I find her incredibly beautiful but not in the mould of 1960s beauties.

Now the scene has changed. The Indian taste has evolved quite a bit, Thank God! Now it matters less and less and less. But not then, when — as you have said— our heroines were Meena Kumari and Saira Banu and so on. Not even someone like Geeta Bali! She made it to the top on sheer talent. Otherwise she was a very ‘unconventional’ face.

Ratnottama: Yes she was. Very ‘normal’. Ordinary. But she was so ebullient. I saw Geeta Bali in the 1970s, when I was in college. By then she was gone.

Suhasini: But when she was on top, the more conventional beauties were Nargis or divas who did not look like Geeta Bali. But she was incredibly lovely, like herself. Similarly Shabana — I just find her one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen.

bhuvan shome

Suhasini Mulay and Utpal Dutt in Bhuvan Shome (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

Ratnottama: Mrinal Da cast all the three unconventional beauties – Shabana, Smita, Nandita – and also Dimple Kapadia. But going back to Bhuvan Shome: who was the more daunting presence – Mrinal Sen or Utpal Dutt?

Suhasini: Utpal Dutt without a doubt. Utpal Dutt hands down — largely because, as I got to know the man, he was so knowledgeable.

See, when you are an actor you spend more time with your co-actors than with your director, right? And you know Utpal Da’s range of knowledge! I remember one incident. I was reading a Perry Mason — and he looked at me and said, “What junk are you reading?!” I said, “I like the guy! What’s wrong?” He said, “You’ll know if you read Shakespeare.” “Yeah yeah,” I said, “thank you very much! I will when I am old like you…” He said, “Okay.”

So the next time we went into town — we were still in Bhavnagar — he went and got me the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.

Ratnottama: Really!

Suhasini: And he said, “Rather than reading that junk read this man.” And the book is — I still have it — thick and b-i-g! I looked at it reluctantly and said a doubtful “Okay…” Utpal Da said, “You just read it — and if you can put the book down I’ll never mention Shakespeare to you again.”

And I actually read the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde and reached page 78 flat! What beautiful writing!!

Ratnottama: He was a contemporary of Bernard Shaw but lived half his age! One was delightfully witty, the other was a biting satirist. Of course, both courted controversy. We had him — them — as our textbooks.

Suhasini: Then what happened with Utpal Da was he would recite chapters in verse. Like, in one sitting he could recite Much Ado About Nothing. He recited the full play to me!

Ratnottama: Yes! Yes, I can believe that of him.

Suhasini: So I asked him, “How do you remember all this?” He said, “Because, when you do a play, you read it so many times that you just know it by heart.”

Ratnottama: Right!

Suhasini: It is from him that I learnt how to read dialogues. What happened was there was this scene — much later… well, it took me 5-6 days to get a hang of what was required of me when we shoot. And then Mrinal Da had this habit — “Oh! Excellent. Very good, very good. One more take.” So I would say, “If it is very good, why do you want one more take?” By then, one had become confident enough to say that.

But this one dialogue was quite difficult. It was a longish dialogue — one and half pages long – where Gauri is talking about the bird who’s not coming to eat, and what has happened and what she used to be like, and so on. And I’d always get stuck on this one sentence although I had learnt it all.

Utpal Da said, “What’s wrong with you? I’m seeing you looking very worried at that piece of paper for the past 40 minutes.” I said,

“You know, I don’t understand this…”

He said, “Tell me what you don’t understand.”

So I told him, “There’s this one sentence I’m getting stuck on — and I can’t figure out why it is there.”

He said “Read the sentence to me.”

Now, he used to read his dialogue in Bengali and I would read my lines in Hindi, so he couldn’t read what I was reading out to him, but he could hear what was being said, right? So I read and said, “I don’t understand why this line is there.” And he said, “Because it’s not your line at all — it’s your cue!” It was there for me to say my next line…

Ratnottama: Oh I see!

Suhasini: So he said, “When you get a dialogue in your hand, and you find an anomaly, rather than fighting with it try and understand why it’s there, and you will very soon get the rhythm of how the full dialogue has to be said.”

That was the one training I got from Utpal Dutt.

Ratnottama: Fantastic.

Suhasini: Mrinal Da gave me no such training. But I think what Mrinal Da was able to do – and I think everybody has said this — was to get the entire unit thinking about the film. He got them excited in the same way he was. And then he would take suggestions from anybody you know.

I remember this one scene we were doing – and the spot boy who was a local guy serving tea said, “Hamarey yahan aisa nahin hota, uss ko aise karna hota hai.” And that got incorporated into the film where Gauri tells Utpal Dutt, “Yahan shikar ka dhang juda hai… Yeh aise nahin, aise hota hai!” It came just like that.

Ratnottama: And got incorporated in the flow of the action.

Suhasini: Mrinal Da would readily incorporate suggestions. He would allow suggestions. And when you are allowed the freedom, you start to enjoy yourself.

Ratnottama: Okay, so what did you learn in the course of doing Bhuvan Shome? How to make good films? Or how to be a good human being?

Suhasini: Neither. How to make good films? I wasn’t thinking about making films at all, I was happily trying to be Gauri. Trying to do my best as a rustic woman worried about her corrupt husband’s career. Trying to remember my dialogues…

And how to be a good human being? I don’t think anybody can teach you that…

 

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— The Centenary Tribute Series

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A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine CineBengal.com. Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
All Posts of Ratnottama Sengupta

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