Suddenly, a very happy day turned out to be not so happy.
It was my wife’s birthday yesterday, and she was celebrating a special birthday in Kolkata with her friends and family (we don’t call it extended family there — it’s just family). She doesn’t get such an opportunity: here in New York, it is a year-after-year routine visit to a restaurant of her choice between the small few of us, followed by watching a movie, only to rush back home in a terribly cold weather. Not much fun. Back there, it‘s always different. Her aunt cooked tons of food, and friends fed her with the ceremonial “payesh,” or rice pudding Bengali style.
Then, on the same day, I got the news of Supriya Chowdhury’s death. Or, Supriya Devi, as she was later known.
Even though it may seem far too sentimental and detached: like, why would I even care about the death of a film star I never knew, and only admired her acting on the silver screen? There is a reason. The two most important movies Supriya acted were “The Cloud-Capped Star” (Bengali: Meghe Dhaka Tara), and “E-Flat” (Bengali: Komol Gandhar), both directed by legendary filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak.
Note: If you want to know the riches of Bengali and Indian non-Bollywood (i.e., junk) movies, watch them. I can send you a list of such movies. They are subtitled.
These two movies, like some other movies by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta, and such directors (Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, Girish Kasaravalli, M. S. Sathyu are just a few others) made me what I am today — psychologically and intellectually. It made me what I am today — a progressive, democratic, socialist who believes in equality of all kinds.
The open, liberal, and progressive, intellectual Bengali consciousness I slowly got transformed to, from a closed-minded fanaticism and patriarchy that I originally had inherited — was possible because of honestly, Bengali literature, poetry, music, and yes, movies. Coupled with reading some history.
Supriya Chowdhury’s acting in Ritwik Ghatak’s movies made me appreciate the history of a bloody and traumatic British partition and its aftermath on our society, economics, and politics. It made me realize what we had lost as a nation, and what we did not gain. How the British stole our treasures, and transferred power to the rich feudals.
If Ritwik Ghatak was the writer of this script, Supriya was the personified conveyer of the message.
A picture tells a thousand words. Sure. A dark-skinned (and therefore not pretty by Indian and Bengali standards), tall, strong actress whose eyes and lips oozed sensuality (and therefore not acceptable within the prejudice of Bengali and Indian mediocrity) blew me away.
She made me a man, from a child.
Brooklyn, New York.