Debiprosad Ghosh, the distinguished but undeservedly neglected Calcutta film scholar and historian, has painstakingly researched the life, times and achievements of an important but forgotten Bengali actress. The beautiful and gifted Begum Anwara Nahar had to take on the name of ‘Bonani Chaudhuri’ for the same reason that one Yousuf Khan of Peshawar had to transform himself into ‘Dilip Kumar’, the legendary tragic/romantic hero of the Bombay film screen. Unfortunate but true, in an overwhelmingly Hindu-majority India, such name changes had to be done to draw in the partisan crowds.
On hindsight, it becomes clear that commercial considerations led to what can only be described as a culture of convenience to suit the ugly mood of the times. Certain inescapable demands of majoritarianism appear to have been in operation in practically every area of life, and there was no reason why a popular art form/industry like film should be exempt from the rule. If artistes of the calibre of Shabana Azmi or Naseeruddin Shah didn’t have to take on Hindu- sounding names, it was arguably because some changes for the better had come to attend the working of the Bombay film industry by the time they came on the scene. The arrival of many a liberal-minded Hindu or an increasingly-confident Muslim had somewhat cosmopolitanised the atmosphere in and around the film studios. However, sad to say, the animus against the minorities in the film industry, as everywhere else, has begun to rear its head once again at the moment of writing.
Be that as it may, Debiprosad Ghosh has taken great pains to resurrect the luminous and defiant personality of Bonani Chaudhuri, in the manner in which he had earlier brought to life other neglected figures like the actress- writer Maya Roy, or the impresario Haren Ghosh, closely associated with the story of Uday Shankar’s meteoric rise to fame and popularity at home and abroad in the 30’s and the 40’s. Shilpi Jibon (An artist’s life), running to no more than fifty-four pages, is an invaluable collection of magazine articles by Bonani Chaudhuri on various subjects, including her deep sorrow at the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
Bonani Chaudhuri was born in 1924 in undivided Bengal in the small town of Bongaon. Her father,Maulvi Afsaruddin Ahmed, belonged to a cultured family whose roots were in the village of Sonatondi in Jessore district, now in Bangladesh. The Maulvi had five daughters and three sons of whom Anwara was the fourth. Afsaruddin knew the value of education and it was under his guidance that Anwara’s interest in studies was born and grew speedily. The belief came to lodge firmly in her head that without education one’s birth was futile. Her father’s place of work was called Sagardighi, in Murshidabad district, where Anwara completed her primary and upper primary studies with the help of a stipend for the meritorious. But, in the absence of any school in Sagardighi imparting education in English, the promising student had to temporarily suspend her studies. Simultaneously, a strange thing happened–due to difficulties in the family, the same father who had once encouraged his daughter in her educational pursuit, vetoed the idea of her continuing to go to school.
But Afsaruddin had to concede defeat when a determined Anwara left home for Berhampore where, staying in a hostel run by Christian missionaries, she continued with her studies in a higher English-language school.The head teacher of the school by the name of Aruna Dutta, inspired Anwara to take to elocution and other extra-curricular activities without neglecting her formal studies. There was one other source of inspiration, a college student of Berhampore a few years senior by the name of Rezzak Chaudhuri, who was to become her husband in course of time.
As it turned out, from her training in elocution under the watchful eyes of Aruna Dutta, to her gravitation to acting was but a logical development. Starting her acting career in the theatre, Anwara impressed her mofussil audience as Rani in Tagore’s Bisarjan (Immersion) or as Sabitri in Sabitri–Satyaban. The last role she played during her stay in Berhampore was that of Noor Jehan in a play of that name.
The year 1936 proved to be a milestone in Anwara’s life–one of joy, but also of a temporary setback. Although she had passed the eighth class examination with good grades, she had to stop going to school following her marriage to Rezzak, who was then doing his Masters. But such was her temperament that nothing could stop Anwara from reaching her goal once she had set her mind to do something worthwhile. She was still in her father’s house when she took the decision to appear for her Entrance examination as a private student.
Meanwhile, despite being in the final year of his Masters course, Rezzak had to discontinue his studies on account of financial difficulties, and start earning for himself and his family. His professional life began as a keeper of accounts in the office of the Accountant General (A-G), government of Bengal. But, Rezzak, being of a studious nature himself, attached great importance to his wife’s education which he entrusted to his close friend, one Satyanarayan Chattopadhyay. Always a serious student, Anwara passed her Entrance examination with credit in 1941, and two years later appeared for her Intermediate examination. In 1945, she secured her Bachelor of Arts degree, following which she worked for a few months as a lady supervisor with the Air Raid Precaution (ARP), a war-time outfit where she is said to have derived great satisfaction being of service to society. But, unfortunately, the department was disbanded after a while and Anwara found herself without a job.
But, it was characteristic of Anwara’s aspirational attitude to life that each time something untoward happened to her, she would pick herself up with a view to doing something creative and useful. Having been a noted elocutionist and amateur theatre artist once, she began to think seriously of a career in cinema. The social stigma attached to acting in films was not enough to throw her off her chosen track. In this connection, apart from her husband who was always a pillar of support to her, two other persons who were to earn fame in years to follow, came to stand by her with words of guidance and encouragement. One was the great social realist writer, Manik Bandyopadhyay of Padma Nadir Majhi and Putul Nacher Itikatha fame, and the other was the noted character-actor Sultan Ahmed, a distinguished presence in the Tollygunge studios. Caught in a whirlwind of vicious divisive passions as we are today, it is perhaps difficult to imagine a past when the best of men and women belonging to the two communities revelled in a comradely embrace enriching life, letters and the arts.
At about the time Anwara lost her job with the ARP, she came in touch with a director named Gunomoy Bandopadhyay who chose her to act in his film Beeshbochhor Agey (Twenty Years Ago). But when Anwara saw that for various reasons the film was failing to get off the ground, she began to show signs of impatience, whereupon Bandopadhyay sent her with a letter of introduction to the cinematographer Bibhuti Das. Anwara was taken on for Das’s first film Topobhongo (Broken Spell, 1947), marking the commencement of her film career as ‘Bonani Chaudhuri’. Beginning May 1947, she entered into a contract for two years with an outfit called Eastern Talkies Limited. After that, there was no looking back for an Anwara who, between 1947 and 1969, acted with panache in some twenty films, including Chottogram Ostragar Lunthon (Chittagong Armoury Raid, 1949), Shesher Kobita (Closing Poem, 1953) and Carey Saheber Munshi (Carey Sahib’s Munshi,1961).
In 1969, Bonani Chaudhuri left for Dhaka, capital of what was then known as East Pakistan and at the centre of an upsurge of Bengali nationalism. She was persuaded to do so by Zahir Raihan, one of the pioneers of the ‘New Cinema’ in the eastern wing of Pakistan and was to court martyrdom two years later during the war of liberation resulting in the birth of Bangladesh. Between 1969 and 1984, the actress appeared in several films, including Raihan’s Let there be Light. Among the films she did in Dhaka were Dheerey Boho Meghna (Slowly Flows the Meghna), Allah Meherban (Allah the Merciful) and Sukh-Dukkher Sathi (Companion in Joy and Sorrow). So, as it turned out, this daughter of two Bengals came to divide her career into two almost equal halves, earning appreciation and regard in both Calcutta and Dhaka. At the time of her death in 1995 at the age of 71, she was surrounded by admirers, friends and relatives, including her two sons and a daughter.
Like Maya Roy, the Bengali actress of the ‘Silent Era’ who also wrote on life and cinema, Bonani Chaudhuri took time off from her crowded acting schedule to express her views on a wide range of subjects in several Calcutta magazines, such as Roop-Mancha, Desh and Chitrabani. Through tireless striving, Debiprosad Ghosh was able to retrieve these writings and publish them in the shape of a thin volume, the artistic and archival importance of which is immeasurable. On the subject of the actress’s importance as a chronicler of the times in which she lived and the conditions in which she worked, Ghosh has waxed eloquent. He calls his series of monographs, beginning with Maya Roy and continuing with Bonani Chaudhuri, Ordhek Aakash Granthamala, perhaps reminding us that half the skies belong to women, and goes on to salute especially the most distinguished among them working in the arts.
Ghosh dedicates Shilpi Jibon, the riveting collection of eight essays by Bonani Chaudhuri, to “the film actresses of the two Bengals”, thereby, in a sense, expressing his belief that no man-made barriers can diminish the worth of art to lead us from darkness to light. Again, in his own way, the researcher is upholding the contribution of women to film art in a province that suffered the crime of partition due to no fault of its own.
The essays are varied in subject; and although they’re not very long, each of them is written with great feeling and a deep sense of responsibility. The treatment each subject gets is strikingly impressive because the writer’s storehouse of experience is matched by her command over her language and the courage of her beliefs. From “An Artiste’s Life” and “Difficulties Faced by Newcomers in the Bangla Film Industry” to “Bangla Cinema and Educated Women” and “The Role of Art in our Lives”, Bonani came to grips with many a pressing issue calling for rescue from neglect. In a language suffused with as much emotional depth as mature understanding of the intricacies of a life immersed in the arts, she wrote on “Literature and Cinema”, or on Tagore’s renowned play Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders). But, it’s like she had kept her last ounce of energy and feeling reserved for the ultimate essay in this collection, called “Mahatmaji’s Departure” on Gandhi’s assassination. She pours all her humanity and soulfulness into her remembrance of the great man.
At a time when even schoolchildren in certain parts of the country, what to speak of adults, are being given daily lessons in how to ignore, belittle or dishonour Gandhi and Tagore, two of the greatest sons of this land which once shone as a beacon of love and brotherhood, Bonani’s brief but beautiful attempts to show their undying relevance are eminently worthy of recall. If Bonani stresses the dangers inherent in the mechanical way of life and the necessity of the deeply-felt human touch to rise above the mundane and the purely material while discussing Tagore’s critique of a king who knows how to amass wealth by any means but not how to conduct himself like a leader complete with compassion and concern for his subjects, with equal conviction she wades into a sea of grief as she gives voice to her sense of loss at the country losing her conscience-keeper to a misdirected fanatic’s bullets.
Bonani Chaudhuri ends her requiem with those imperishable words that we have grown up with, and which no weak man, claiming to be strong, will ever be able to erase. At a time when repeated calls are being publicly made by malcontents in saffron to stage genocide, what balm it is to read Bonani’s recall of what she must have held close to her heart all her life:
Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram /
Patita Pavana Sita Ram /
Iswar Allah Tero Naam /
Sabko Sunmati De Bhagwan.
The reader can feel the tears in Bonani’s being as she writes in 1948: “Mahatmaji’s physical frame has been destroyed, but our dear Bapuji can never die. We will continue to feel the touch of the great soul through his teachings.”
By making available to us the story of a remarkable woman’s hardship, heartbreaks, exploits and expectations to live and work in a society without barriers, Debiprosad Ghosh has laid claim, as a matter of right, to our respect and gratitude. The enormous value of the writings of Begum Anwara Nahar, also known as ‘Bonani Chaudhuri’, is to be measured in terms of both her screen appearances in two Bengals, and her precious thoughts put into words. Going through Shilpi Jibon, there are times when the reader feels as if he is attending rehearsals for films and plays that are being enacted, for good or for evil, in present-day India, desperately struggling to come out of a state of siege. The toil and tears of the actress’s multi-faceted life is a pain and a joy to behold.
(Vidyarthy Chatterjee is a veteran writer-critic based in Kolkata)