Bharati Devi, the first actress in Bengali cinema to have modelled for the earliest LUX ads, is no more. She passed away in Kolkata on December 30 2011. Born on October 22, 1922 in Kolkata, Bharati Devi made her debut as an actress in New Theatres’ Doctor (1940) made in two versions, Bengali and Hindi. Singer Pankaj Mullick portrayed the title role and Bharati Devi played his grown-up daughter. She made her presence felt with her bubbling, natural performance and New Theatres appointed her as a regular actress on a salary of Rs.100 per month in 1940. She stayed on with New Theatres for ten years following her debut. “When I left, I was drawing Rs.5000 per month and not once did we need to ask B.N. Sircar for a raise. He even gave me a loan to build a house. He hardly spoke to us because he was a man of few words. But we knew what a generous-hearted man he was. I will never forget those ten years with New Theatres,” she once said.
Other memorable roles were in Pratisruti (Bengali) in 1941, Saugandh (Hindi) in 1942 and in Kashinath (1943) based on a novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and directed by Nitin Bose with Pahari Sanyal in the lead. She played an important cameo in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak, in Bimal Roy’s Bandini and lately, in Gautam Ghose’s Yatra. She also acted in Tarun Majumdar’s Palatak and Alo Amar Alo, Tapan Sinha’s Nirjan Saikatey and Golpo Holeo Satti, and in umpteen television serials till her health forced her to stop.
But the most outstanding performance of her long innings is in Debaki Bose’s President-award-winning Sagar Sangamey (1959) as a very rigid, conservative and Brahmin widow heading an aristocratic, zamindar family. The film stood out as a scathing indictment on caste consciousness among Brahmins based on the false premise of high and low birth. The film points out that love is the basic emotion that transcends man-made differences of caste, class, education and affluence. The story deals with the strange relationship between the widow and a little daughter (Manju Adhikari) of a sex-worker who meet when their boat capsizes in a storm when they are journeying to the Ganga Sagar Mela in an island in West Bengal. Bharati Devi gave an outstanding, award-worthy performance and will be remembered forever for this one film even if the others are forgotten.