Madhabi Mukherjee Through Ray’s Lens

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Madhabi Mukherjee

Discover the power and brilliance of Madhabi Mukherjee, Satyajit Ray’s most important actress. Explore her seamless transitions of expressions and her portrayal of self-reliant women in films like Mahanagar, Charulata, and Kapurush.

She did not possess the breathtaking beauty of Suchitra Sen or the oomph and sensuality of Supriya Chowdhury; then there was Sabitri Chatterjee, perhaps the finest actress of her generation. So, Madhabi Mukherjee’s task was pretty much cut out. Yet it can be safely inferred that she was Ray’s most important actress, keeping in mind the suave and brilliant Sharmila Tagore who had acted in 5 of Ray’s acclaimed films (Madhabi Mukherjee was there in three).

So, what makes Madhabi such a powerful actress, and even more importantly, the principal female protagonist of Satyajit Ray’s body of work? Perhaps as co-actor Rabi Ghosh had rightly observed, it is her instinctive mastery at grasping the core essence of the character, that she is essaying. Ray’s own clarity of thought about the profiles that he had created, helped Madhabi flesh them out with such subdued yet effortless vivacity. It is worth noting that in all three films with Ray, the director exploited Madhabi’s intense and expressive eyes—which are the seats of a range of emotions latent within the heart of the Bengali middle-class woman. Her craft has a seamless transition of expressions that shifts from one to the next without any interruption. Behind this smooth transformation lies a very sophisticated yet subtle technique in the way she navigated her expression using her emotive eyes to light up a sequence and leveraged the same to portray her confusion, tension, and angst. Her complete lack of self-consciousness probably helped her on-screen and made her fit the role of the character she was portraying.

After taking on a plethora of subjects, Ray’s first attempt to look at the contemporary urban life was with Mahanagar in 1963. In this film (based on the short story “Abataranika” by Narendranath Mitra), Ray for perhaps the first time introduced a woman character who was quietly confident in determining the course of her own life even within the constrained limits of our traditional patriarchal society. Madhabi Mukherjee played Arati, the naive housewife of a lower middle-class Kolkata Bengali household, who sets out to work in order to reduce her husband’s financial burden. Madhabi acted in two more Ray films, showing a wide array of shades exhibiting self-reliant womanhood. In the words of eminent film critic, Chidananda Dasgupta – “As the traditional middle-class housewife finding a new worth in herself, Madhabi Mukherjee is the perfect embodiment of the woman, torn between self-abnegation and self-respect. Even her looks are of the housewife lost in her chores who has, secretly in her somewhere, all the enticing mystery of woman. The enticing aspect is to unfold itself further in Charulata; but the possibility is indicated here, where Madhabi strikes the perfect note of hesitant emergence from behind the curtains of tradition”.

Madhavi Mukherjee in Ray's Mohanagar
The touching scene of Mohanagar

In “Charulata” (The Lonely Wife), her second venture with Ray in 1964, Madhabi as Charu gave her the most prolific cinematic performance to date, one that is awe-inspiring and multi-layered. Charulata is incidentally Ray’s most acclaimed film as well, one he often acknowledged as his ‘most perfect’. The quintessential Tagore female protagonist is one who is more mature and confident than most of her compatriots and exudes an identity that is clearly separate from her male partner. So, the character of Charu in Tagore’s “Nosto Neer” on which Ray based his film, is a logical extension of Arati in terms of the yearnings of a woman who has a strong sense of dignity and pride. However, choosing Madhabi as a Tagore heroine was by no means an easy task. Most of Tagore’s heroines exemplified supreme beauty and Madhabi’s intelligent but understated demeanour was not exactly suited to being one. Among a host of other qualities, Ray had an astonishing ability to foresee his characters even before he started working on a film and he consciously chose actors to fit those preconceived moulds. Madhabi Mukherjee always believed that she was a good fit for Charulata, something which made her job a lot easier. Her look was deliberately kept uncomplicated and traditional under the close supervision of Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra. Ray changed the ending of Charulata from the original story, in the course of which he took a considerable amount of time to finalize the ending and for Madhabi this delay to find out Charu’s eventuality heightened her confusion, which Ray brilliantly leveraged to depict Charu’s dilemma.

Madhobi Mukherjee in ray's Charulota
Madhobi in Charulota

The third and final appearance of Madhabi in a Ray film was in Kapurush (The Coward) in 1965. Based on a short story, in this film, Madhabi as Karuna yet again personified a married woman with an identity that is distinct from the one she acquires due to her marriage. Essaying the character of a tea planter’s wife with a past, she meets her ex-lover who didn’t have the courage to accept her choice, dignity, and ability to take quick decisions for herself, and both their lives. Quite like Arati, Karuna was in dire straits, caught between her own set of ideals and convictions, and pangs of reality.

Madhobi in ray's Kapurush
Madhobi Kapurush

In all the three characters manifested a latent power within her, a strength of character that always puts her male counterparts to the test—and not once could they match up to her. All three films managed to reflect the choices women have in society and how the chances of them exercising these make men awkward, unsure, and weak.

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Mrinal Sen, who effectively launched Madhabi’s career with “Baishey Shraban” had wonderfully described her stating that ‘she is extraordinarily ordinary’ and there is hardly a semblance of doubt that this extraordinary ordinariness helped Madhabi play these immortal characters with so much poise and honesty, something which no other actress would have been able to emulate.

Apart from the three celebrated movies with Ray and Baishe Sravan and Calcutta ‘71 with Mrinal Sen, Madhavi also exhibited her repertoire with Ritwik Ghatak in Subarnarekha and other noted movies like Biraj Bou, Strir Patra, Ganadevta and Thana Theke Aschi (a personal favorite of mine). I would like to conclude this piece with a line by the late noted film critic Roger Ebert about Madhabi Mukherjee .. “ She is a beautiful deep, wonderful actress who simply supasses all ordinary standards of judgement”.

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