One afternoon in March, 1944, a beautiful 17-year-old girl gate-crashed the New Theatres studios in Calcutta to present herself to Director Debaki Bose.
“I want to act in your films,” said she, in a voice that was a mixture of nervousness and bravado.
Debaki Bose looked up and was struck by the remarkable beauty of the teenager standing before him. He made a split second decision :
“Yes,” he said, “I will take you as the heroine of my picture ‘Sandhi'”.
The girl’s nervousness gave place to speechless astonishment! She could not believe her ears. But Debaki Bose went on in a business-like way, picking up pencil and paper : “What is your name? Who is your father?” he asked.
At the mention of her father, the girl’s elation turned to consternation! With difficulty she managed to blurt out a false name she had picked for herself…Nilaxi ..but the shrewd director knew she was not speaking the truth, and said so. She then broke down and confessed that she could not tell her father that she wished to join the films, because he simply wouldn’t hear of it. As it was a risky thing to appoint a minor girl, Debaki Bose suggested that, probably, it would help matters if he met her father personally and got his consent. But even then the girl refused to disclose her father’s name. Realizing that there was no point in pursuing the matter, Debaki Bose asked the girl to go home and come back the next day.
In the meantime, since he had made up his mind that this was the girl to play the lead in his film, Debaki Bose persuaded Mr. B N. Sirkar, the doyen of Indian film producers, to exert his influence in the matter.
That same day, the girl boldly went up to her father and told him that she was going to join the New Theatres as an actress. Her father, an eminent lawyer and nephew of the late Mr. Digamber Chatterjee, then Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, was stunned. Was it for a film career, so abhorrent to orthodox Hindu families, that he had educated her? Was the daughter of a family that was held in high regard destined to enter the films and bring shame and disgrace to a century-old house of learning and piety? Was the daughter of one of the leaders of the orthodox Shri Ram Krishna Ashram to enter an Indian film studio, a place of reckless unconventionality and Bohemianism? In a mad fury, the father struck his head with an iron rod and the girl, overwhelmed with fear and remorse, wept bitterly.
However, the very next day, she stole away and went to Debaki Bose. There, as previously arranged, Mr. B. N. Sirkar received her and, in spite of her reluctance, persuaded her to go to her father and ask for his consent again. The hostile father, on being told that Mr. B. N. Sirkar, whose father, the late Sir M. N. Sirkar, was his personal friend, approved of his daughter’s intentions, simply couldn’t withhold his consent. Reluctantly he allowed his beloved daughter to enter the films.
The girl, who came to be known to her millions of admirers as Sumitra Devi, was given leading roles in New Theatres’ “My Sister” and Associated Pictures’ “Sandhi”. When her first picture, “Sandhi”, was released in December, 1944, she was received with wild acclaim by movie-goers and critics alike, and was voted “Best Actress of the Year” by the Bengal Film Journalists Association. It was an extraordinary triumph for her as no film star till the present day has won that coveted honor in her very first picture.
Sumitra Devi was born 25 years ago on July 22nd at Suree in Bir Bhoomi District, West Bengal. Her maternal grandfather, Rai Bahadur Rajani Bhooshan Mukherjee, at the suggestion of their family doctor, a European, christened her Lily.
Lily was a strange mixture of a serious- minded child and a tomboy. In games she preferred to leave her younger sister, Benu, and her brothers to their quiet pursuits and join the neighborhood’s noisy elements —- the boys —- sometimes beating them at their own games. And on the other hand, she was possessed of a studious, inquiring mind which drew her to devour such heavy literature as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Chaitnya Vrita and ancient history. When she was six years old, she went to school in Muzzaffarpur-Bihar, where her father, Babu Murlidhar Chatterjee, was a prominent member of the Bar. Then came the great calamity, the Bihar earthquake, which demolished the family house and estate. They moved to Calcutta, taking up residence in a house on Jalia Tola Street in the northern part of the city.
In Calcutta, Lily went to the Deshbandhu Girls’ School, where, in addition to being a diligent student, she took an active part in sports and dramatics. In fact, so popular was she on the school stage that she was given the title role in “Alice In Wonderland”. But somehow, Lily was never destined to have an uninterrupted education. When she was studying for the Matriculation in 1944, the family was forced to flee from Calcutta because of the threat of large-scale bombing by the Japanese. They moved to Bankura where Lily, now keenly interested in acting, took every opportunity to play a part on the local stage. She appeared as Mohabat Khan in D. L. Roy’s famous play, “Nurjehan”. But all these stage appearances were strictly as an amateur and very often meant only for the privileged few. Her orthodox Shakta family background precluded a professional career for women, especially entertaining. To be respected housewives and mothers was the highest state they aspired to.
When the bombing scare subsided in 1944, the family returned to Calcutta. Lily was now old enough to be permitted some form of entertainment occasionally, and she liked nothing better than to see a film. It was on one such occasion that she saw “Samadhan”, a popular picture of that year. After seeing “Samadhan” she critically examined the heroine’s performance and came to the conclusion that she could do better in every respect : she was beautiful and a born actress. Her conviction that she was cut out for a career in the films grew upon her steadily — until it became an obsession. When she could stand it no longer, she brushed convention and parental authority aside and literally gate-crashed into the films.
After her success in “My Sister”, and “Sandhi” she was securely established as one of India’s leading actresses, and was much sought after by producers. Mr. B. N. Sirkar released her from the exclusive contract she had signed with him and she appeared in quick succession in such smashing hits as “Oonch Neech”, “Pather Dabi”, “Abhijog” and “Jail Jatra”. In all these pictures she played opposite Debi Mukherjee, great two-fisted hero of Bengal. It was, perhaps, inevitable that this romance on the stage should blossom forth into a romance in life. A deep and abiding love grew up between them and on October 21, 1946, they were married.
From that day, Sumitra’s life was like a dream. Whenever she is reminded about those days, tears dim her eyes and her gaze is fixed as it were on that patch of happiness that will never return, because tragedy was following close on the heels of this short spell of bliss that was hers. On December 1, 1947, she gave birth to a son and called him Bulbul. Ten days after this event her husband died of heart failure. Sumitra was numbed with grief and all that mattered to her in life seemed to die with her husband. She decided to leave the films forever and withdrew into a lonely world of her own.
But time is a great healer. As her baby boy grew into a toddler, her grief mellowed and she cast about for something to do, if only to give her son all the best in life. She staged a come-back in 1949, and so outstanding was her performance in “Swami” that she again won the “Best Actress of the Year” award of the Bengal Film Journalists Association. Her next picture “Debi Chaudharani”, in which she played the title role, was a record box-office success.
But despite her success and popularity she was not happy. Everything around her reminded her of her beloved husband. And so, when Director Nitin Bose offered her the heroine’s part in his sentimental melodrama, “Mashaal”, a Bombay Talkies production, she gladly accepted it and came to Bombay. Her success in “Mashaal” brought her many offers from Bombay producers, but she did not accept them indiscriminately. Before she signs a contract, she demands a perusal of the story.
This year, her “Ghungroo”, a box-office success, has captivated cinema audiences and revealed her as a dancer of considerable merit. She has been deluged again with contracts even though she is at present cast in six pictures including Kardar’s “Diwana” and Dada Gunjal’s “Mamta”.
Sumitra Devi is five feet four inches tall and well proportioned. Her most widely discussed attribute is her beauty and she is so careful of her complexion that she does her own make-up when going on the sets. Off the sets, she leads the life of a conscientious housewife with her father and mother and little Bulbul who “keeps the house roaring with laughter”. Bulbul forms the center of her whole existence.
Romance is out of the question for her, she says. “I had it once. Now my dear Bulbul is my greatest love and I can’t share it with anyone”. Those 14 months of bliss she spent with Debi Mukherjee are ever green in her memory and there can be no one who can take his place.
And so, this young and startlingly beautiful woman…she is only 25…with a pearl-like complexion and finely chiselled features has decided to remain a mother all her life. But her fame and popularity are not now levelling off. “Ghungroo” is but the beginning of another glittering phase in her career (This interview was conducted in 1952).