I wanted to live…I wanted to live.
These words were amongst veteran Bengali actress Surpiya Choudhury’s most famous dialogues and belonged to one of the greatest movies of all time in Indian Cinema, Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghey Dhaka Tara. Neeta, her character from the movie, was a woman from a middleclass but impoverished Bengali family who sacrificed her own life so that she could look after her parents and siblings but died after contracting tuberculosis. Her dialogues from the 1960 film reverberated through the minds of hundreds of her fans when on January 26, news of Supriya Devi’s death reached them. She was in her southern Calcutta apartment when she suffered a heart attack. She was 85. Her daughter was with her at the time.
Supriya Devi belonged to the era of Bengali cinema in the two decades spanning the 1950s and 1960s, when masters of the stature of Ghatak, Satwajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha brought to the fore strong women as leading characters. Several of her roles portrayed changing social mores and the way women were breaking traditional boundaries. In the 1970, Agragami film, Bilambita Loy, for instance, she walks out on her marriage, which was considered a taboo for women.
In her personal life Supriya Devi herself broke social norms. Her live-in relationship with Bengali cinema’s then leading star, the legendary Uttam Kumar, became the talk of the town. In fact, both of them were married at that time. But though she earned as much scorn from the unsympathetic for her role in the ensuing heartbreaks, she always openly and vociferously defended her decision and even publicly spoke about her pregnancy out of wedlock.
For those who knew “Benudi” as she was called by her close friends and family, she was a brave and loving woman who had had a difficult life. When her family arrived in Calcutta as refugees from then East Pakistan, they were penniless. She worked hard to make her mark in the competitive film industry. In later years, Supriya Devi acted in smaller roles, including in the 2006 Mira Nair film, The Namesake and even hosted a television cook show.
Many would agree however that perhaps her most memorable role is that of Neeta, the Meghey Dhaka Tara, the star that was shrouded in clouds.