Chitra Sen: Bengali theatre and acting-Exclusive Interview

Bengali Theatre Actress Chitra SenKolkata Jan 11, 2011 (Calcutta Tube): Chitra Sen the versatile Bengali actress of Bengali cinema, television and stage who nurtures three generations of acting in her family, speaks of her passion from the days of the free theatre to theatre of the modern days.

Calcutta Tube: You have been acting for a long time in theatre. What were the ideologies then?

Chitra Sen: When we started doing theatre, we actually didn’t look at it that way. You see we understood a different meaning of professionalism. Speaking for myself, when work was concerned, I was professional but I never much cared about its financial side. Acting was my occupation, it still is.

Calcutta Tube: Any changes in motivation or ideals?

Chitra Sen: In theatre, with time, concepts have changed, perspectives have changed, several new faces have come up, and we had lost quite a few old timers. We had to adapt with the changes. It is a good sign that today there is much experimentation with drama. Earlier, we used to do nothing else than theatre. But now several other streams have evolved. Now we find actors getting involved in films, soaps, dramas, operas simultaneously. Contrastingly, radio performances are on the decline.

But theatre is the place where you can learn the basics; you can groom yourself up in the art of acting. If you don’t understand the basics, you can’t continue for good. Those who do not bother for it will feel hard to survive. In our times, we had complete devotion for drama. But today there are so many other incitements, so you can’t blame anybody if nobody does theatre only. Truly speaking you can’t make money doing stage acting, though during our times we had somehow managed.

But now we have several production houses with sponsors. Involvements have also increased. In our times, for female roles, the directors were specifically instructed to keep female roles to not more than two. At that time, people did not accept theatres very enthusiastically – neither your relatives nor your family and friends. But now it is different. It is now considered glamorous to show yourself in TV, female characters in plays have increased like anything. The outlook has changed.

Earlier we used to face a lot of obstacles though for me there had never been any problem. I grew up in a family with a musical background. My father taught me singing, several revered personalities frequently visited our house. I learnt to dance as well. In fact, I loved to learn these arts. Slowly I started doing stage acting that ultimately turned to an obsession. You see, if the passion was not there, I couldn’t have carried on this far – I sincerely wish to continue till my health permits.

Calcutta Tube: Tell us about the many generations of directors you’ve worked with.

Chitra Sen: Initially I started acting under Jnyanesh Mukhopadhyay. Then I used to work with my husband Shyamal Sen – a student of  Utpal Dutta. I also worked with Rabi Ghosh, he was in the same group. Then I acted with Bibhash Chakrabarty too. But the best thing was when I worked under the direction of my son Kaushik Sen. Along with my grandchild Riddhi, when three of our generations do stage plays, it is an altogether a different kind of enjoyment. However, right at this moment I’m not working with ‘Swapnasandhani’.

Calcutta Tube: And working with Sundaram?

Chitra Sen: Only if ‘Alakanandar Putra Kanya’ is being played. Currently I’m with Seema Mukhopadhyay’s ‘Rangrup’. We have been performing a play called ‘Jalchabi’ since 2009. This is an adaptation of a foreign drama and it features two principle characters. Among them, I play the role of the Mother, the other being played by Seema. For the role, I received the Best Actress Award from the Government of West Bengal in 2010. I had earlier received the award in 1989 for ‘Alakanandar Putra Kanya’ under the direction of Manoj Mitra. Recently I’m doing one of Mohit Chattopadhyay’s plays based on Kabita Singh’s story ‘Maer Moto’.

Calcutta Tube: Do you feel any difference in acting as we compare today’s theatre with the older ones?

Chitra Sen: Actually it is not a difference, but the style that changes through time. Along with the transformation in style of acting, the approach of directors also varies in accordance to the age. Just observe the recent experimentations with Tagore’s works. Performers must adapt according to the requirement.

Calcutta Tube: So how it has changed from the ’50s?

Chitra Sen: You see, the perspective has changed and that will be reflected in the acting. I don’t know whether I have managed to do it but I try! In this context I would like to say something about melodrama. Contrary to popular belief, this requires extreme skill, rich gestures and postures. I can’t do them. In fact, today the style has vanished just because we can’t carry them out in its proper format. But that is surely a distinct genre. Previously we had ‘jatra’ (opera), that style was not adapted by today’s generation of actors simply because they had never seen it. ‘Jatra’ has a definite format. You must act accordingly.

Calcutta Tube: Have you ever done a Jatra?

Chitra Sen: It will be incorrect to say that I haven’t. Infact, I’d done operas under Utpal Dutta when he had founded the ‘Bibek Jatra Samaj’. There, he used to perform his old plays like ‘Rifle’ but that was transformed to a different form. We had a 3-way open stage with a central dais, but the acting was not much different as in were in theatres. There was never a melodrama sort of thing that is so characteristic of a traditional opera. Today, nobody is accustomed with that class of acting. You can’t say that it was an inferior style, rather it requires a different skill altogether. I had never learnt that type of acting. You might have observed that when we read a verse, automatically a sort of melodrama creeps in the voice, the pitch, the throwing of words varies from normal, it can’t be done in a matter of fact way. Its tone, its rhythm – everything changes.

You hear sometimes, comments like “this is a very theatrical”, but in stage too we can do normal acting. I used to do that in ‘Alakanandar Putra Kanya’, especially in a scene where I unconsciously touch a boiling kettle while conversing with my husband. The sudden shock that I should feel had been so natural that the audience seemed to wince at that.

In ‘Jalchabi’ I again changed my way of acting as the character demanded that. In fact, it is just opposite to what my roles usually portray. But once I realized this was essential, I did that only. I researched on the character, the age of the story, the dialect of an aristocratic house – I practiced on the postures a 70-up woman might have, so in essence, Chitra Sen had to remodel herself.

Calcutta Tube: Why do we find audience is comparatively less in theatres?

Chitra Sen: Well, it is surely not that bad as was in the 70’s. During that time, there were indeed very few theatre goers. But now there are so many groups. Infact you will observe that in the call shows that we do outside city audience spills over.

Calcutta Tube: Do you think the popularity of ‘jatra’ is greater than theatre?

Chitra Sen: Look, now ‘jatra’ is tending to theatre. Though, the subject theatre deals with is not applicable for ‘jatra’ because they target the rural audience. In Calcutta we don’t have so much ‘jatra’, though in Mahajati Sadan you have occassional shows. But the audience of operas likes theatres also. In towns, where we do shows, we don’t hear mobile tunes, whispers from audiences and surely no sound of the crumbling of plastic bags. They are truly good audience.

You see, a production like ‘Jolchobi’, with a tragic end, which is an adaptation of an English drama albeit being very much Indianised, but rural audiences were thrilled by this not so Bengali drama. We have done shows at Krishnanagar, Egra, North Bengal, will be going to Murshidabad. They not only were prepared, but they understood it very well quite contrary to the Calcutta audience where at the end viewers had murmured “what was it, a quarrel between mother and daughter?” it is really very saddening when you get to hear these. In rural areas we had found school teachers, professors even clarifying their minimum at the end of the performance. They correctly understood the struggle for existence that was the underlying concept of the story, which was not at all foreign to them and is really the picture of every household. The bond that we share in family, the invariable conflict, the complex yet actual interrelationships – the townsfolk understood it very well.

Calcutta Tube: Tell us about Chitra Sen, as the lady outside stage?

Chitra Sen: Well, though an artist, but my artistic side could never interfere with my social life. I’d always been a member of a joint family, so living with relatives, carrying out my responsibilities – these are all part of my daily life. Play is also just another part. I can adjust to this way of life.

I’ve brought up my son while doing stage shows. Though it seems difficult but I’ve never considered it a problem. I know I have to do it. In the same way that I’ve to eat each day and earn a livelihood, I have to do acting. Without it, I can’t live.

Calcutta Tube: Whenever we hear the name Chitra Sen, we contemplate a motherly figure, tell us more about you.

Chitra Sen: Yes, I’m just so. Indeed I am just that much motherly as you think. This feeling itself creates the ambience during my acting.

Calcutta Tube: Why don’t we see you doing films?

Chitra Sen: Truly speaking, though I’ve done some class films under Ritwik Ghatak, but I don’t get that much offers. And the offers that do come, mostly I don’t like them. The characters in mainstream movies, for which I get proposals, are not that good. But this does not mean I don’t like films. I had worked in films before I’ve come to theatres. But the roles that are being offered to me now, I don’t think those are worth doing.

Calcutta Tube: The TV serials, what are your take on that?

Chitra Sen: Well you see, several of them are not that good. In fact sometimes we fail to understand their rationale, the same goes for certain characters, their objectives. It is very difficult to maintain quality in a lengthy serial. However, telefilms are quite the opposite. Some, in which I’ve worked, including those under Raja Sen, Raja Dasgupta and Bibhas Chakrabarty, they were indeed nice.  In recent times, John is doing good telefilms.

Calcutta Tube: Do you have any regrets?

Chitra Sen: No, the work that I’ve done, the characters that I’ve played, I had tried to give my best and I’m quite content with that. I’m 66 now, so as long as my health permits I’ll continue to perform and will always attempt at quality work.

Calcutta Tube: How do you, Kaushik Sen, Reshmi Sen, and son Riddhi share this common bond of acting?

Chitra Sen: You see, when Kaushik was only one/two years old, I’d done theatre. In those days, we did not take fees. Naturally nobody would show an interest to babysit him while I pursue my obsession. So I used to take him with me. I’d designed a box where I used to take his meals. In those days of limited resources, I used to snug him between seats of buses and took him to our rehearsals. This I continued till his admission to school. Then after at a certain period, I left all these for 10-12 years to bring up my son. I had been a government employee then, but I left my job as well. At that time I did many radio works. My husband used to work there, I too used to work with him. But as Kaushik grew up and being in a joint family, I started keeping him in home and again joined thatres. Then Kaushik got married. Reshmi, my daughter-in-law is again an excellent dancer but didn’t do any plays. But when she was introduced to an acting family she was gradually absorbed in theatres. Initially she used to do stage crafts, choreographies but she soon became a full-fledged actor. My grandson Riddhi is seeing acting from birth. From a very tender age he is performing at ‘Prachya’, I remember carrying him through the crowds at the age of 3. Now is his final exam. He is very happy that the exams will be over, then he can fully concentrate on acting.

Calcutta Tube: Whom do you consider better – director Kaushik Sen or actor Kaushik Sen?

Chitra Sen: You see, he is giving direction from the start. I’d worked under his direction, there has never been any problem. I like him better as a director. But again, in some characters he is just fascinating, he is a very intelligent actor. At present he is doing Bisarjan where he is excellent. Again, in the play ‘Darjiparar Marjina’, he brilliantly acted there too. But as to his consistency, he is better as a director. This dominates over his acting.

Calcutta Tube: What is the most important character that you played?

Chitra Sen: I got my major break in ‘Alakanandar Putra Kanya’ by Sundaram, that became a myth for me. I did 400-450 shows. After that in ‘Prachya’, I’d done several a significant role. In Samaresh Basu’s ‘Manush’, I did a one-act character Bhagabatidi, which was a classic. Again, in Manoj Mitra’s play ‘Shobhajatra’ I played another important character, Atasi. Now that I’m doing ‘Jalchabi’, the character is very much out-of-the track which I consider a very challenging task. It is now 1 and a ½ years old and we’re doing considerable shows with it.

Anirban De / Shrabanti Basu

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