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Actor Supriya Devi's legacy was more than just being Uttam Kumar's heroine

Despite having acted in Ritwik Ghatak films, her professional success remained overshadowed by her personal life.

 |  3-minute read |   26-01-2018
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Actor Supriya Choudhury, or Supriya Devi, as she was called in reverence, was known for the strong female characters she essayed in her more than 50-year-long career, much of which was at a time when the Bengali film industry revolved around matinee idol Uttam Kumar. While entertainment industries across the country are yet to address issues like gender discrimination, the death of the yesteryear Bengali actor brings to the fore the fact that she should be remembered beyond the legacy of Uttam Kumar.

On Friday morning, 85-year-old Devi, who hadn't been keeping well for the past few years, died of a heart attack at her Kolkata home. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee expressed condolences to her family. Her passing away is also being seen as an event marking the end of the Uttam Kumar era as Supriya Devi was one of the few actors alive who was Uttam Kumar’s contemporary.

She was awarded with Padma Shri, West Bengal’s government’s highest civilian award Banga Vibhushan, and Filmfare East Lifetime Achievement Award. Her career, which has contributed more than 40 movies to Indian films, including the Bollywood ones like Aap ki Parchhaiyan (1964), Door Gagan ki Chhaon Mein (1964), Begaana (1963), is remembered for the variety of characters she played with ease and how she breathed life into them with her indomitable personality. 

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However, her journey, both professional and personal, was not smooth. As she recollected in many interviews, her family came to Calcutta on foot from Myanmar (then Burma), during World War II. She started her career in Tollywood (Bengali film industry) at the age of 19 with Basu Paribar (1952), which also had Uttam Kumar in the lead role. A few years and movies later, the pair caught the romantic fancy of the Bengali audience, which was so far immersed in the Uttam-Suchitra onscreen chemistry. 

Meanwhile, her character of Neeta in Ritwik Ghatak’s much-acclaimed Megha Dhaka Tara (1960), which dealt with the lives of refugees following the Paritition, anointed her as a cerebral actor. Other remarkable films of her career include Shuno Baranari (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961), Surya Sikha (1963), Lal Pathar (1964), Chowringhee (1968), Bilambito Loy (1970), Bon Palashir Padabalai (1973), Debdas (1979), Kalankini Kankabati (1981) etc.

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Despite having acted in Ritwik Ghatak films, her professional life remained underrated because of her tumultuous personal life, as she was castigated for being a “home wrecker” after Uttam Kumar left his family and moved in with her.

Later, the duo got married, but only after giving a jolt to the ‘60s mindset and also the way Uttam Kumar was idolised in Bengali families. Many of her feisty performances were overshadowed by rumours that she did not allow any other actors to be cast opposite Uttam Kumar. The duo shifted their base to Mumbai, too, to venture into Bollywood.

After Uttam Kumar’s demise in 1980, the limelight moved away from her, only to return as she resurrected herself in the late '90s as a television star. She never found it below her stature to be part of the television industry and was seen on many cookery shows, for she was known for her great culinary skills.

While her contemporary Suchitra Sen chose a cloistered life, Supriya Devi had no qualms playing the on-screen grandmother. She was also part of Mira Nair's The Namesake (2006).

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