Biswajit Chatterjee remembers his father as a man whose physique and good looks always attracted attention. Dr Ranjit Chatterjee was a doctor in the British Indian army and posted all over the world which is why, between the age of three and four, young Bishu, as he was fondly called, lived in his maternal grandparents’ home in Garpark, North Kolkata, with his mother, Smritimoyee. “But whenever baba was transferred to India, we moved in with him. I spent a few of my growing up years in Lahore and Karachi, which back then was not Pakistan but a part of undivided India,” the veteran actor-filmmaker informs.
Tensions between Hindus and Muslims, who had lived together amicably for decades, flared in 1946, leading to communal riots, which started on August 16 that year. His father had left the army by then and was working in a civil hospital in Kolkata then. Biswajit recalls seeing trucks full of corpses, even as cries of ‘Allah o Akbar’ rose to compete with strident voices shouting ‘Vande Mataram’.
Revolt against British rule had started across the country. Mangal Pandey, Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, ‘Master’ Surja Sen, Khudiram Bose, Veer Savarkar, Sardar Patel, Bagha Jatin, Aurobindo Ghose, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bipin Chandra Pal and Mahatma Gandhi among others, had become household names. Biswajit, an avid reader, devoured books on them. “All of them contributed hugely to our freedom struggle, but my No 1 hero was Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose,” he says, recalling how British officers would ask his father, “Are you related to Bose?”
They were not a part of the Bose family, but Biswajit to this day is inspired by Netaji. “He hoisted the Indian tri-colour for the first time in Port Blair on December 30, 1943. Then again, on April 14, 1944, he hoisted the flag of the Indian National Army in Moirang, Manipur. He established the Azad Hind government, started the Azad Hind Bank, enlisted women in the Jhansi Ki Rani Brigade,” he rattles off from memory, pointing out that our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has acknowledged Netaji’s contributions to India’s Independence by re-naming Ross island in the South Andamans after him, while Neil island has been christened Shaheed Dweep and Havelock Island is officially known as Swaraj Dweep today.
As part of Netaji’s centenary celebrations, Biswajit himself had made a 30-minute documentary on him, Amar Netaji, which he presented to then President Shankar Dayal Sharma. “It was played on Doordarshan, and later, for Zee’s newly-launched Bengali channel, I made a 26-episode series titled Netaji Subhash, playing my idol on screen,” he shares.
Interestingly, Biswajit flagged off his career as an actor with the 1958 Bengali film, Dak Harkara, in which he made a fleeting appearance as an undercover freedom fighter, who comes with a whispered message for his comrade.
Four years later, came Dada Thakur, which won the President Gold Medal for Best Feature Film. It was inspired by the life of publisher and satirist, Sarat Chandra Pandit, played by Chhabi Biswas. Biswajit excelled as the spoilt, womanising son of a zamindar, who is set on the right path by Dada Thakur and dies, gunned down by British soldiers, while trying to hoist our national flag on British soil to the rousing cries of ‘Vande Mataram’.
Dada Thakur is a film which is close to his heart, as is the 1973 historical drama, Ami Sirajer Begum, in which he played Siraj-ud-Daullah, the last independent nawab of Bengal, betrayed by his own commander-in-chief, Mir Jafar. “His defeat in the Battle of Plassey paved the way for the East India Company who went on to rule Bengal and slowly, the entire Indian subcontinent,” he points out, adding that the role endeared him even across the border as Siraj is well respected in Bangladesh.
Not many are aware that Biswajit produced a 30-minute short film, Durbar Gati Padma (There Flows Padma, The Mother, 1971), scripted and directed by Ritwik Ghatak. tracing the nationalist movement which led to the Liberation War and the eventual emergence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. It had live footage of the war and after its release in India by the Films Division, he carried a print to Bangladesh.
“Bongo Bondhu, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of Bangladesh (later Prime Minister), received me himself. In his office in Bongo Bhavan, Dhaka, I was surprised to see portraits of two Indians, Rabindranath Tagore and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. When I asked him about them, he said that the Nobel laureate belongs to the world while Netaji was his political guru,” reminisces the veteran actor and filmmaker, who attended the screening of his film the next day at the FDC Studio as Bongo Bondhu’s special guest.
In 1972, Biswajit worked in an Indo-Bangladeshi production, Raktakto Bangla, in which he played a freedom fighter. “Directed by Mumtaz Ali, it was the first feature film with an Indian actor after the Liberation War. The rest of the cast, including Kabori Sarwar, Sultana and Golam Mustafa were all Bangladeshis. It had music by Salil Choudhury and Lataji [Mangeshkar] had sung one of the songs,” he informs.
On his last visit to Dhaka, he was accompanied by his wife, Ira, and daughter, Prima. “I was sitting on the front row with Army and Air Force generals who had fought in the Liberation War. I was honoured by Bongo Bondhu’s daughter and the new Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, with the Muktijuddho Sammaan,” Biswajit says proudly.
Earlier this year, at International Film Festival of India in Goa, Biswajit was honoured by the government of India with the prestigious Indian Personality of the Year 2000 Award for his contributions to cinema and culture. While he is popularly known as the ‘Suspense Hero from Bengal’ for films like Kohraa and Bees Saal Baad, he is fondly called the ‘Desi Elvis’ for musicals like Shararat and April Fool. He also played and officer in Shehnai. The son of an Air Force officer, who follows in the footsteps of his dead father to go to war against the wishes of his mother, in the 1964 film. “I immediately agreed to work in Chitta Bose’s 1962 Bengali film, Dhoop Chhaya, when Ananta Singh, one of the revolutionaries who was part the Chittagong armory raid in 1930, led by Surjo Sen, turned up on my sets one day and told me he wanted me in his film. I didn’t ask about the script or money,” says an emotional Biswajit.
He describes himself as a true-blue patriot who as a child out with his father one day, saw a board outside a Kolkata club saying dogs and Indians are not allowed. “That slight stayed with me and years later, when I was a successful actor, I went into a restaurant in London and insisted on eating with my hands, despite being told it was against the rules, just to get even,” he confides.
Today, on Independence Day, he asserts that the best way to salute our country is to support our own art, culture and industry. “It’s time to say, ‘I am an Indian’ with your head held high and a ring in your voice. It’s time to stop aping the West and believe we are the best,” he signs off with a “Jai Hind!”
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