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Sreela Majumdar: an extremely talented actress who never became a star

Shoma A. Chatterji provides glimpses into the achievements a Bengali actress who failed to get the recognition she richly deserved during her lifetime

Mrinal Sen’s late wife Gita Sen, an actress in her own right, discovered Sreela Majumdar in a radio play called Antyaja,as both of them were active in Bengali theatre in Calcutta. Mrinal-da was looking for a young, dark and slim actress, and she fit the bill. Sreela was forever grateful to Gita-di for having given her this opening. She once said in an interview, “I was preparing to appear for my school final board exams and when he heard this, he waited for me to finish my exams and began his shooting only after that. Where will you meet a director like this?”

Sreela made her debut in the Mrinal Sen film Parasuram in 1980 when she was only 16. And she went on to act in many more of his films. She left a mark with her expressive face and mobile eyes. In Ek Din Pratidin (1980), she played the sister of the protagonist, Mamata Shankar, and, at the end, lashes out at her parents for burdening the older sister with the financial responsibility of the entire family, thus depriving her of a normal married life. It was a memorable performance.

Sreela did a small role in Kharij (1982) Sen’s film in Hindi starring Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi. The length of her role and its significance in the screenplay were irrelevant – Sreela made an impression with her performance. In Sen’s Akaaler Sandhane (1981), she plays an impoverished maid who was part of a unit that arrives in a village to shoot a film on the famine and is coerced into portraying a famine victim whose infant is about to die of starvation.

Sreela brought the character to life. The closing shot is of her face slowly fading from the screen, signifying her tragic end. No one who has watched the film will be able to forget that expressive face. She also performed in other Mrinal Sen films – Chorus and Calcutta 71. In the process, she became almost a member of Mrinal Sen’s family, which kept open house for everyone associated with his films.

Sreela also played an important role in Utpalendu Chakraborty’s film Chokh (1983) and portrayed a deaf-mute girl trafficked into a brothel run by a character played by Shabana Azmi in Shyam Benegal’s film Mandi (1983). She did a cameo in Aarohan, too. 

Sreela was fun-loving, cheerful and extremely friendly and also sang very well. In fact, young director Indrashish Acharya asked her to sing a song in her own voice in his film Parcelin which she played a governess-cum-ayah to the little daughter of a very busy doctor couple. She stood out in a submissive role, a performance in which perhaps no one could have matched her. Another important film in which she did a longer role was Nabyendu Chatterjee’s Chopper (1986) which was screened at the Indian Panorama section of the Filmotsav in Hyderabad. Her last film appearance was in Palan,director Anjan Dutt’s tribute to the great master Mrinal Sen as a sequel to his Kharij.

This writer knew her slightly and was pleasantly surprised by her down-to-earth approach despite her fame – it was she who came forward and introduced herself to me. Her rather dark complexion and slim build, which were what initially won her a part in Mrinal Sen’s film, actually went against her when she was looking for leading lady assignments, given the colonially inculcated predilection for fair skin and a fulsome figure. She was a mismatch from this perspective.

Sreela Majumdar was an extremely talented actress who never became a star. Rituparna Sengupta, the leading star of Bengali cinema who was very fond of Sreela and looked up to her as an elder sister, mourned the fact that the Bengali film industry had never recognised the talent of a great actress and never bestowed any award or title on her for her wonderful contribution to Bengali cinema. After the actress’ demise, Sengupta said Sreela had asked her not to tell anyone that she was suffering from cervical cancer. She succumbed to it after a three-year battle.

Even as she pursued her acting career, Sreela met, fell in love with, and married S.N.M. Abdi, well-known senior journalist. She is survived by Abdi and their son, Sohail, who now lives in London.

(The writer is a senior journalist and film historian based in Kolkata.)