Three days ago, a special show at Mumbai’s Metro theatre raised a toast to Sujata in its 50th year. And the golden memories came flooding back. I remember the film’s screenplay writer, Nabendu Ghosh, telling me that the idea for the film came from a 10-page Bengali story, Antaja. He suggested it to director Bimal Roy who demurred, saying it it was too short to be developed into a film script.
Nabenduda then suggested to the writer, Subodh Ghosh, that he embellish the simple story of a Brahmin boy in love with an untouchable girl, creating conflict within her surrogate family, with a few more details. Subodh Ghosh did better. He ran a 100-page series spun from it in a popular Bengali magazine called Ultarat. As soon as it had completed its run, Nabenduda went back to Bimalda who immediately packed him off to Kolkata to pick up the rights.
Sujata featured Nutan in the title role, opposite Sunil Dutt as Ahir. In the book, The Man Who Spoke In Pictures: Bimal Roy, she remembers Bimalda as an extremely introverted man. “If he was pleased with a shot, he would just say OK and proceed with the next scene, unlike other directors who made it a point to let the artistes know that they were appreciated,” she reminisces.
However, one day, after she’d enacted an emotional scene, Nutan looked towards him enquiringly and was surprised to see that Bimalda’s eyes were moist. “That was my reward, my answer. That take was fantastic even by his standards,” says Nutan.
Sujata bagged her the Best Actress Award. It also received the President’s Gold Medal and is today revered as a classic, not surprising given Bimalda’s brilliance and perseverance.
His editor, Amit Bose, in the same book edited by his daughter, Rinki Bhattacharya, singles out a particular scene in the greenhouse where Ahir tells Sujata that he’s come mainly to see her. Her aanchal touches a lajwanti plant as she turns away blushing.
For four days, Bimalda took the shot repeatedly, as he tried to film the closing of the lajwanti leaves to reflect the blushing Sujata. Only on the fourth day did they close, after he got a huge propeller fan to blow on the plant.
Amit Bose was then handed 50,000 feet of film and told to edit it to a minute-and-a-half sequence. For months, he spent sleepless nights wondering how to do it till Bimalda walked into the cutting room and edited the sequence in less than two days..
The film is also remembered for Sulochana who at the age of 28, when still doing lead roles in Marathi films, agreed to play Nutan’s mother because she didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of working with Bimalda.
She remembers sitting on the sets during a break with Nutan, Sunil Dutt, Shashikala, Lalita Pawar and Bimalda and noticing that while most of the crew were Bengali, several of the cast were Maharashtrians.
When she pointed this out, Bimalda retorted tongue-in-cheek, “That’s because talent is found only in Maharashtra and Bengal.” Everyone cast sidelong glances at Sunil Dutt who didn’t belong to either state. To their relief, he burst out laughing.
Sujata completed a silver jubilee run at Mumbai’s Opera House. In its 25th week, the chauffeur of a top producer-director approached him for passes. He admitted he’d seen the film thrice already but wanted to see it again because "dil ko thandak paunchti hai” (it soothes the soul). Nabenduda insisted that it was one of the best compliments he had ever received.
In its 50th year, neither Bimalda nor he, neither Nutan nor Sunil Dutt, were around. But the magic of Sujata hasn’t faded!