Since 1992, Rituparna Sengupta has been enriching Bengali cinema with her screen presence. I do not know of any other heroine in the history of Indian cinema who has enjoyed such a long innings of immense popularity. However, along with tremendous popularity many of her superlative performances have garnered considerable critical acclaim, too.
Rituparna is one of the very few actresses in Indian cinema (including all languages) who can draw huge audience to theatres without the star power of a male lead. It is a rare feat in male-centric Indian cinema, which of course is a reflection of India’s male-dominated society.
Even in her late 40s she gave hits with almost unknown heroes, some of whom 15-20 years younger than her.
Sound, Lights, Action!
Her initiation into arts began at Chitrangshu, a cultural school which her elder aunt took her to. She studied there while also doing her regular schooling at Carmel High School. Chitrangshu exposed her to painting, dance, singing and clay-modeling.
“Though myriad incidents since my childhood have contributed towards shaping up my aesthetic sensibilities, my initiation into arts in a serious way began with Chitrangshu,” Rituparna said. The vibrant cultural atmosphere at her home also increased her inclination towards arts.
While doing her master’s in modern history at the University of Calcutta, well-known film director Prabhat Roy saw her performance in a television series, “Shwet Kapot” (White Pigeon, an adaptation of a Danish fairy tale) and picked to play the second lead in “Shet Patharer Thala.” Prabhat told her to mimic a noted actress, which Rituparna did well and bagged the role.
“I was impressed by her precise mimicking of a different performer’s voice so well, that too impromptu. It reveals great observation power; an important quality for an actor. I realized that the young lady would go really far,” he said.
The film went on to win a National Award for Best Feature Film on Family Welfare. Commercial success and critical acclaim of the film kick-started Rituparna’s career in cinema. She had to discontinue her studies to make time for her film projects.
The Actress Emerges
Though she found commercial success early in her career but most of the films in which she acted during 90s are devoid of cinematic merit. In 1994, she also made the first of her multiple attempts to make an impact in Bollywood, but got only forgettable roles in inconsequential films. In fact, in her multiple attempts to make it big in Bollywood only the romantic comedy “Main, Meri Patni Aur Woh” (2005) earned some critical and commercial success.
She began seeking aesthetically and intellectually stimulating roles. Her first significant performance after “Shet Patharer Thala” was probably in “Dahan” (1997), in which she played Romita, a victim of molestation and marital rape, with sensitivity. Her performance in “Dahan” (English title: Crossfire) won her the National Film Award for Best Actress in 1998.
Rituparna’s sensitive performance in the film probably got serious filmmakers to pay attention to her as an actress. Since then, along with roles in many crass films, she also did well in several critically acclaimed ones.
Her nuanced and restrained performance in Aparna Sen directed “Paromitar Ek Din” (2000) is a high point in Rituparna’s career. The film explores the love-hate relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law through a series of emotional scenes. Her performance in “Paromitar Ek Din” can rank among one of the best performances in Indian cinema ever.
The same year, she gave another powerhouse performance in “Utsav” (2000), directed by the late Rituparno Ghosh. The film comes across as a telling commentary on contemporary family ethos of middle-class India. In the film, Rituparna was paired opposite Prosenjit Chatterjee; one of the most popular stars in Bengali cinema.
Rituparna and Prosenjit are among the most celebrated hit screen pairs in West Bengal’s film industry, also known as Tollywood. Together, they have given several hits over the decades.
Another highlight for Rituparna in 2000 was “Sasurbari Zindabad,” where she was paired opposite Prasenjit. “Sasurbari Zindabad” is an escapist entertainer with crude characterizations, with no pretension to cinematic excellence. It went on to become the biggest blockbuster of its time in West Bengal’s film industry.
Thus, in three different roles, her performances reflected her versatility, presaging the iconic stature that she would eventually get in subsequent years.
Becoming the Hero
Other significant Bengali movies in her soaring success graph during 2000-2010 include “Alo” (2003), which achieved critical acclaim and commercial success; “Nishijapon” (2005), where she gave a very restrained performance of an apparently cheerful housewife harboring deep latent distress in her marital life; “Anuronon” (2007), a sensitive film dwelling on interpersonal relationship between married couples; the feel-good “Chander Bari” (2007); and the erotic thriller “Trishna” (2009), where Rituparna played a negative role. In between, there were many, many other commercial successes featuring her in pivotal roles.
By the second decade of the new millennium, Rituparna was not only among the most bankable actresses of Tollywood, but also emerging as an institution in herself.
Heroine-oriented scripts began to be written that were totally centered on her. In many of them, the male leads played second fiddle to her.
Cases in the point are “Charulata 2011” (2012), where she played an adulterous housewife in affair with a younger man; “Muktodhara” (2012), where she played a passionate reformer of prison inmates; “Teen Kanya” (2012), where she played a very unusual character (revealing more would spoil the film); “Mukti” (2013), where Rituparna played a school teacher having an affair with her young student.
A Versatile Actress
Srijit Mukherji (probably the most famous film director in the present-day Bengal film industry) directed her in “Rajkahini” (2015), a period film set at the time of India’s independence, where she played a foul-mouthed prostitute with a golden heart. Rituparna didn’t hide her disappointment on not getting a National Award for her performance in the landmark films of her career during 2016-2020.
“In “Praktan,” I was paired opposite Prasenjit Chatterjee after 14 long years but the film’s huge commercial success proved that our winning combination didn’t lose its charm among Bengali audience,” Rituparna observed with satisfaction.
Her performance in “Praktan,” (where she played the difficult role of an aggrieved and neglected wife with grey shades) and in “Ahaa Re” (where she played a cook in love with a younger chef), is nuanced enough to draw comparison to actresses like Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.
The Show Goes On
The pandemic hasn’t managed to dampen the spirit of the 51-year-old.
“During the last two years our industry suffered setbacks but we learned a lot too. Now things have started looking up, but still it would take some more time for us to reach pre-pandemic phase,” Rituparna said, adding “I also acted in a few films during this period while adhering to all COVID protocols.”
During the pandemic, she starred in “The Parcel” (which she also co-produced), and “Bansuri.” “The Parcel” earned her the award for Best Actor Female in a Feature Film at the 10th annual Washington DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF). Many films featuring her are soon to be released.
Besides being an actress, Rituparna is a film producer who runs her own production house, Bhabna-Aaj-O-Kal), and is a Manipuri and Odissi dancer who has performed many shows in India and abroad.
Rituparna recently acted and sang in “Phoolmati,” a music video composed and directed by music director Bappi Lahiri, who died at the age of 69 on February 15.
It has been three decades for her in cinema. But Rituparna still thrives, celebrating woman in an otherwise male-dominated industry.
Some Important Awards
1999 – Anandalok Puraskar for Best Actress for “Dahan”
2000 – Anandalok Puraskar for Best Supporting Actress for “Attiya Sajan”
2004 – BFJA – Best Actress Award for “Alo”
2007 – Anandalok Puraskar for Best Actress for “Anuranan”
2013 – BFJA – Best Actress Award for “Muktodhara”
2014 – Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actress, for “Alik Sukh”2017 – Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actress, for “Praktan”