Whenever I think of the iconic Bengali actor Supriya Choudhury, the first thing I recall is not her face—with its high cheekbones and large, kohl-rimmed eyes that often drew comparisons to Sophia Loren’s—but her voice, disembodied, tearing through the hills in Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star (1960): “Brother, I wanted to live; I want to live; tell me that I will live!” A beloved star of her time, Choudhury had a decades-spanning oeuvre that included another Ghatak film, E-Flat (1961); a string of commercial successes with her real-life partner, the Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar; and even a notable late-career cameo in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006). But when she passed away in 2018 at the age of eighty-five, she seemed forever embalmed—in obituaries, remembrances, and cultural memory—in that primal scream she lets loose in The Cloud-Capped Star as Neeta, the dutiful daughter of a penurious refugee family who is ruined by her own selflessness.
It’s a cry that endures in part because it strains against an inexorable fate. In The Cloud-Capped Star, Ghatak draws from the myths of the Hindu deity Durga to deliver a furious critique of the bourgeois values of post-Partition Bengal. Like the Mother Goddess whose deconsecration—ritualized through the yearly festival of Durga Puja—sustains the life force of the world, Neeta expends herself thanklessly for her family until tuberculosis seals her tragic destiny. She ends up at a hillside sanatorium (a twisted reference to the goddess’s mountainous abode), where, in the film’s final moments, she is visited by her brother Shankar (Anil Chatterjee). As he prattles nervously about their nephew, trying to keep her in good spirits, Neeta suddenly erupts, objecting desperately to the inevitable. She isn’t dead yet, but Ghatak all but confirms her annihilation with Eisensteinian montage: he cuts jaggedly between angles, destroying all sense of perspective, while Neeta’s voice seems to separate from her body and reverberate across the valleys, which are filmed in rapid pans that fade into each other.
That Choudhury’s distinctive presence survives this scene of destruction, enduring and perhaps even engulfing Ghatak’s formal frenzy, is a testament to the actress’s astute melodramatic capacities—her ability to turn her character’s abject victimhood into an unsettling moral force. It was Ghatak’s inspired use of “lower” forms like melodrama that distinguished his work from the neorealism of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, his contemporaries in the Indian art cinema of the 1950s and 60s, also known as “parallel cinema.” “I think a truly national cinema will emerge from the much-abused form of melodrama when truly serious and considerate artists will bring the pressure of their entire intellect upon it,” Ghatak once wrote. This was precisely his project in works like The Cloud-Capped Star, Subarnarekha (1965), and A River Called Titas (1973). These transfixing, sometimes erratic films harness melodramatic excess in service of a radical indictment of liberal-capitalist society, deploying Indian mythology alongside Jungian archetypes and Brechtian alienation. Neeta in The Cloud-Capped Star represents a particularly ambitious effort at this synthesis: she invokes not just multiple avatars and symbols of the Goddess Durga, but also the Jungian mother-complex, the exploited proletariat, the soul of the partitioned nation, and, at the most immediate level, the figure of the refugee.
It’s a crowded, overdetermined canvas within which to act, enclosed further by Ghatak’s expressionist tendencies to externalize the psychic worlds of the characters in the soundtrack and the mise-en-scène. Where, one might wonder, is the room for performance? Choudhury, in her midtwenties at the time and with a couple commercial hits under her belt, could have responded with an emotional realism drawn from her lived experiences. The setting and the themes of the film were certainly familiar to her. She’d herself been a refugee as a child, fleeing Myanmar for Calcutta on foot in the midst of World War II; like Neeta, she too had begun working at a young age. Instead, Choudhury holds her own against Ghatak’s tortured, stylized ironies with a performance that balances anguish with an unnerving estrangement. Even as the pathos of her heroine consumes the film, Choudhury’s calibrated turn—at times excessive, at times jarringly effaced—keeps the viewer at an analytical distance.