What should be the exact adjective to define Sumitra Devi – a goddess with a luminous face or a seductress with those hypnotizing eyes. She is beautiful in the peakest meaning of the term. She ruled over the layout of Indian as well as Bengali cinema with her beauty and subtle administration of seduction. She has been cited as the most beautiful woman of her time by a many including icons like Pradeep Kumar or Uttam Kumar especially by the former one to whom she was tremendously fascinating and he used to come to the set of Ardhendu Mukhopadhay’s Dasyu Mohan (1955) only to sit by and watch Sumitra Devi for hours. He used to come even when he had no schedule for shooting. And Uttam Kumar became just dumb and numb for so many times in front her bewitching beauty.
It was Devaki Kumar Bose who actually introduced Sumitra Devi to stardom. Her first film was Sandhi (1944) directed by Apurba Mitra who was the nephew of Devaki Kumar Bose. She was hailed for her performance in her first film and was cited as an actress having an “outstanding luminous screen presence.” After that came Meri Bahen (1944). She had a row of incessant hits with Pather Dabi (1947), Abhijog (1947), Pratibad (1948), Joyjatra (1958), Devi Chowdhurni (1949) and Swami (1949). Mamta happened in 1952. That role of her was a real splendour. She manipulated all her magnificent characteristics to vivify her role; her calmness, her softness, pain and pang and all were infused into one. We love her especially in those calm and prolonged gaze at the infant, which is emphasized as well with the help of those kind empathized eyes. She was stunning as Maharani Mangala in A R Kardar’s Diwana (1952). Little did we think that the generous queen would turn into a strong antagonist at the end.
In 1955, she starred in Ardhendu Mukhopadhyay’s Dasyu Mohan which set the box office on fire. During this time Director Kartik Chottopadhyay was planning to adapt Bimal Mitra’s celebrated novel Saheb Bibi Golam on silver screen. As for the casting in the character of Pateshwari, the beautiful, forlorn mistress of the junior landlord, Kartik Chattopadhyay considered Sumitra Devi apt for the role. He contacted her and narrated the script thoroughly. While narrating Mr. Chatterjee was a bit nervous as Sumitra Devi might refuse to play this character as the character had a stark resemblance to her fatal life as the actress herself used to buy liquor at the end of the day for her husband. But she loved the character finally and gave her nod.
“Initially I was getting befogged whether she would love the script or reject it. I kept narrating on and she was there with those inert eyes, patiently sitting on her couch and listening to me. Once in a while she was enquiring into something but that was all. Overall she became reticent.
As I went on, I saw her altering her posture with her elbow supported on the armrest of her couch and I envisioned the scenario at once, the scenario of Bhootnath sitting before a prepossessing Pateshwari boozinging over her elbow rested on her lavish cushion.”
– Kartik Chattopadhyay during an interview session with Ekaal
Saheb Bibi Golam was released on 9th March 1956 and a major success of that year. During the shooting Uttam Kumar was often caught red handed gazing intently at Sumitra Devi whom the icon certified as, “the queen bee of Bengali cinema.” Pradeep Kumar was two steps ahead of Uttam. He blatantly used to keep staring at Sumitra Devi on the set of Dasyu Mohan (1955). “I felt honoured in becoming an ardent onlooker of her deeds” said Pradeep Kumar, “She is an instance of the perfect harmonization of beauty and glory.” In 1957, she again acted in Kartik Chattopadhyay’s Nilachale Mahaprabhu where she appeared as an enrapturing yet eeyorish courtesan in love with Mahaprabhu Chaitanya. She again played a character of a beautiful courtesan in Haridas Bhattacharya’s National Award winning Bengali film Andhare Alo (1957). The film is an adaptation of a short story by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay. The character she played falls in love with a man who eventually starts to hate her. She was inordinately applauded for her feelings backed performance in this film. How can we forget her coy but bright, beaming pair of eyes gazing at an enamoured Vasant Chowdhury or that same pair of eyes closed in pain originated from the vehement rejection of the actor.
“I was certain that, with those transfixing attributes, she would be the best choice for the role of Bijali. I didn’t have to direct her at all. She herself figured it out how to render Bijali, how to interpret her journey from an enticing, playful coquette to an ardent devotee of love” said Director Haridas Bhattacharya when he was asked what had led him to cast Sumitra Devi in the lead. Released on 12th April 1957, the film was a major run at box office.
Sumitra Devi has mostly been seen to render the common plight of women from various layouts of society. Her characters are those deprived of love or amity. She has been best known for a type character who looks immensely seductive by nature on screen. She was a mastermind at the art of seduction. Her kohl-eyed look was an abode of many secrets which reflected on and off the camera. Vasant Chowdhury said, “Nothing more beautiful than her ever happened on the array of Bengali cinema.” Raj Kapoor said, “Sumitra Devi does need any reference; she is beautiful than anything else.” Shammi Kapoor who acted with her in Chor Bazaar (1954) said, “She has the face that can arrest an unblinking gaze for long.”
“I think I would walk out on a lot of due compliments if I just use the term ‘beautiful’ to describe Sumitra Devi. She has the face that can arrest an unblinking gaze for long. She is marvellous. At the same time, I hold regards to the noble way she demonstrates herself. It is her etiquette and politeness that brightens up her beauty.”
– Shammi Kapoor on Sumitra Devi
Isn’t beauty always the winner! Actors, directors, producers, journalists got dazed before her and then she was the one who often manipulated their maze. She managed to play female lead even after she turned forty. In 1964, she was forty one years old when she had two releases as the female leads – Kinu Gowalar Gali and Veer Bhimsen. They said the Saheb Bibi Golam actress had an enormous capability of hypnotizing a person at once. Obviously, she had her way and we still appreciate that.