Dil toh bachcha hai jee written by Gulzar (Ishqiya) sums up Moushumi Chatterjee beautifully. The song happens to be her favourite too. Child woman. That’s what she was on screen and off it too. The adolescent Moushumi Chatterjee was custom-made for Balika Badhu.
Just as she was made-to-order for Anuraag, where she played a visually-challenged girl making both the characters in the film and the audiences feel protective towards her.
Celebrating this cusp between a girl and a woman was also the song Mere bachpan tu jaa, jaa jawani ko le aa (Kuchhe Dhaage) number filmed on her.
Just as Rimjhim gire sawan… (Manzil), which featured Moushumi with Amitabh Bachchan, remains timeless for the rain-soaked metropolis as for the petite Moushumi drenched in love.
Even in the poignant Pyaasa Sawan, where she played a terminally ill wife, or in Ghayal where she was a grief-struck widow, Moushumi’s hallmark was her intrinsic innocence.
Once self-deprecatingly remarking that she had ‘a crooked nose and was ‘slightly cock-eyed’, she conceded that perhaps her sex-appeal lay in her zigzag smile and gregarious vibe.
Unencumbered by concerns of age or vanity, Moushumi, in her late ’60s, gave riveting performances in Goynar Baksho, The Japanese Wife and Piku.
Yet there’s a quieter, lesser-known side to the all-fun Moushumi. “I perform namaz... I attend the Novena. I am a Hindu, who has the Bible and the Quran at home,” she was once quoted saying adding that to reach God, valuing human beings is paramount.
Her spiritual slant must have perhaps served as an antidote for the veteran, who recently endured a heart-breaking tragedy - the loss of her older daughter Payal, who passed away on 13 December 2019 after a prolonged illness.
Raj Khosla once said, “Moushumi’s childlike, not childish. She can be fun-loving like an 8-year-old and wise like a woman of 80.”
That somewhere explains her embracing both the laughter and lament in life with grace and fortitude.
Fact sometimes follows fiction. Tarun Mazumdar’s Balika Badhu (1965), who did the film in class five, turned a real-life bride when she was in class 10. Young Indira (Moushumi Chatterjee’s real name) fell in love with neighbour Jayant Mukherjee (Babu), legendary musician Hemant Kumar’s son.
Her Boro Pishi Ma (paternal aunt), who was suffering from terminal cancer, wished to see Indira’s wedding. So, the young lovers tied the knot. Child-like Moushumi, who was in her early teens, brought along ‘a dog, a doll’s house and her close friend, her girl Friday’ as dowry.
She did more Bengali films like Ajay Kor’s Parineeta (1969) and Tapan Sinha’s Ekhoni (1971) before signing Raj Khosla’s Kuchhe Dhaage (1973).
Shakti Samanta’s Anuraag, where she played a visually-challenged girl, however released first. Moushumi, who since then has straddled both, Bengali and Hindi industries, regards them as her two households - one as her ‘baper bari’ (paternal home) and the other as her ‘shoshur bari’ (in-laws’ home).
A noteworthy performance was that of a labourer, who’s sexually assaulted in the grocer’s shop with flour all over her, in Manoj Kumar’s Roti Kapada Aur Makaan (1974).
Moushumi was pregnant with her first daughter Payal and braved the demanding rape scene in Roti Kapda Aur Makaan with grit. “I threw up with all the atta (flour) in my mouth. It took me seven hours to wash it from my hair…” she recalled (Filmfare).
She couldn’t pronounce the word ‘rakshash’ (demon) correctly and kept saying ‘rakhash’ (as in Bengali) instead. She remembers practising and repeating the word ‘rak-shash’ all through the lunch break.
She’s also remembered for Basu Chatterjee’s Manzil (1979) famous for its RD Burman number Rimjhim gire saawan. Shot over two days in natural light and rain, right from Colaba, VT to Marine Drive, Moushumi downed cups of coffee to keep herself warm.
She formed an amiable pair with Vinod Mehra and featured in around 10 films with him including Anuraag, Us-Paar, Raftaar, Umar Qaid, Mazaaq, Zindagi and Do Jhoot in the ’70s. While rumours linking them were rife, Moushumi maintained that the late actor was her husband Babu’s best friend and had even attended their marriage in Kolkata. She was shooting for Nischay in Coorg when she heard about Vinod’s demise in 1990.
“Vinod was extremely gentle. But he couldn’t remain happy with one person and was on a continuous search… When he really settled down, it was time for him to go. I cannot forget the scene when his pregnant wife (Kiran) was doing his shraddh while the older child sat on her lap,” she recalled (Filmfare).
Swarg Narak (1978) and Angoor (1982) were her hits with Sanjeev Kumar. In the early ’80s, the hat-trick of hits Maang Baro Sajna, Ghar Ek Mandir, Pyaasa Sawan and Pet Pyaar Aur Paap secured her in the big league.
She took a break after her second daughter Megha was born. Apparently, she was chided in jest for being ‘unprofessional’ as every time her career was doing well, she chose to have a baby. But for Moushumi her babies were her world. ‘You can be a queen but ultimately you need a family, a home,’ was her stance. She signed Watan Ke Rakhwale and Aag Hi Aag (both in 1987) after a gap.
In the '90s, she graduated to doing character roles in Ghayal , Ghar Parivaar and Udhaar Ki Zindagi. She was not keen on Ghayal but did it on Dharmendra’s insistence, who believed her ‘innocence’ could render the audience ‘ghayal’.
In 2006, she was seen in Tanuja Chandra’s Zindaggi Rocks. Her Bengali oeuvre includes Ogu Bodhu Sundari, Prarthana, Shatarupa, Kari Diye Kinlam, Bidhilipi and later Nater Guru, Bhalobasar Onek Naam (between 1981 -2005) as character artiste.
For Aparna Sen’s critically-acclaimed film, The Japanese Wife (2010), she had to speak a dialect heard in the Sunderbans. She played Rahul Bose’s aunt for which she had to put on seven kilos. Moushumi had a merry time, bingeing on chocolates and rice.
She played a matriarch, Rashmoni, in Aparna Sen’s Goynar Baksho (2013). Married off at age 11, and soon widowed, all life (and even after it) for Rashmoni was about protecting her jewels from rapacious relatives. She won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for her textured act as a feisty woman and later her ghost.
Moushumi was honoured with the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. In the same year, she endeared audiences as Chhobi Mashi in Piku, someone who’s brazen about her views on sexuality.
Moushumi credits her husband for her four-decade career. “Babu was well off. He wasn’t living off me. He trusted me,” she was quoted saying. On her part, Moushumi held on to her self-respect and refused to compromise in an opportunistic industry.
Given her no-nonsense stance, rumours of being ‘uncooperative’ with heroes and directors and beset her career. “I am brutally honest and paid a heavy price for it. There were many movies for which I gave the mahurat shot, but was thrown out,” she told Filmfare.
Moushumi never denied her friendly disposition though. “I am a flirt. I can flirt even with a plant, with an animal. In fact, Shabana Azmi once said, ‘Shashi Kapoor and you can flirt with anyone from six to 60’,” she joked in the throwback interview.
Disregarding rumours of a troubled marriage she said, “The bond of an early marriage has kept us together... A husband-wife bond goes beyond physical need… As you mature, you discover love is not about holding on to that person. It’s also about giving freedom. If he comes back, he was yours. If he doesn’t, he never was.” (Filmfare).
In a bid to pursue newer pastures, she contested the Lok Sabha election (2014) as a candidate for Indian National Congress. In 2019, she joined the Bharatiya Janata Party. Her trajectory was cut short with an untimely tragedy.
Her older daughter Payal got married to businessman Dicky Sinha in 2010. Reportedly, father Jayant, Payal and Dicky were directors in a venture. In December 2016, certain disputes arose over management of the company. Payal, who suffered from juvenile diabetes, saw her health deteriorating in the following years. She was reportedly confined to bed in a comatose condition.
Moushumi and husband Jayanta filed a petition in the Bombay High Court in November 2018, requesting to be appointed as Payal’s guardians so that they could provide the necessary care and medical attention to her.
After a brave fight, Payal passed away on 13 December 2019. She was 45. A devastated Moushumi, since then, has maintained a dignified silence.
Few know that Moushumi has always been spiritual. Believing in oneness and humanity she once said philosophically, “You come alone and go alone.”
Maybe, this surrender, this submission will help her find comfort and closure.