Mahasweta Ray portrayed herself well in a whole set of roles that have come to be recognised in Oriya cinema for both their variety and perfection. When it’s a village lass, she is demure; if it’s city college student, she is smart. Then there are her memorable roles as a dynamic political leader, a messiah for the poor, a bandit queen, the ideal daughter-in law, et al — all of which she has carried off with exquisite élan. In a career that spanned over three decades, Mahasweta etched an impression and wove a legacy that very few personalities in Ollywood have been able to fathom, leave alone surpass. Though the characters she
essayed changed and the number of films decreased with time, Mahasweta always reigned as the numero uno of the industry and rightfully earned the distinction of being an icon for the generations that have followed her. Now settled in Mumbai, the actress still wishes to come home anytime she is
offered a meaningful character role.
From a shy 17-year-old who was
noticed by director Sisir Mishra for a group dance in Sindura Bindu (1975), to the strong personality of a mother she essayed in Tu Thile Mo Dara Kahaku (2009), Mahasweta has scripted history. And even before the dance sequence of Sindura Bindu was over, actor-director Prasanta Nanda approached her parents for his next venture Sesa Srabana, for the role of Manika, the character that created a revolution in the industry and established Mahasweta as an actor of substance. And thus began her eventful journey, creating landmarks, one after another.
“When Sesa Srabana opened in theatres (in 1976), I went to watch the movie with my family. Once I came out of the theatre, people rushed to me shouting ‘Manika, Manika’ — that was the name of my character. I realised I was getting noticed,” recalls the lead actress of almost 40 films, including several films in Bengali.
Born to writer-academician Rajkishore Ray, Mahasweta was not initially exposed to the world of cinema. In fact, when she began her career, she had watched just two movies. “I was a blank canvas. I had never thought of becoming an actor, nor did I have an image in mind to follow. I was almost like raw clay. Each director moulded it the way he wanted, and I fitted in with as much ease. I started enjoying being in front of the camera.”
Considered an absolute beauty, her wide kohl-drawn eyes told a thousand stories. She has not left a single genre where she hasn’t proved herself as an actor. Notes Sisir Mishra, who has cast Mahasweta in a majority of his films: “No one can live up to the image of Rashmi (the name directors call her). A pool of talent, sincerity, hard work, dedication and expressiveness together define her. I’d compare her to artistes of national and international levels. She always had a deep understanding of the characters she played.”
Most of her films with Mishra such as Samaya Bada Balaban (1985), Bastraharan (1989), Toofan Rani (1993), Suna Bhauja (1994) and Sabat Maa broke records in the box office. Renowned for her passion for acting, she has always been known for reaching film sets well before time, and conducting herself with a never-say-no attitude. “It’s after she left the scene here that we have felt the void,” says Mishra.
A director’s delight, the star quit the industry at the peak of her career. But unlike other heroines of her times, she still remained the most sought after
actor even after her marriage to Sirish Routray, until she decided to settle down in Mumbai. Now with son Rishi, Mahasweta continues to act in a few selective movies despite reservations. “I was criticised for being arrogant,” points out Mahasweta. “They mistook my
silence, which was my space to enter a character. Even today, I love to act. But things have changed in the industry. Professionalism is lacking; so I am pretty selective. But I look forward to going back home. I know my audience remembers me even now, and I’m truly indebted to them.”
Nanda, who introduced Mahasweta to the industry, describes her as a saga in herself. “A terrific actor, she had great screen presence, talent, expression…everything. I experimented with her in almost every movie of mine,” says Nanda, reminiscing about Mahasweta’s stint in his movies including Sesa Srabana, Hisab Nikas (1982), Swapna Sagar (1983) and Dora (1984). “Her debut shot made it clear to me she was in the
industry to stay.”
She has several Bengali films to her credit as well, including Tarun Majumdar’s Aranyer Adhikar (1998), Katha Chhilo (1994), Sajani Go Sajani (1991), Swapna Saha’s Sujan Sakhi (1995) and Prasanta Nanda’s Nyayachakra (1991).
Irrespective of the many awards and
accolades she received during her
career, (she has bagged three state awards for best actress in films Kaberi (1983), Pooja (1981) and Gouri (1979)), Mahasweta continued to wow her audiences. She is, however, displeased at the state of affairs in Ollywood. “At times I feel the industry lacks the good directors it used to have.”
Mahasweta will be presented the Fit Fat Bioscope Lifetime Achievement Award on December 19. Sadly, as Mishra puts it, “The state’s highest honour for film personalities, the Jayadev Award, still eludes this artiste who truly