“I wish to explore every Rasa”: Chetana Das
Chetana Das

The admirers of Assamese cinema will say that Chetana Das and her comic acting go hand in hand. But to me, one of the most remarkable performances remains her enactment of the different styles of human laughter. This role, for those familiar with Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker (1970) or even Batman (The Killing Joke), ends up in that terrain between the comic and tragic. It is a moment which French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) would have called “elastic”. In his own pertinent words of laughter, “You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it, – the human caprice whose mould it has assumed.”

To be able to mould into diverse roles is something Chetana still craves. Not very long ago in 2017, in Utpal Barpujari’s national award-winning film Ishu, her role (as a superstitious vengeful woman who incites villagers) was distinct from usual comic portrayals. An important account of a witch hunt and rumours, this film enables Chetana to also explore a different language Rabha and it does so not in a way that’s belittling or mocking the speakers. The latter, instead of adding to the richness of linguistic heritage, ends up being a primary “attraction” of local television comedies. Out of more than eighty films, in a career that spans more than fifty years(with reputed filmmakers like Nip Barua, Jahnu Barua, Bhabendranath Saikia etc), some of her most nuanced ones are seldom talked about. Rather, her acting arc witnesses a certain kind of stereotype that many artists, including herself, wish to break out of.

Chetana Das with Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

Noticing the unnoticed

In the 1997 film Adayja (The Flight) directed by Dr Santwana Bordoloi, she plays Guimenni, a crucial character that is both an observer and a caretaker of the Gossaini, Durga, Soru Gossaini and Giribala, all of them widows oppressed by the Sattra. Based on the famous book of Indira Goswami The Moth Eaten Howdah of the Tusker, Chetana Das acts within a matrix of the relationships between all these women whose lives are governed by the degree of their acceptance of the intensely patriarchal environs of the Sattra. 

Another lesser-known incident of the actress remains a shooting scene for the Assamese movie Abuj Bedona directed by Shri Gunasindhu Hazarika. The role depicted was a leprosy patient who jumped into the river Brahmaputra to save a child. But unfortunately, she was drowning in the water. The team along with the cameraman was praising her for the real performance. The director, who was physically blind couldn’t understand the scenario hence he did not stop the scene.

Chetana’s dedication and immersion in acting go back many decades. Born in Shillong and having had theatrical experience from a very nascent age, she considers herself a passionate singer. The word comedian, she reminds me, is made of two words komos, which means revel and aeidein, which means to sing. “ I love singing folk songs. Drama or even dance-drama, the basics of music and the awareness of sur-taal lay are very important for acting. Melody can help one transcend barriers of gender and language,” Chetana says.

Learning from the theatrical experience of Baan theatre (Tezpur), some of her plays, like Bayanar Khul, performed in different parts of Assam had very serious characteristics. “Comedy came much later. I wish to explore every rasa. As an actress, that’s key to my artistic fulfilment,” she shares. “It has been my attempt to always immerse myself in the roles I’m required to play. From the character of the irritated mother who created noise in the classroom of widow Malaya Goswami in Jahnu Barua’s Firingoti (1992) to the typecast roles of betel-spitting.”

The Personal and the political

Chetana Das ardently believes it is practice that keeps her grounded as an artist. The days of comedy might have altered for the new generation yet it is challenging to enchant the audience across all platforms. Be it a radio play, dance drama, theatre or even the screen, the stage is her favourite teacher and she has passed her lessons to both her daughters. Her late husband Bimalananda Das was an inspiration, she says. In her own words, “Many actresses were not permitted to juggle roles at that time or take up acting professionally. I was lucky to have that strength in my home.” 

During the Assam Agitation days (1979 onwards) when the theatre and the Rabindra Bhawan were surrounded by the CRPF military, she was rehearsing for acting performances with some best actors like Lakhi Borthakur. Dipannita Das, the youngest daughter of Chetana Das, describes how her mother was on stage while she was nine months pregnant and fell from the ramp while acting. “From the stage, she was taken directly to the hospital, and I was born,” she shares. After six months my mother was seen on the same stage play, along with me.” This is also what got Dipannita to share the screen with her mother in Mani Ratnam’s 1998 film Dil Se

“Ratnam Sir was impressed with this story,” she laughs. “It was memorable, I recall sharing the screen with my mother in movies like Snehabandhan directed by Debajit Adhikary, Prem Aru Prem by Sambhu Gupta, Kaalsandhya by Bhabendranath Saikia Sir and a few more.” Even though the Assamese film industry has always tried to project her mother as a female comedian, she tried to break stereotypes. Dipannita asserts, “At times, there were no popular movies and directors who did not cast her; she was a rage. She often recalls moments from shoots and former scenes subverting male comedian tropes and was very intrigued from the start.”

Rasarani- the queen of comedy

Film critics have shared that Chetana’s body language, manner of speaking, and expressions are compelling for comedy. The immediate responses from the public who would watch her plays on stage also suggest this. Their reactions indicate a kind of contact, a connection even because some performances were capable of moving people to tears, even though that same character might have been able to tickle laughter in the same play itself.

I think this is why relooking into her roles can provide fodder for social commentary. For instance, in films like Hiya Diya Niya (2000), Chetana Das sang one of the popular songs of the film, but very few know this. This particular track “Misate Misate” which features Das as the maid, shows her joining in with other servants of the same house as they speak of their fears due to the ill tempers of the owners. The fact that they are scared of losing their jobs and have to keep quiet about internal troublesome matters in the film is evident.  

Anupam Kaushik Borah, director of Assamese film Bornodi Bhotiai (2019) states that numerous comedies post 1998’s Siraj (which explored the comic), had a strain of servants who carried the responsibility of the ‘comedy’ in the film. This was also an import from masala Bollywood films and evident across releases of that time, barring a select few. Despite that, he shares that Chetana’s acting power is immense and hasn’t been fully appreciated. 

“In one volume of a VCD series Aimoni, Chetana Das plays an essentially envious village woman. Her lines were also mean yet she acted very brilliantly,” Mr Borah says. “Another such performance was in Tikhor and Suti Bai (a VCD of Lakhminath Bezbarua’s folktales), where her role was to play crooked-eyed. She was so still and composed in that way for an hour, (even risking some exaggeration) but the impact was very strong.”

Stalking and Stereotyping

The days of 90s popular cinema shared some very disturbing comic elements that defined the ‘romances’ of that era. For example, stalking scenes, sexism, misogyny, casteism etc, were ubiquitous. The compulsive need to keep families entertained by reflecting on what was happening in their middle and upper-middle-class homes relied heavily on the problematic structures of these institutions in the first place.  

Female characters are mostly shown as ignorant and stupid or when they are intelligent, their intelligence is mostly mocked. The usage of a stereotypical heroine with a “shrill, feminine” voice who is constantly in need of male validation and becomes a sobbing, disorderly damsel in distress without it, was repetitively portrayed in popular Assamese cinema of the 90s. 

Borah adds, “Even in typical family dramas where comedy was explored like Buwari(1982) and so on, the heroines’ narratives weren’t fleshed out. The songs that induced laughter, and ridicule were not funny at all. Actresses like Chetana, Hiranya and Rana Tamuly etc, were stereotyped to be comedians. The trend continues to a large extent even in popular Assamese TV shows. ”

VCDs and the normative gaze 

Documentary filmmaker and film scholar Parthajit Baruah feels that Chetana Das is synonymous with the changing comic dynamic of Assamese films. Contrary to common notions that VCDs have ruined the regional cinema industry and comic performances, he sheds light on the sociopolitical aspects of Assam before the 2000s predominated by insurgency and identity movements which explain the massive popularity of VCDs. “The shut cinema halls, the decreasing celluloid films and with barely any modes of entertainment VCDs were accessible to the masses,” Baruah comments. “They played a crucial role in regional entertainment, costing even less than INR 30 at times. They changed how comedy was perceived and popularised to a large extent. And people loved them, this era immortalised the comic performances of artists like Chetana Das.”

But even though Chetana has a strong captivating presence in the frame, there is no denying that populist comic tropes limit her talent. “In Assamese popular films, humour is a “selling tool” to enable stereotypes, Baruah adds. “Most of the women have been portrayed as stereotypes of the witch, sacrificing mother and such. The audience is always kept in mind and these prejudices sell well. Think of Chadra Mudoi’s Suren Suror Putek (2005), for example, where Chetana plays a stereotypical character. Even the comedy here is very much attuned to the male gaze. ” 

New trails and inclusivity of humour

Modes of new tech enable gender inclusivity in comedy. but it is not so simple, shares Kundalini Mahanta, who recently directed Emuthi Puthi, shooting solely with an iPhone. Distinctly recalling Chetana’s role in Suren Suror Putek, she shares how comedy cannot be forced or consumed with overplay of body language. The latent problems in that film apart from sexism remain to be the ambiguity of Chetana’s characterisation. She comments, “Camera proximity does allow for subtle comic moments but sexism in comedy is very much there. It will lessen with more diversity; people from diverse backgrounds writing content/ scripts and screenplay. One hopes more representation will lead to democratised forms of humour.” 

An important actor and filmmaker in this regard are Kenny DBasumatary whose recent box-office comedy hit Local Utpaat has enthralled many in the region. He shares, “ It is a conscious decision to approach comedies minus the older comedy tropes of stalking, body-shaming, sexism and latent gender violence.” When asked about repetitive comic roles, he comments, “People want to see a funny person in the same “roop” again and again. There is that risk that this might get stale. So, in Local Utpaat we decided to surprise everyone by giving Bonzo(Bonny Deori) a new avatar. A ‘good boy’ avatar,” he adds. 

The killing joke of life

Seeing hope in the upcoming comedy artists and filmmakers like Kenny, Chetana conducts many workshops for the young. She feels that gender equity can be achieved through the cinematic medium. Back in her humble home in Hengrabari, she finds solace in the little things. Corners of family memories, national accolades and photographs of stunning performances abound as if living a second life. “The expectation that a female character can be comic only in stereotypes and boxes is something we need to come out of. Else the joke is on us, really,” she shares, her body language immediately giving away her powerful screen presence.

Pointing at her late husband’s photograph, and humming almost the tone of a requiem, she says “It is as if he is laughing still. Had he been present, he would drop me to the next show I’ve to perform and I would identify his laughter from afar.”

For Das, better known as the “comedy queen,” acting and passion are inseparable life-assuring entities. The drama and the rasas never really leave her. Just as the comic never really leaves the tragedy. They are bonded together and forever.

(This story is published with the support of Population First’s Laadli Media Fellowship 2022. The author is an independent researcher in Assam. She tweets @barman_rini). 

Also read: Assam flood situation improves: 22.17 lakh affected

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