What does the comic actor do? Is he the hero's stupid sidekick thrown in to show in relief, the hero's 'intelligence'? Or is the comedy a veil for the pathos that lies beneath the character such as one saw in the films of Charlie Chaplin? Bhanu Bannerjee could fit into any of these modes according to the demands of the director, the film and his role within it.
Bhanu made some major contributions to Bengali cinema such as (a) lifting comedy to a higher level of entertainment through performance; (b) using originality in deriving from his original mother dialect to infuse into his performances which remains his creation till this day; (c) drawing generously from the bangal-ghoti culture that evolved among the middle class and lower middle class in Calcutta; (d) allowing the audience to identify with the 'mess' culture it was familiar with through many films; and (e) making comedy a distinct genre in Bengali cinema that could stand independently on its own feet.
Bhanu was born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in Dakshin Moishundu village in Dacca district on 26th August, 1920. His proper name was Samyamay Banerjee but his nickname stuck to him till he passed away. By the time he graduated from Dacca University, he was firmly established in amaterue theatre. His first stage performance was in Bonobir directed by Amod Dasgupta when he was a student of Class VI. The appreciation the performance brought inspired him to continue in small plays and with small comic skits at neighbourhood functions till he turned famous as Chanakya in the historical play Chandragupta. He followed this up with another important role in Girish Ghosh's Siraj-ud-Daulah. However, Bhanu was forced to leave Dhaka in 1941 with the clothes on his back because there was an extermination order against him though he has never explained why it was served with such a serious notice. He joined the Iron & Steel Control office in Kolkata serving there for 15 years.
Cinema was not his sole space for creative self expression. Bhanu explored the stage followed by radio and jatra performances and began the trend of documenting prominent comedy pieces on gramophone records. They were called koutuk naksha albums meaning, comic skits. Chikitsa Sankat (1941) was his first radio drama. They were all hits with listeners. In 1943, Bhanu recorded Dhakar Gadoaan, his first comedy performance on gramophone record. The same year, he founded Uttar Sarothi, an amateur theatre group and staged its first production Notun Ihudi set against the backdrop of people forcibly uprooted from their home soil in East Pakistan to find shelter as refugees in Kolkata. His entry into the professional stage began in 1950 with Adarsha Hindu Hotel.
"The knack of making people laugh was there in me from the time I was a boy. I enjoyed the feeling of entertaining people by making them laugh. This is one of the reasons why I slipped easily and smoothly into comedy in all genres - the jatra, the radio, gramophone skits, theatre and cinema. People accepted me with open arms when I made them laugh. As an actor, audience acceptance was very important. I knew that with my kind of looks, no audience would accept me in a character like Chandragupta. So, gravitating towards comic performances was not really a choice. But I enjoyed it," he said in one of his interviews.
His first appearance on screen was in the film Jagoron (1946) and he married Nilima Bannerjee, a talented singer, the same year. He played the role of a skeleton-like man victimized by the famine. "In those days, I really looked like a famine-stricken, hungry man and suited the character to a tee," he said. He felt that it was not possible for an actor to delight his audiences with comedy unless he was basically a very good actor for serious roles as well. "In a serious role, an actor might cry a bit more than needed, or laugh a bit less than necessary. It does not really matter much and the audience is not wise to this. But for a comedian, a sense of proportion is very important. He must be precise in his dialogue delivery, his pauses, his sense of timing and his facial expression. A millimeter more or less and his performance will fall flat on his audience." He would often name some actors who began with him in films at the same time and rose to heights of fame by the strength of their performance such as Sabitri Chatterjee, Satya Bannerjee, Sushil Majumdar who later became a successful director in Bengali cinema, Bani Ganguly, Kanu Bannerjee and so on.
In those days, with comedy forming a mandatory presence in Bengali cinema, as relief in serious films and as a genre unto itself, Bhanu faced tough competition from stalwarts in comedy like Tulsi Chakraborty, Nabadwip Haldar, Nripati Chatterjee, Shyam Laha and many others. Each of them developed his distinct brand of comedy. Bhanu too evolved his own - delivering is lines in the East Bengali dialect of the Dacca Bangal beginning with the Suchitra Sen - Uttam Kumar starrer Sharey Chuattar (1953) with his famous catch-line " Mashima, malpo khamu" (Aunty, I want to eat pancakes), which regaled the audience and became his trade mark in Bengali cinema. In fact, one director said that he was, and still remains the only comedian in Bengali cinema around whom scripts would be written. The audience, both whose origins lay in East Bengal and those who were rooted in the western part, found instant identification with Bhanu both as an actor as well as the character he would essay in each film. He did not ever need to 'dress up' or 'put on make-up' for his part in films His shirt-dhoti combination with rounded eyes open wide, a poker face and funny body language with dialogue mostly delivered in his bangal dialect made him as much a star as was Uttam Kumar and he was almost always present in a Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen film. After this film, Bhanu's Ora Thakey Odharey playing on the various moods and temperaments that united the ghoti-bangal rivalry through similar hardships and struggles was another big hit.
Sharmistha Goopty in Bengali Cinema - An Other Nation, devotes an entire chapter to Bhanu entitled Common Man's Comedy - The Bhanu Factor to one of the best actors Bengali cinema has ever produced. She writes that this bangal persona created and portrayed by Bhanu "went on to create a new comic prototype of the 1950s Bengali cinema, patented and almost exclusively embodied by Bhanu Banerjee. Bhanu was a star who lacked glamour. His loud bangal style and cultivated un-sophistication made his stardom a somewhat unique thing."
But other than the ghoti-bangal binary that formed the basis of Bhanu's comic performances sometimes paired with his best friend comedian Jahar Roy, Bhanu's comic skits and radio plays had a basic social message simmering under the surface, that could be read between the laughter and the fun. There are films that turned out to be equally if not more funny, in which Bhanu did not use his brand Bangal accent in dialogue delivery but were made with the larger purpose of spreading a social message. This is underscored by his films made in the 1950s where the titles sounded comic and the treatment was through comedy but the inherent message was satiric and serious veiled with comedy. The first of these was Bhanu Pelo Lottery in which he formed a formidable pairing with Jahar Roy. This was followed by a string of similar films such as Jomaloye Jibanta Manush, a satire in the fantasy mould. Both films released in 1958 were box office hits. There were other films in the same genre such as Bhanu Goenda, Jahar Assistant where the magic comic chemistry of Bhanu Bannerjee and Jahar Roy reached the hearts of the common man in West Bengal's cities, small towns and villages. Other films followed where Bhanu was the one major reasons for the films' popularity and success. Examples are - Joy Maa Kali Boarding (1955), Personal Assistant (1959), Miss Priyambada (1967) and Ashitey Ashiona (1967).
His debut in jatra performances - a form of travelling folk theatre embellished with music and loud acting began in 1969 and continued for a decade. Between 1979 and 1982, Bhanu played one of the main roles in Joy Maa Kali Boarding for three years without break at the erstwhile Rangana Theatre in Kolkata followed by another six-month-long schedule of the same play at Rangmahal. The play was one of the biggest hits in theatre at that time.
Bhanu strongly believed in a happy harmony between technique and acting, be it in any format or medium - radio, theatre, jatra, records or cinema. "Everyone went ga-ga when Tapas Sen's lighting for the famous play Angar about a fire in a coal mine was realized on stage making it look like a real fire. The audience could not stop clapping and cheering. But was the audience supposed to clap and cheer watching people die? Or should they have been reduced to tears? This happened because technique overshadowed acting and performance producing an impact on the audience that was quite the opposite of what it should have been. The same applies to cinema. Technique must never overshadow performance and the two must have a symbiotic relationship," he said. As individual comedian, among his famous films are Pasher Bari, Bhranti Bilash (based on Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors), Boshu Paribar, Barjatri, Bindur Chhele, etc.
Bhanu died a sad man in 1983 because his most ambitious project Nirdharito Shilpir Anupusthithitey based on a story by Abadhoot could not get a proper release. He played the most serious role of his career in this film. The producer, BL Khemka's heirs have joined hands with Channel-B Entertainment to produce a DVD version of the film that was released in Kolkata recently.