Even if the only role she ever played was the title role in Satyajit Ray's masterpiece Charulata, Madhabi Mukherjee would still be considered among the all time greats of Bengali cinema, such was her impact.
Madhabi Mukherjee was born in 1943, originally Madhuri Mukherjee. As a young girl itself, she became involved in the theatre. She worked on stage with doyens like Sisir Bhaduri, Ahindra Choudhury, Nirmalendu Lahiri and the great Chhabi Biswas. Some of the plays she acted in included Naa and Kalarah. She made her film debut as a child artist in Premendra Mitra's Kankantala Light Railway (1950).
Madhabi first made a major impact with Mrinal Sen's Baishey Shravan (1960). The film is set in a Bengal village just before and during the horrific famine of 1943 in Bengal that saw over 5 million die. Madhabi plays a 16 year old girl who marries a middle-aged man. Initially she brightens up his life but then World War II and the Bengal Famine hits them. The couple's marriage disintegrates. In the end the wife hangs herself.
Her next major film was Ritwik Ghatak's Subarnarekha made in 1962 but released in 1965 - the last in a trilogy examining the socio-economic implications of partition, the other two being Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and Komal Ghandhar (1961). It is also perhaps Ritwik Ghatak's most complex film. In the film Ghatak depicts the great economic and socio-political crisis eating up the very entrails of the existence of Bengal from 1948 - 1962; How the crisis has first and foremost left one bereft of one's conscience, one's moral sense. Madhabi gives a wonderful performance as Sita, the younger sister of Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) who kills herself when as a prostitute waiting for her first customer, she finds out the customer is none other then her estranged brother.
She then made her first film for Ray in 1963, Mahanagar. Recalling her meeting with Ray, Madhabi recalled,
"He read me the entire story, Mahanagar. I was stunned. This was the first woman-centered screenplay I had encountered. I was not going to play second fiddle to the main male character as in all plays and films I had acted in or was familiar with."
In Mahanagar Madhabi Mukherjee plays Arati who takes a job as a saleswoman due to fianacial constraints in the family. The large joint family is horrifiied at the tought of a working woman. For Arati, going door to door selling knitting machines opens up a whole new world and new friends and acquaintances including an Anglo-Indian friend, Edith. Earning money also uppens Arati's status in the family especially when her husband (Anil Chatterjee) loses his job. When Edith is sacked unfairly, Arati resigns in protest...Madhabi's towering performance as Arati dominates the film. Quoting Film critic Roger Ebert,
" it might be useful to see the performance of Madhabi Mukherjee in this film. She is a beautiful deep, wonderful actress who simply surpasses all ordinary standards of judgment."
Without doubt Madhabi reached the peak of her career with Charulata (1964), possibly Ray's greatest film as well, the Apu trilogy notwithstanding. In this adaptation of Tagore's The Spoilt Nest, as the bored and neglected housewife in Victorian Calcutta of the 1870s who gets attracted to her husband's cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), Madhabi makes the central role of Charu her own. It is without doubt one of the greatest performances of Indian Cinema. She lives the role. She is Charulata. Till date Madhabi in Charulata remains the benchmark for what an ideal Tagore heroine should be and it is said that when Ray returned to Tagore with Ghare Baire (1984), he stylised Swatilekha Chatterjee in a manner simlilar to Madhabi in Charulata.
Madhabi's third and last film with Ray was Kapurush (1965). The films looks at Amitabha Roy (Soumitra Chatterjee), a screenwriter whose car breaks down in a small town. He lodges with a local resident, Bimal Gupta (Haradhan Bannerjee). Bimal is married to Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), who was a past girlfriend of Amitabha, a fact which Bimal is unaware of. Despite playing out predictably, Kapurush still has a great deal of charm, most notably in the wordless acting prowess demonstrated by Soumitra and Madhabi. Through their subtle eye movements and small body gestures, we are able to discern their unspoken turmoil especially Madhabi's who behaves totally indifferently to Soumitra even as he tries to re-conenct to her.
Though she remained a big star in the Bengali commercial film industry, after Kapurush Madhabi failed to reach such critical heights as her films with Ghatak and Ray again. Her major films post Kapurush include Calcutta '71 (1972), Biraj Bou (1972), Streer Patra (1972), Ganadevata (1978), Bancharamer Bagan (1980), Chokh (1982), Chhandaneer (1989) and Rituporno Ghosh's Utsab (2000).
Madhabi Mukherjee is married to Bengali actor Nirmal Kumar. She also wrote her autobiography Ami Madhabi in 1995.