The making of the legend
When all debates on the quality of the present day Bangladeshi movies usually lead to an analogy with the industry’s golden era between the 60s and the 80s, there are a few legends that one cannot escape — one such name figure is Farida Akhtar Babita, who was famous as Babita. She once set the standard for beauty, glamour and theatrical skills — the ingredients once assured an actor iconic screen presence.
Often referred to as ‘beautiful Babita,’ this matinee idol won the hearts of the thousands. As one of the illustrious Bangla movie stars, Babita left an indelible though she had no formal training in acting. Her acting came naturally, in fact it was in-built.
Babita reigned the silver screen of the golden era as she stood for a complete package of talent, beauty and charm. Effortlessness was one of the traits she brought to her acting. She portrayed divergent characters, always doing justice to them.
She has earned accolades at home and abroad for her performances, including National Film Awards – four times for best acting and three for supporting roles. This year, Babita was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition for her unparalleled contributions to Bangladesh’s film industry.
Among more than 275 movies, Babita’s notable work includes Taka Anna Pai, Shukhe Thako, Shorolipi, Ananta Prem, Manusher Mon, Pich Dhala Path, Noyon Moni, Jonmo Theke Jolchi, Anarkoli and Alor Michhil.
Her acting gained the attention of the world famous Indian director Satyajit Ray. In 1973, Ray cast Babita in Ashani Sanket, his film about the Bengal famine of 1943. Babita appeared in the lead role of Ananga, playing the demure wife of the village doctor Gangacharan, who was played by long-time Ray favourite Soumitra Chatterjee.
Ashani Sanket won the Golden Bear at the 1973 Berlin Film Festival. Babita’s performance was central to the film.
She also acted in Arunodoyer Agnishakkhi (1972) by Subhash Dutta, Quiet Flows the river Meghna (1973) by Alamgir Kabir, Lathial by Narayan Gosh Mita, Golapi Ekhon Trainey (1978) by Amjad Hossain, Dahan (1986) by Sheikh Niamat Ali, and Dipu Number 2 (1996) by Morshedul Islam.
She acted in number of joint venture movies including a Canada Bollywood-Bangladesh joint production Door Desh in 1983. Indian actors Sharmila Thakur, Shashi Kapoor and Pakistani actor Nadeem Baig starred in the movie. Her Pakistan-Bangladesh joint venture film Miss Lanka (Nadaani in Urdu) received best foreign-category film award of Pakistan.
On her sister’s trail
Born in Bagerhat on July 30 in 1955, Babita is the third among seven children of ASM Nizamuddin Ataiub and Begum Jahan Ara. Her elder sister Suchanda and younger sister Champa are also famous actors. Babita’s three brothers — Shahidul Islam, Iqbal Islam and Ferdous Islam are expatriates.
Babita had another sister Jelly who succumbed to illness as a toddler. Jahan Ara used to tell her kids that Jelly was too pretty then three sisters.
In conversation with New Age on December 18, Babita recalled, ‘Being deprived of timely medical treatment, my sister had died. My mother was a student of Lady Brabourne College of Kolkata. After Jelly’s death, she was determined to complete medical studies to become a physician. Till her death, she served her neighbours with free medical help.’
Jahan Ara was a fan of Suchitra Sen. She was strict about carrying on with her children’s extracurricular activities like poem recitation and singing etc. She loved listening to Tagore songs.
Once, Shuchanda joined the film industry. I also accompanied her at the Gandaria residence in Dhaka. My school friends of Manija Rahman Girls School were curious about Suchanda’s acting. I promised to let them know about my sister’s activities,’ Babita remembered.
I was determined to avoid the film industry, seeing hardworking Suchanda while I was accompanying her during a shoot in Cox’s Bazaar,’ she said.
‘Suchanda was already married to the famous filmmaker Zahir Rayhan. Although I showed reluctance, it was difficult to refuse Zahir when he cast me in his new film Sangsaar. Razzak acted as my father and Suchanda as my mother. I was a sixth grader at that time, aged about 13. I was introduced as Subarna in that film. However, the film was not a hit,’ Babita recalled.
After a while, Zahir cast Babita once gain in his Urdu colour movie Jaltey Suraj Ka Nichey. Initially actress Shabnam was chosen as the film’s heroine against West Pakistani actor Nadeem. When the heroine failed to manage to pledge time according to the schedule, cinematographer Afjal Chowdhury, who watched my acting in a television play Ekti Kalam, suggested to Zahir that I would be Shabnam’s best replacement,’ she harked back to the time when she was unbsure of her career in the movie industry.
Afjal and his wife, who were the producers of the film, gave me the name Babita. Amid rough weather, the shooting was done in several locations in East Pakistan. Acting was so challenging in front of veteran Pakistani actors. However, release date of the film became delayed for unavoidable reasons.
Her fate in the film world
Zahir was adamant and he again planned his next film Shesh Porjonto with me as its heroin co-starring Razzak. Naturally I became tongue-tied in front of the camera while rendering romantic dialogues with Razzak, as I performed as his daughter in the previous movie. Finally I went on to do it right after scolded by Zahir bhai. The film was supposed to be the last of my career,’ she adds.
The film was scheduled to be released on August 14 of 1969. Dhaka city was decorated with colourful lights as the day was Pakistan’s national day.
‘To celebrate my breakthrough as a heroine, I bought a Toyota car with Tk 12,000 which I was paid for acting in Shesh Porjonto,’ Babita took us down the memory lane.
‘Unfortunately my mother was hospitalized that time as she had been suffering from cardiovascular disease,’ she added.
I was overwhelmed when I showed my car to my mother. A plan was made to visit the cinema halls showing Shesh Porjonto after seeing my mother at Niramoy Clinic in Dhaka. Zahir, Suchanda and Razzak were accompanying me,’ she recalled.
‘Joy and sadness often come hand in hand and this was proved true when I had just reached the clinic. I saw my ailing mother’s face covered by white blanket. Heavily shocked by my mother’s death, I lost my sense,’ Babita remembered.
However, Shesh Porjonto was a big hit and was highly appraised by the audience; especially the younger generation embraced the movie. After that things reached the point of no return. Zahir Bhai told me that my fate became fixed with the film industry,’ she remembered.
Babita feels blessed as she worked with renowned filmmakers through her career between the 60s and the 80s. She recalled the dedication and love the hardworking and meritorious movie crews had showed for the art.
‘I am grateful to Almighty Allah that I was an artiste of the golden era of Bangladeshi film industry. I am a witness to an era when the filmmakers were solely committed to making good films rather than cashing on their ventures,’ Babita said, adding that Khan Ataur Rahman, Zahir Rayhan, Narayan Gosh Mita, Subhash Dutta, Kazi Jahir, Kamal Ahmed and recently deceased Amjad Hossain, were among the prominent filmmakers.
Babita further added that the directors wanted to make something remarkable that would remain in every audience’s mind.
‘They took the challenge of lending diverse colours to the black-n-white movies with life-oriented storyline and magnificent music scores. All the casts were serious about their respective roles once they found themselves in front of the camera and directors helped all and sundry in depicting the character,’ Babita recalled.
She feels frustrated seeing the downgraded movies currently dominating the country’s film industry. She said, ‘Despite inclusion of advanced technology most of the present-day Bangladeshi movies lack good story and music. All are being copied. Additionally, because of unskilled cinematography and faulty editing the movies fail to attract audience for long.’
Babita signed to perform in a number of movies couple of years back, but cancelled all of them as she felt disinclined to work as an actress.
‘At present, most of the filmmakers do not know what they are going to make,’ Babita said with hint of frustration in her voice.
Security is a great concern now. Previously, people were used to enjoying movies with family members. Babita felt ‘now they cannot because of hassle involved in venturing outside one’s home. The need for cinema halls is valid. But I ask myself how the films ran in the previous eras when infrastructural facilities were so limited.’
Being a mother and father
Babita’s son Anik Islam lost his father Iftekharul Alam when he was merely three years old. Since then, his mother has brought him up keeping him away from all odds. The joy of motherhood could be read in Babita’s eyes, a rare glimpse for people who are not family. She still makes it a point to support her only son with full effort so that the boy could not feel the absence of his father.
‘In many times, I cancelled schedule for shooting in abroad due to my son’s study. Once he realised that his mother sacrificed at lot for his wellbeing, he became attentive to his study. He was a bookworm since his childhood. He preferred books with colourful pictures than toys,’ Babita said.
In 2013, Anik completed his graduation in electrical engineering from the University of Waterloo. The moment was so precious to Babita that she flew to Canada to witness convocation of his son.
Her arrival eventually caught attention not only of the university authorities but also the local media. On June 11 of 2013, an article titled Bangladeshi movie star in Waterloo to see son graduate was published in the university website while Canada’s well-circulated Toronto Star put the news on its front page.
Anik did post-graduate from the same university with remarkable result and now is doing job in Canada. He has a plan to complete his doctorate degree soon, his mother said.
Preparing delicious food for Anik is the favourite pastime of Babita when she visits her son’s residence in Canada.
‘Before departure from Canada to Bangladesh, always I cook Anik’s favourite foods and preserve them in refrigerator so that he could eat them. He loves every food his mom cooked. Often he used to say that I am simultaneously a film star and a good cook,’ Babita said with smile.
At present she spends her time attending to the plants and trees on her 10th floor flat. Vegetation occupies a major portion of her flat and her pleasant demeanour seems to reflect the natural beauty that surrounds her. Whenever she visits abroad, she goes shopping for plants rather than for clothes and jewellery — plants are a part of her everyday life.
Babita, the preeminent actress of the golden era is now thinking of making a movie on autistic children. But she wants to make sure that she learns the art of directing before embarking on the project.
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