For her sustained stellar performances in theatre and television Ferdausi Majumdar became one of the most celebrated actors of her times. She is one of the very few actors who has achieved the highest civilian honour in Bangladesh, by winning prestigious Ekushey Padak. Karoby Shihab of New Age has recently talked to the legendary actress about how she broke the mould and built a career out of her only passion.
Born Ferdausi Ara Begum, later established herself as Ferdausi Majumdar after her marriage. Meanwhile, she was able to prove her worth simultaneously in stage, radio, television and silver screen. She has been acting for over five decades and in during her long career her ability to play a diverse range of characters gave her an edge over her peers, be that male or female.
The versatile actress was born on June 18, 1943 in Noakhali. Her father Khan Bahadur Abdul Halim was a district magistrate. Her mother Afia Begum was a homemaker who took care of her entire household like true matriarch.
Ferdausi Majumdar was 11th among 14 children of the couple. Most of her siblings are also established in their own fields. Educationist, playwright, literary critic and political dissident late Munier Choudhury was her elder brother. Another brother, Kabir Chowdhury, was a professor and intellectual.
Though Ferdausi was born in Noakhali, she grew up in Dhaka.
She completed her primary schooling from Nari Shiksha Mandir School. After completing class five, she got admitted to Muslim Girls High School.
‘Getting admission in Muslim Girls High School wasn’t easy for me. My father accompanied me to the school for admission. The officials weren’t allowing me to get admitted in their school as my eldest sister Nadera Begum was in Jail. She was a self-professed communist,’ Ferdausi Majumdar recalled.
Her father Khan Bahadur Abdul Halim however was a stubborn man. He somehow managed to admit his daughter in that school. Later Ferdausi completed her matriculation from that institution.
‘I cannot recall many things about my school life. But I have few things in my mind. Headmistress of Nari Shiksha Mandir School was Dr Nandi. I used to visit her home more often. She adored me a lot,’ said Ferdausi, harking back to her school days.
‘These days children are smart enough, even compared to their age they seem much aware of too many things. But we were not that smart at our time. However, I had a friend named Maya in Nari Shiksha Mandir School. I don’t know where she is now. But still I recall her. She was once hurt while we were playing and she bled,’ she added.
Ferdausi’s father was too strict a father to have allowed the children room for any disregard for rules and regulations. His children used to respect him a lot but at the same time, he was a figure they looked at with a certain amount of fear. So venturing into the theatre arena was a struggle for Ferdausi.
Any kind of cultural practice, including dance, music, acting and others were considered as anti-religious by Ferdausi’s father.
However, despite the restrictions Ferdausi and some of her other siblings became involved in various cultural practices. Her second eldest sister was a theatre artiste. She often used to share her experience of acting.
‘My sister had very long hair. She once acted in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s play. She had a funny experience at that play,’ Ferdausi recalled with a hearty laughter.
Ferdausi Majumdar developed a great passion for acting since she was very young. Besides, she could copy anyone’s body language, facial expressions and style of speech. She used to entertain her siblings with her talent for mimicry.
‘My father once caught me while I was mimicking him,’ she recalled.
‘My father used to beat us for different reasons. Only because he was strict, I think he could raise his children with the assurance of good manners. We however could not react while he used to beat us. But my immediate younger sister Banu sometimes used to raise her voice,’ said Ferdausi Majumdar.
‘But interesting thing is, he used to give tasty treat whenever he became hard on us,’ Ferdausi added as she laughed while remembering all such uneasy details.
Ferdausi Majumdar completed her intermediate from Eden Girls’ College. When she was a college student, her brother Munier Choudhury asked her to play a role in his drama.
‘He came and said that one of his artistes failed to turn up at the rehearsal, so he needs a proxy. Before that, I never thought about acting on the stage. Later my brother said that I have to play the role of a robot,’ she said. Munier Choudhury also assured that he would manage their father.
This is how Ferdausi Majumdar debuted as an actor through ‘Daktar Babur Karkhana’. It was written by Shawkat Osman. The drama was staged at Iqbal Hall, presently Shaheed Serjeant Jahurul Haque Hall, University of Dhaka.
That was the beginning. Once she got the flavour of acting on stage, she continued her journey.
‘My brother Munier Choudhury introduced me to acting proper. Late playwright Abdullah Al Mamun trained me to be a skilled actress. Besides, my siblings supported me a lot,’ Ferdausi told New Age.
Munier Choudhury started inspiring his sister after her success in that drama. Every time he wrote a new play, he used to read it out for his siblings and asked for their opinions.
Abdullah Al Mamun also took initiative to talk to Ferdausi’s father regarding acting in theatre.
‘Surprisingly my father was convinced after Abdullah Al Mamun approached him. By that time, I was a student of University of Dhaka. I heard my father discussing with my mother about a report on Tamoshi drama in newspaper where my name was written. He also praised my talent,’ Ferdausi told with an emotion-chocked voice.
After Ferdausi Majumdar allowed admission in the University of Dhaka, she acted in drama titled ‘Dando O Dandodhar’ where she acted opposite her teacher Rafiqul Islam. It was staged at what is known at present as Sufia Kamal National Public Library.
Gradually she became involved with a Dhaka University-based theatre forum. She used to get Taka 75 as honorarium.
From then on, she continued to act in theatre productions and became a regular face on stage.
Ferdausi and Ramendu Majumdar met each other in a Munier Choudhury drama titled ‘Roktakto Prantor’. Later they got to know that they studied in the same educational institute.
‘Ramendu was a student of English literature and my subject was Bengali. But we both had sociology as subsidiary subject. From that class I noticed that Ramendu started following me,’ said Ferdausi Majumdar while sharing the love story between her and Ramendu.
After some time they realised that they had fallen in love with each other. Ramendu Majumdar often used to visit Ferdausi’s house and her family members used to like him. They knew each other from a close distance for over five years.
Later they decided to get married. But, Ferdausi’s father was against the marriage as Ramendu belonged to a different religion. However, Ferdausi and Ramendu both were determined to tie the knot. Later, after a lot of twists and turns, finally the family members agreed and the two lovers got married on June, 1970.
Meanwhile, Ferdausi obtained her master’s degree with a double major in Bangla and Arabic from the University of Dhaka.
After a year, 1971 brought the toughest time for the people of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Ferdausi and her other family members went to India during the liberation war while Munier Chowdhury decided to stay back.
On December 14, 1971 Pakistan Army kidnapped a large number of Bengali intellectuals, educators, doctors and engineers. Munier Chowdhury was among them. He was killed on that day.
However, Bangladesh got independence and after a year in 1972, Abdullah Al Mamun and Ramendu Majumdar formed their theatre troupe titled ‘Theatre’. Ferdausi Majumdar also joined them. Since then she has dedicated her life for the enrichment of Bangladeshi theatre.
Most acclaimed productions where she left her obvious footprint included ‘Payer Awaz Paoa Jaye’, ‘Kokilara’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Meraj Fakirer Maa’, ‘Baramkhana’ and more are under her belt. She has played important roles in these dramas.
‘“Kokilara” is one of the productions which was and is very close to my heart. Abdullah Al Mamun wrote the play in early 90s. It was a monodrama. He came along and offered me to act. When I read the script, I was sure I couldn’t do it. Playing seventeen characters at once seemed impossible to me. But Abdullah Al Mamun was determined and he gave me courage,’ said the actress.
She got huge appreciation for acting in ‘Kokilara’. She memorised the script by heart and she can still remember the dialogues.
Alongside theatre, Ferdausi also made her mark in other fields of acting: television drama and film. Ferdausi Majumdar has acted in around 300 television plays till date.
‘Borof Gola Nodi’, ‘Ekhono Kritodas’, ‘Jibito O Mrittu’, ‘Nivrito Jotone’, ‘Tahader Joubon kaal’, ‘Shonkhoneel Karagar’ and others are Ferdausi’s notable television plays and serials. Apart from acting, she has directed a number of plays including ‘Krishnokanter Will’, ‘Chithhi’, ‘Tahara Tokhon’, ‘Meherjan Arekbar’, ‘Mukuti’ and others.
Ramendu and Ferdausi Majumdar’s only daughter Tropa Majumdar has followed on her parents’ footprints. She has established herself as a skilled actress as well.
Alongside acting Ferdausi has worked as a teacher at Agrani Girls’ High School in Azimpur, and later taught at Wills Little Flower School for many years.
For her outstanding contribution to the acting arena, Ferdausi Majumdar received a number of prestigious awards. She was conferred Ekushey Padak in 1998, William Kerry Award in 1998, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Award for Best Actor in 1978 and more.
Though Ferdausi is a regular face on stage and television, she did not act in many films. ‘Maaer Odhikar’ and ‘Domka’ are two films she worked in.
On the question of why she did not act much in film industry, she said, ‘Film is a totally different platform. As I came from stage background, film seemed a little different to me. Extreme makeup, the dressing style is also different and the dialogues are sometimes very dominating. I preferred not to appear randomly in films.’
But, I have some regret regarding films. Abdullah Al Mamun asked me to act in his film ‘Sareng Bou’. As I was too busy with my family, I could not accept his offer. Later again I had to refuse Sheikh Niamat Ali and Masihuddin Shaker’s jointly directed film ‘Surja Dighal Bari’ as my daughter Tropa was too little back then, she added.
After many years of performance that turned her into a legend, Ferdausi Majumdar was cast in a film titled ‘From Bangladesh’ directed by Shahnewaz Kakoli. It is a film based on the liberation war where Ferdausi will be seen in the role of a Hindu widow.
In her presence, one must raise the common but a crucial question — what is the mantra behind her success?
‘Acting should be a matter of passion. If an actor has respect for the job, she or he will definitely be successful. I have played diverse roles. I always looked for the scope where I could show my skill. Doesn’t matter if the role is that of a maid or a mother’s,’ Ferdausi shared.
She spoke of few plays that she thought gave her many opportunities to apply her skill. They included ‘Meherjan Arekbar’, ‘Golap Bagan’, ‘Ekhon Dussomoy’, ‘Ekhono Kritodash’.
‘In the play “Ekhon Dussomoy” was based on a flood affected area. I played a role named Jorina in that play. For the sake of my role, I had to use very dirty clothes that stank. But, I did not hesitate thinking about the dirt or the odor of the clothe. I could do it because I had dedication,’ Ferdausi observed.
The veteran actress is in her late seventies now. Presently she is working as a Bengali teacher of Sunbeams school located in Uttara.
She travels regularly from her home at Central Road to school in Uttara, which takes over four hours everyday. She spends most her days checking answer scripts of her students. Moreover, whenever she gets leisure, Ferdausi prefers to watch television and in prayer.
‘Sometimes I cook as well. Though I have a helping hand who cooks, I prefer to make the special dishes for my family,’ said Ferdausi Majumdar.
She still acts on stage as a part of the theatre troupe Theatre.
Ferdausi Majumdar has written several books as well. Apart from her autobiography, Ferdausi wrote ‘JaIcche Tai’, ‘Aubhinay Jibaner Katha’, ‘Nuri Kahini’ and ‘Mane Pare’. These books encapsulates real incidents from her life.
Before the sudden death of playwright Abdullah Al Mamun in 2008, he made a 86-minute documentary, Jiban O Obhinay, on Ferdausi Majumdar, which broadly focuses on her life as an actor.
Courtesy of Ferdausi Majumdar
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