22 July 1986. The end was strikingly similar to the tearjerkers that made her a star. It was bereft of any rationality. Mahua Roychoudhury, 32, the then queen of Bengali cinema, died at a Kolkata hospital after a 10-day battle against third-degree burns. She created a much bigger splash in her death than any time in her hugely successful career. Police doubted whether Mahua suffered the burns after the bursting of a kerosene stove, as claimed by her husband Tilak Chakraborty, and later testified by herself. The suicide theory, however, had no traction as there was neither any tangible information nor any reason for such an action.
Mahua, by far, was the busiest actress of her time in the entire Bengali film industry. She had at least 15 films riding on her shoulders when she died. She is credited with almost single-handedly putting Bengali cinema back on track with Lal Golap (1983), and then with the Anjan Chowdhury-directed Shatru, a year later. Shatru was a runaway hit, having grossed a whopping ₹90 lakh, made with a modest budget of ₹6 lakh. Her performance in veteran director Tapan Sinha’s telefim Aadmi Aur Aurat, brought her critical acclaim. She corrected her reputation of being a mainstream actress, only filling the box office coffers. Suicide was an unimaginable turn of events in the middle of a dramatic and steep ascent.
Chakraborty later told the police, he and Mahua had just returned from a party at Chowdhury’s residence around midnight on 12-13 July when the accident happened. His wife, Chakraborty claimed, lighted a stove which suddenly burst and engulfed her in flames. Police, however, later found the stove intact. There was not even a drop of kerosene in the stove, though attending doctors at Calcutta Medical Research Institute said that Mahua stank of kerosene when she was brought to the hospital’s emergency ward.
The criminal investigation department (CID) shut the case on 18 July after Mahua herself corroborated her husband’s claims. She said the fire was accidental but never mentioned of any explosion. But the media hype and persistent doubts raised by those close to her in the film industry, led the police to reopen the case.
The first thing that police did now, was to grill Chakraborty again, along with Mahua’s dancer father Nilanjan Roychoudhury, who managed her finances. According to police sources, several bank accounts that Mahua held jointly with her father or her husband, were closed at her insistence, four days before the incident.
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Actress Ratna Ghoshal, one of Mahua’s closest friends in the industry, had claimed that her death was pure accident.
But a few witnesses informed police that both Mahua and her husband were inebriated at Chowdhury’s party. The fire was preceded by a big drunken brawl between the couple in presence of Nilanjan, their seven-year old son Tamal, and a few domestic helps. One investigator even said that the couple used heavy kitchen utensils as weapons against each other.
The latter claim, prima facie, was supported by two important pieces of evidence. The post mortem report mentioned haematoma marks under the actress’s eyes and elsewhere on the body, indicating that she was badly bruised. The marks were supposedly not there when the couple went to attend the party. Meanwhile, her husband suffered a badly sprained ankle, which he claimed to have got while attempting to rescue Mahua from the fire.
Investigations into Mahua’s personal life revealed a chronic cycle of depression followed by alcoholism. It was reportedly because of an affair with a Bangladeshi producer and Mahua’s resentment of her father and husband controlling her life. Nilanjan was fully dependent on her daughter’s earning and had left his wife at a cheap and dingy home in the slums of Dum Dum. Chakraborty who tried his luck as an actor, after gravitating from being a child artiste, was a failure and settled for a minor job at a bank.
Mahua was their bread ticket, said a fellow actress, who convincingly claimed that the incident was no accident.
Mahua had once earlier attempted to take her life. If her death is considered suicide this time round, then everything probably fell in place as the actress may have given her statement on the accident theory, to cover the embarrassment.
Some of the investigating officials were largely sure about Mahua being drunk that night and set herself to fire, to overcome depression following the fight with her husband. The then special inspector general of police (crime), Rathin Bhattacharjee, had said that it was up to the forensic department to determine the real cause of death.
The forensic report, strangely, never came out.
Mahua, who specialised in girl-next-door roles, neither had the talent of Sabitri Chatterjee nor the glamour of Suchitra Sen. But she could generate empathy from her audience, courtesy her less than plain Jane looks. She could emote and was readymade for the popular family dramas.
Mahua’s first silver screen outing was Tarun Majumdar’s super-successful Shriman Prithwiraj (1972) where she played a zestful teenager. Ironically enough, it was Nilanjan who harboured ambitions to etch a career for his daughter in films. He met Sen’s personal makeup artiste in this regard. But her career went southwards, shortly after her debut and even a pairing with the legendary Uttam Kumar couldn’t restore her box office worth. She married Chakraborty in 1976 and together starred in a few duds like Anandamela (1976) and Kalo Chokher Tara (1980).
Recession soon hit the Bengali film industry and Mahua fared no better than her peers. Her downhill slide continued, except for some average grossers like Ghatkali (1979) and Paka Dekha (1980).
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But Mahua returned with a vengeance in Dadar Kirti (1980). Directed by Majumdar, the film ran for more than 50 weeks in Kolkata and pulled out Bengali cinema by bootstraps from a state of coma. Mahua never had to look back again. She bagged a best actress Filmfare award for regional cinema for the performance.
Bengali film actors were cheaply paid back then. Even Uttam Kumar, considered the guru of Bengali cinema, could never command more than ₹1 lakh at the height of his career. Colour films became the norm only in the late 1980s, a good quarter of a century after Mumbai (then Bombay) warmed up to them. Even under such tough circumstances, Mahua became the highest paid actress of her time, commanding around ₹1 lakh per film.
Success came delayed for Mahua. But when it did, along with came the collaterals, like fame, broken relationships, bouts of depressions, and finally alcohol. Coming from an impoverished family, she managed to pull out Bengali cinema from an extended stupor. But in her death, she perhaps played out the biggest potboiler of her career, where mystery towered over all other dramatic elements.
And 31 years later, none knows for sure what exactly happened on that fateful July night.