Having acted in over 150 films in 4 or 5 languages, Chhaya Devi rightly occupies a prominent place amongst the more accomplished actresses of Indian cinema. Many old timers rate Chhaya Devi as one of the finest actresses that Indian cinema has seen. Although a majority of her films were in Bengali, she could prove her acumen in acting quite clearly in mainstream Hindi cinema too. She started her career in the early era of cinema in India, when Calcutta was also an important hub for Hindi movies, with double versions in Hindi and Bengali, comprising of the same artistes and directors being quite common. Thus it was that in that 1937 classic historical “Bidyapati” (in Bengali) and “Vidyapati” (in Hindi) she stole the limelight in front of a pan Indian audience. This was regarded as one of the best films from the then famous New Theaters. Prior to this she had made her first appearance in a lead role in the Bengali film “Sonar Sansar” by veteran director
Like another veteran and legendary actor of Indian cinema,
, Chhaya Devi too was born in Bhagalpur, Bihar in a Bengali family residing outside Bengal at that time, and coincidentally, was also related to Ashok Kumar through the latter’s wife, Shobha. Being from a family that took interest in the performing arts, it was not unnatural that she took music lessons from an early age, and that too from renowned musicians of those days, including the renowned singer KC Dey, whose nephew
later on went on to become one of the legendary singers in the film industry. It was in fact KC Dey who introduced Chhaya Devi to Debaki Bose, director of her first film in a lead role.
In the age of great actors on the Bengali screen she often co starred with the legendary
, matching her acting talents on an even keel. She had brilliant performances in films that she did for award winning director Tapan Sinha, starting from “Nirjan Saikate” in 1963, portraying the role of one of the 4 widows in the film; “Hatey Bazarey” in 1967, where she teams up with fellow Bhagalpurian Ashok Kumar for one of the latter’s Bengali films, and finally in “Apanjan” where she steals the show with her role of a condescending old woman trying to mould a group of misguided youth. That film, and especially Chhaya Devi’s role in it had prompted Gulzar to adapt it in Hindi under the name “
” giving that role to
. Discerning moviegoers who have seen both versions have, however, silently given their vote for Chhaya Devi. She also acted for another famous Bengali director, Mrinal Sen, appearing in his very first film “Raat Bhore” in 1956, and later on in “Abasheshe” in 1962.
Significant for her acting in her later stage films, where she settled for mostly character roles, were “Saat Paake Bandha” in 1963 portraying a dominant overbearing mother, and the 1977 Hindi film “Alaap” where she matches her acting with none other than
and Rekha. Although her death came at a ripe old age of 87, her absence was felt quite prominently, especially in the Bengali film industry.