Binodini, better known as Binodini Dasi or Noti Binodini, lived and worked in Bengali theatre but remains a pan-Indian personality archived forever in the history of proscenium theatre in India. The story of her life, the struggles she went through, and the taboos she broke are as enchanting and enriching as her real life itself.

Two tributes are happening right now in Kolkata. One is a play called ‘Binodini Opera’ that premiered recently at the Academy with noted actress Sudipta Chakraborty in the title role. The other, is a film under the direction of Mumbai-based author and filmmaker Ramkamal Mukherjee, right now on the shooting floors. It is being produced under the banner of Dev Entertainment Ventures and Pramod Films and is tentatively titled ‘Binodini – Ekti Notir Upakhyan’. Rukmini Maitra is essaying the title role of Binodini.

Says Rukmini Maitra of her first historic role as Binodini, "though we had quite a few hurdles to cross, I was confident that my team would succeed in recreating the look. I trusted them, and eventually my team created the magic. It took four hours of permutation and combination for them to create this look. Ram Kamal insisted that we add sheen and shimmer to make it look bright on the screen. Since we tend to go slightly matt with period drama, it was challenging for my team to add shine."

The film also stars Rahul Bose as Ranga Babu, Kaushik Ganguly as Girish Chandra Ghosh, Gautam Halder as Dasu Neogi, Mir as Gurmukh Rai, Chandreyee Ghosh as Ganga Bai and Om Sahani as Kumar Bahadur. Soumik Halder captures the film through his lenses, while Tanmoy Chakraborty is recreating the era through his artwork. Pronoy Dasgupta will edit the film, while Soumyajit and Sourendra are composing the music and background score.

Interestingly, Rukmini who was a noted model before she stepped into mainstream Bengali cinema, has attended a gruelling workshop under the guidance of noted actress Sudipta Chakraborty who herself presented the play called ‘Binodini Opera’ early this month. in the title role. She organised the premiere of the play, produced by Cinnamon Media and Events at the Academy of Fine Arts, to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8. It is directed by Abanti Chakraborty and written by Sibashish Bandopadhyay and Abanti Chakraborty.

Biographical or autobiographical plays are not popular, they say. But Plays on Binodini Dasi (1863-1941), better known as Nati Binodini, are an exception. They have been staged over and over for a long time, because the story of her life is more dramatic than fiction, and has more twists and turns than a film script.

‘Noti' means 'actress’, Binodini carved a place in the history of Bengali theatre not only for her talent and her versatility as an actress, but also for the sacrifices she made for the cause of theatre, her first love. She documented the story of her life in two separate autobiographies, ’Aamar Katha’ (My Story) and ’Aamar Abhinetri Jeebon’ (My Life as an Actress.) Kali for Women has published the English translations by Rimli Bhattacharya.

The most outstanding stage production of Binodini I have watched till now is Delhi's Theatre and Television Associates’ ’Nati Binodini’ (Hindi) under the directorial baton of Amal Allana. Based on Rimli Bhattacharya's English translations of Binodini's two autobiographies, the play had a strikingly original conceptual design.

Five actresses portrayed Binodini, representing different ages, present on the stage at the same time. Except the senior most actress, the other four were dressed and made-up identically. Structured in the flashback mode with the telescoping of the present and the past, the play opened with the octogenarian Binodini writing out her autobiography.

As she reads what she is writing, the past unfolds different layers of her life, segments from plays she has performed in, her interactions with her mother, a prostitute who forced her daughter to become a mistress, her relationship with her guru and mentor the famous Natasamrat Girish Chandra Ghosh, and her constant conflicts between her personal and professional life forced on her by none other than her peers on the stage and by her mentor himself.

The cast performed brilliantly, though to begin with, the structure was confusing with five actresses on the stage playing Binodini. The focus was more on the actress' sexual and emotional exploitation than on her genius as an actress whose range, under the guidance of Girish Ghosh, was phenomenal.

Nissar Allana's split-level stage design and mood lighting combined with Amal Allana's costumes and Devajit Bandopadhyay's music enriched the tapestry of the production. The only thing that diluted the performance was the emphasis on the overdoing of the weepy element. It was more multilingual than Hindi since there was a lot of Bengali in the dialogue and the songs, while Girish Ghosh used a smattering of English now and then. Jayanto Das as Girish Ghosh and Swaroopa Ghosh as the slightly older Binodini were incredible.

The recent production called ‘Binodini Opera’ is conceived, planned and presented in the form of a musical presentation on an ornamental proscenium like an opera with a long musical prelude. This is followed by interludes in the form of songs by a female chorus, who also add rhyming verse in their chorus dialogue.

The stage at the Academy is designed with a tier in the centre to provide a dynamic platform to the actors who use the stage space optimally, drawing circles, singing, dancing, narrating dialogue. The performance is sometimes stylised in the form of an opera. There are wonderful costume changes within a minute, and grand décor and at times. There is symbolic property also such as when a circular net transcends from the ceiling of the stage to cage Binodini. Gurmukh circles it with a charming smile, and the net goes back into the ceiling as Binodini breaks free as a soul committed to her first and only love, the theatre.

The male characters appear somewhat marginalised except that of Amritalal which throws Binodini in greater relief as the strongest among them all, and Sudipta lives every moment of the character she portrays including her breakdown in the end. But perhaps this is intentional on the part of the writers as Binodini stands tall among all the men who desire her for their own gains including her mentor Girish Ghosh.

Abhijit Guha as Girish Ghosh is miscast because his short stature, physically and symbolically, does not lend itself ideally to the image we have of Natasamrat Girish Ghosh. Padmanava Dasgupta as Kumar and Neel Mukherjee as Gurmukh Rai are very good but the acoustics were problematic on the first performance which rendered the observations by the Chorus ambivalent and blurred.

Sudipta is like Binodini reborn, rising from the ashes of the red light lanes she was born in, through her breaking the barrier of males enacting female roles not only by performing male roles herself but also creating the trend of females stepping into theatre for female roles. The tiny abstract from Shakespeare’s Othello was not clear in terms of hearing and therefore, did not work well within the script. The scene where Binodini performs Shri Krishna Chaitanya is exceptionally dramatic.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. So was the life of Binodini Dasi (1863-1941), a prostitute-turned-actress who dominated the Kolkata stage for a little more than a decade. She flowered into a versatile actress-star under the able guidance of none other than Natasamrat Girish Chandra Ghosh (1844-1912).

Binodini Dasi became a phenomenal star of the Bengali stage during the era of the famous Girish Ghosh. But like many of her peers in theatre, she was forced to depend on patrons and protectors as her benefactors. Even her mentor Girish Ghosh persuaded her to become the mistress of a rich Marwari businessman, Gurmukh Rai when the theatre fell into bad days and the owner wanted to pull down the shutters.

As a way of expressing her gratitude to her guru on the one hand and to save the theatre on the other, she agreed. The businessman kept his promise of building a theatre house for the company. His only condition was that the theatre house should be called B-Theatre.

But his wish was sacrificed for the name Star Theatre because a theatre named after a fallen woman would draw neither audience nor prestige. Ironically, this theatre was bulldozed many years later for widening Beadon Street, where it stood. The Star Theatre that exists today is a different one.

She became more famous than the others because she charted a great stage history by packing in around 90 characters across 80 plays within the short span of 12 years. In ‘Meghnad Badh’, authored by Michael Madhusudan Dutta, she played six roles. Her performance in the title role in ‘Chaitanya Leela’ became so spiritually rich that intellectuals like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Edwin Arnold, author of Light of Asia, theosophist Col. Olcott appreciated it and Ramkrishna Paramhamsa blessed her after a show he attended.

While Binodini, considered to be god-gifted in music, learnt the rudiments of classical music under Gangabai who came to live in her neighbourhood, Tarasundari and Angoorbala trained themselves in Nazrul Geeti performing rigorous riyaaz every day at the break of dawn. Tincowrie Dasi was illiterate, but her performance as Lady Macbeth in Girish Ghosh’s production of ‘Macbeth’, was outstanding.

Though the play was a commercial flop, Tincowrie had arrived on the Calcutta stage. She kept changing from one theatre group to another but proved her worth as an actor in demanding roles of Jana, Hamida and Lachmania. Tara Sundari, younger than Tincowrie, appeared as a child in ‘Chaitanya Leela’.

She became a much-in-demand actress and continued to work for 30 long years. She achieved the top place by her hard work, determination and willingness to learn. Her name became synonymous with Rezia and nationalist leader Bipin Chandra Pal said, “He had not seen Tara Sundari’s equal as an actress in the theatres of Europe and America,” wrote theatre scholar Aparesh Mukherjee.

The performance of ‘Binodini Opera’ takes Binodini out of the pages of the history of theatre, brings her in front of us with her songs, her dances, her performances and her pain only to put her back with into those pages of history till someone else brings her back on the stage or on the large screen and unfold her story for generations to follow.

Whether Binodini left the stage forever and went away without leaving a trace to follow, or, whether she followed Sri Ramkrishna Paramahamsa when he came backstage to compliment her on her performance of Sri Krishna Chaitanya, or whether she remained backstage as a guide behind the scenes, we shall never know and ‘Binodini Opera’ closes on that note of mystery and intrigue.