Although firmly entrenched in recent memory as a regal television matriarch, the late Rita Bhaduri’s early career in mainstream cinema was not without the signposts that indicated an altogether different career trajectory, had her films met with more success at the turnstiles. A 1973 graduate of Pune’s Film and Television Institute, she debuted as doe-eyed romantic lead alongside an equally fresh-faced Kamal Hassan in the 1974 Malayalam film,
(1975), her sari-clad conservatism suggested the beginnings of a typecasting that she ultimately couldn’t shake off, but it also helped to accentuate the ‘otherness’ of the title character — the Anglo-Indian girl whose forwardness leads to her undoing (unwed motherhood, in this case). Lip-syncing to the Lata number, ‘
Yeh Raatein Nayi Purani
’, Bhaduri seemed at home in a commercial framework in which the domestic comeliness of actresses like Jaya Bachchan or Vidya Sinha still carried currency.
A litany of supporting parts in the 1970s — some author-backed, others peripheral — set the pace for her later career as a ubiquitous and dependable character artist. In 1978’s
, although she played the titular character, she wasn’t afforded a conventional romantic track — the mark of a true heroine — as a victim of rape who wreaks revenge on her perpetrator. It was an Indian remake of the Hollywood rape-and-revenge thriller
(1976) before the more talked-about
Insaf Ka Tarazu
In her 1979 films with Rajshri Productions —
Sawaan Ko Aane Do
Raadha aur Seeta
— she was allowed a more feisty modern persona and even serenaded the hero (Arun Govil in both films) before losing out to conventional leading ladies (her FTII batchmate Zarina Wahab and Abha Dhuliya respectively).
Her most enduring persona from this period was as sister to protagonists like Mumtaz in
(1977) and Amitabh Bachchan in
(1983), so forging an identity as a leading lady proved difficult.
In 1984, she attempted to break away from her straight-laced persona, by taking on the lead in the Bengali film,
, which was loosely based on the life of the eponymous female dacoit who had surrendered to the authorities in 1983. In the 1980s, female ‘exploitation sagas’ became de rigueur, and every leading lady worth her salt from Hema Malini to Dimple to Sridevi took to playing marauding avenging angels. Bhaduri was early to this ‘femaledaku’ trend, turning in a capable performance in a routine potboiler which marked her shift to mature parts at just 30 (when most female actors were considered ‘over the hill’ anyway). The ‘older’ Bhaduri turned up in a slew of roles, from nuns to headmistresses, evil sisters-in-law to beleaguered mothers.
Eventually, she shifted gears to television, where the stories of women hold sway in a universe not entirely different from the family socials she started her career with.
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