Suchitra Sen is a living legend. She is the greatest star to have graced the Bengali screen. None of Bengali cinema’s super stars, ranging from Supriya Devi to Madhabi Mukherjee through Aparna Sen to Rituparna Sengupta, has been able to reach anywhere near her charisma, glamour and audience pull. She queened over the world of Bengali cinema for more than 25 years. A major segment belongs to the magic chemistry of screen romance with Uttam Kumar. After Pronoy Pasha (1978) with Soumitra Chatterjee flopped, Suchitra Sen disappeared from public space. No one knows what she looks like now. She does not attend telephone calls, nor does she answer the door. She does not give interviews and has nothing to do with the rest of the world. Did the commercial flop of Pronoy Pasha trigger the withdrawal from public life? Or, was it a step towards a life of spirituality, as one discovers through her sole outdoor sojourns to Ramakrishna Paramhamsa’s abode every now and then? Or, did she become a social recluse because she wished to cut off completely from a glittering past so that her fans would remember her as the star she was, rather than a woman who would mellow with age?
She has shut herself out of the world that lies beyond the four walls of her spacious apartment, earlier a beautiful bungalow with a pretty garden of its own, where the famous Ritwik Ghatak once resided as tenant. She gave it away to real estate dealers and accepted four large apartments in a multi-storied estate. She lives in one of them. The rest she has willed away to Moonmoon, Raima and Ria. The four apartments are joined, but the one Suchitra Sen lives in is taboo for visitors.
One has almost lost count of the number of biographies written by journalists and authors. Editorial compilations use her name and photograph on the cover to attract sales. A few years ago, a house in the southern extremes of Calcutta built exclusively for shooting films is named Suchitra Sen House. Satabdi Roy, a contemporary actress made her directorial debut with Abhinetri. The story bears a marked resemblance to Suchitra Sen’s life. It opens with a top Bengali star who had sequestered herself from the public for 25 years. Such is the charisma she still generates among her fans. There is nothing that can draw her out of her Ballygunge Circular Road apartment, not the top award for her contribution to cinema, not daughter Moonmoon Sen, nor her two granddaughters, Raima and Ria.
In Suchitrar Katha, Gopal Krishna Dey creates an image of the recluse actress who refused to collaborate or give interviews during his writing of the book. The book unfolds the story of a social recluse who has left stardom behind her to lead a life of spiritual loneliness relieved occasionally with her interactions with her daughter and two grand-daughters. It is the strange story of a beautiful young girl who somewhat reluctantly stepped into films, became a star, but had to go through a broken marriage while trying to play the delicate balancing act between stardom and single motherhood.
“Suchitra Sen was an era,” writes journalist Ranjan Bandopadhyay in Suchitra Sen Ebong Ananya, (Deep Prakashan, Calcutta, 2001). It is a term never been used before or after to define any film persona in the country, not even Uttam Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan. Yet, Suchitra Sen never won a National Award. Her work was never targeted at awards. The Moscow International Film Festival could not ignore her unforgettable performance in Saat Paake Bandha as a woman deeply in love with her husband but forced into a life of separation and loneliness brought on by her ever-interfering and affluent mother.
Her debut was in Shesh Kothai (1952). She was paired with Uttam Kumar for the first time in Saarey Chuattar (1953), an effervescent comedy marking a breakthrough in director Nirmal Dey’s career. The two turned into overnight icons of Bengali romantic melodrama, sustaining the on-screen chemistry for more than twenty years. It created a distinct genre unto itself. They starred in 30 films, beating the Spencer Tracy-Audrey Hepburn pair hollow. When the young and beautiful Suchitra Sen emotes a love scene with Uttam Kumar in Chaoa-Paoa, Pathey Holo Deri, Alo Amar Alo, Shaaede Chuattar, Kamallata, the electrically charged feelings between them come across so tangibly that one can stretch one’s hand to touch them. Their films were famous for soft-focus close ups, particularly Sen’s, and lavishly mounted scenes of romance against windswept expanses and richly decorated interiors with fluttering curtains and such mnemonic objects such as bunches of tuberoses etc. Some popular films of the pair include Shap Mochan (1955), Sagarika (1956), Harano Sur (1957), Saptapadi (1961), Bipasha (1962) and Grihadah (1967). T
Pathey Holo Deri (1982) was re-released almost 20 years after its first release. It celebrated a silver jubilee run! To generate this magic chemistry, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen did not need even a single lip-to-lip kiss. Suchitra would almost always be draped in a sari with a sleeved blouse. She did not need to show skin, or flash a thigh or reveal a cleavage to exude sex appeal. “It was all there in her beautiful face,” said Uttam Kumar once. “She is so beautiful that thousands come to the theatres just to look at her face. Where can you get a photogenic face like that? Roma is the most beautiful, the most glamorous among all my leading ladies,” he said in an interview, adding, “I have been lucky to have had the exclusive right to be cast as the man she fell in love with,” typically placing all the credit at the door of his heroine. Every film starring the pair ended with the two going into a tight clinch. For the audience, it was happily ever after. That was all the physical intimacy they needed to send their fans into a tizzy. So, in her later days, when she crooned as a cabaret artist in some old film, the outcome was pathetic.
Suchitra Sen’s childhood is shrouded in mystery. Some say she studied in Santi Niketan. She grew up in distant Pabna, miles away from Bolpur in Birbhum district in West Bengal. Her maternal uncle B.N.Sen lived in Bolpur with his family. She would often come to stay with them. For some time during her early childhood, she lived with her maternal uncle’s family in Patna. She was born in Pabna, originally in the northern parts of undivided Bengal and now in Bangladesh, on April 6. She was the fifth among three brothers and five sisters. Her father’s name was Karunamoy Dasgupta and her mother’s name was Indira. Her nickname was Krishna. When she was admitted to Pabna Girls High School, her father entered Roma as her name in the admission form. She was noted for her beauty since she was a child. In 1947, her beauty heralded an early marriage to Dibanath Sen, son of judge who lived in Calcutta. Suchitra is perhaps the first Indian actress in Bengal to have made her debut after marriage and motherhood. The year of her birth is somewhat clouded because some sources trace it back to 1931. Other sources quote 1934 as the year. Nitish Roy, assistant director in one of her earliest films, christened her ‘Suchitra’ in 1952.
Suchitra Sen’s was a beautiful, oval face, with large, almond-shaped eyes, a beautiful mouth, a long, graceful neck and lustrous black hair falling all the way down to her waist. She presented the typical Bengali girl stereotype with her sari draped around her slender frame to reveal the contours of a soft feminine body that appeared more sensuous because it was concealed, a loose lock of hair that fell over her forehead and which she moved away with the back of her hand. There was instant audience identification with the Suchitra-Uttam pairing. That is why it was such a big hit.
She was quick to silence people who felt she would fail to pull a film without Uttam Kumar. She came out with diverse and layered performances in films that did not pair her with the matinee idol. Among these are: Hospital opposite Ashok Kumar, Deep Jwele Jai with Basant Choudhury, Smriti Tuku Thaak (double role) with Asit Baran, Utttar Phalguni (double role) with Bikash Roy and Dilip Mukherjee, Sandhya Deeper Shikha (Dilip Mukherjee) and Saat Paake Bandha with Soumitra Chatterjee.
Contemporary filmmaker Ashoke Viswanathan says, “The comparison with Greta Garbo comes uppermost in mind whenever one is asked about why and how Suchitra Sen withdrew from the big screen more than 20 years ago. But the similarity between the two ends there. Suchitra Sen was not an actress with pre-eminent abilities. She had many mannerisms and unlike her screen partner Uttam Kumar, who kept on improving himself and innovating constantly, Suchitra failed to grow. She got caught in her own matrix of fiction. She had already transcended her peak because her last film, Pronoy Pasha was a complete washout. In Datta, at 50-plus she was portraying a girl of 17 and was not able to carry that aura of a teenager at all. She was more conscious about her beautiful image than anything else. I do not think she would have contributed in any way to the cinema of today.”
She acquired starry hang-ups. She never permitted anyone to address her by her first name. Everyone called her either ‘Madame’ or ’Mrs. Sen.’ Uttam Kumar is perhaps the only person within the industry who sometimes called her “Roma.” A story goes that when a very senior and respected character actor, by virtue of his seniority and his position in the industry called her by her first name, she raised her index finger at him and asked him point-blank: “who gave you the right to call me by my first name?” leaving the shooting floor speechless with shock.
Asked to comment on her voluntary withdrawal from films, noted director Tarun Majumdar says: “Looking back, I feel that her decision to withdraw so completely from the screen was a very private one. It was a bit premature, I think. However, looking back, in view of the state of mainstream Bengali cinema today, it appears to have been a wise decision. Had she been active in films now, she might have been forced to put in mediocre performances in mediocre films. We then would not have discussed her the way we now do, turning her into a living legend and talking about her as if she has passed on yonder.”
What does daughter Moonmoon have to say? “I respect and take pride in my mother not only because she entered films when very little technical know-how was available to play tricks with her looks and with her performance, but also because long before the hoo-haa about women’s liberation began, she stood for the triumphant woman who won over her male peers. She brought respectability to her profession at a time when there was little of it to pass around. I respect her because she has defined herself as a legend in her lifetime – something even Uttam Kumar cannot boast of since he is no more. She was a woman who held herself with dignity through her long career. She has proved that she is a true sophisticate, in the manner in which she gave up her career when she did, proving her unwillingness to be greedy and thus keep the magic intact. She placed great importance to a good and solid education in my upbringing and I am grateful to her for that. She insisted that I learn drawing and painting and I completed my masters’ too, thanks to my mother.”
Suchitra Sen became a nationally renowned actress with a few meaningful Hindi films. Two of them are Gulzar’s Aandhi, based on an original story by Kamleshwar and Mamta, directed by the late Asit Sen, where she portrayed the two diametrically opposite characters of the kothewalli mother of a sophisticated daughter who is a barrister. The film was the Hindi version of the original Bengali film Uttar Phalguni that turned out to be a box office hit. In Aandhi, one could see in the character she played, glimpses of the mannerisms and characteristics of Indira Gandhi. Released during the Emergency, the film created a storm within the prime ministerial office and was briefly banned briefl because Mrs. Gandhi who was then the PM, felt it would carry negative reflections of the PM. When this writer spoke to Kamleshwar about who his inspiration for the story really was, he had a good laugh and confessed that it was fashioned after Rani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur and Mrs. Gandhi was nowhere in his mind when he wrote it. Suchitra Sen insists that she did not fashion the character after Mrs. Gandhi. “I do not believe in imitating. As an actress, I believe in creating and I created the character out of my own feelings and belief of what the character should look like, how she should walk, talk and so on,” she summed up in response to a question from her school friend Phoolrani Kanjilal who has written a book on the actress as a schoolgirl.
After she retirement, she took deeksha from Swami Bireshwarananda, then-President of Ramkrishna Math and Ramkrishna Mission. She had a close bonding with Bharat Maharaj. She visited the Ramkrishna Math at Belur, a few kms away from Calcutta, and the Dakshineswar Temple in the northern extremes of Calcutta. She would also visit another branch of the Ramkrishna Mission at Anantapur in Hooghly district. She would sit at the feet of the sanyasis and listen to their chants and prayers. She would sit on the floor with them and partake of the prasad after the prayers and chanting were over. In all these years, she stepped into public domain only twice. One was in July 1980, when Uttam Kumar died. The second time was when Bharat Maharaj passed away His death seemed to shatter her completely. Some time after this, she stopped visiting these places too. Strange, yet true that all this has enhanced the mystique of Suchitra Sen, instead of making it fade away.
Article by: Shoma A. Chatterji