Suchitra Sen: The reclusive star

Bengali cinema's star and feminine authority, who died at the age of 83 in Kolkata, is known only through her films

Shamik Bag
Updated17 Jan 2014
She was 83, having spent much of her adult life at the crest of Bengali cinema as its leading lady and the polar opposite of total seclusion. Photo: HT<br />
She was 83, having spent much of her adult life at the crest of Bengali cinema as its leading lady and the polar opposite of total seclusion. Photo: HT

Kolkata: Of all the Suchitra Sen stories that do the rounds in Kolkata, one comes from an author who, having seen a replay of Deep Jweley Jai (I Go Lighting a Lamp) on television, called up the actress to compliment her for her performance in the film. Sen remained quiet for a while before ticking off the caller, saying the on-screen Suchitra Sen was a person different from the Suchitra Sen speaking on the phone. There was no need, the actress felt, to wallow in her past.

For over three decades, Sen, the person, lived in the shadow of Suchitra Sen, the actress who was the epitome of grace, charm and feminine authority on the Bengali screen for a quarter of a century beginning with her first release, 1953’s Saat Number Kayedi (Prisoner Number Seven). Right after her last appearance in Pranoy Pasha (Gamble of Love, 1978), a rare flop in her illustrious acting career of over 60 films, including Hindi films like director Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir (Traveller, 1957), Asit Sen’s Mamta (Love, 1966) and Gulzar’s Aandhi (Tempest, 1975), Sen moved out of the adulatory gaze of cinema.

Having built an impenetrable fortress around herself since the early 1980s, and never venturing back to the public domain, her isolation remained complete in death. She had been hospitalized over the last few weeks and died after a massive heart attack on Friday at a highrise apartment on Ballygunje Circular Road, Kolkata.

She was 83, having spent much of her adult life at the crest of Bengali cinema as its leading lady and the polar opposite of total seclusion.

Death could have prised open her enigma—on various occasions, even till a few years back, scoop-seeking photographers have tried to get a shot of Sen, even entering the hospital where she had been admitted in the guise of hospital staff. Although some have succeeded in updating our memories of her ethereal beauty, nobody could trespass on her right to a private, spiritual life.

It is thus not unsurprising that on Friday, when her body was carried through the roads of Kolkata leading to the Keoratala crematorium, and as thousands lined the streets to catch a last glimpse of Suchitra Sen, she remained guarded within a coffin. Having essayed powerful roles of the heroine who often displayed stronger social and moral fibre than the hero, in her death, Sen debunked the age of information overload, faux celebrityhood, overlapping public-private lives, and media overkill.

“Maybe, she wanted to remain beautiful for her fans and I see a likeness to Greta Garbo. What surprises me is that she didn’t react to anything that happened around the world. Had Ray got her to act in his proposed film Debi Chaudhurani maybe we would have seen a different Suchitra Sen, more so because Ray had the ability to get the best acting out of his characters. Maybe, she wanted to remain a matinee idol. She did strong, women-centric roles and directors would shape the characters like that. But to be a great actor, you have to come out of that” said director Buddadeb Dasgupta.

Film scholars contend that she essayed roles which reflected the Nehruvian era of socialistic optimism. It is said that Sen, born as Roma Dasgupta in Pabna, now in Bangladesh, to a father who was a school headmaster and a homemaker mother, didn’t particularly like working in period or religious and mythological films even though they fared well among audiences. Instead, she opted for roles that reflected modern realities. She’s the nurse in a psychiatric facility who, as part of therapy, gets emotionally involved with the traumatized hero in Deep Jweley Jai; she plays an unprecedented double role as courtesan mother and her daughter in Uttar Falguni; the plain-speaking wife who can’t deal with her mother’s interference in her married life in Saat Paake Bandha (The Bonds of Marriage), for which she won the Best Actress Award at 1963’s Moscow film festival or the alcoholic Anglo-Indian Rina Brown in Saptapadi (Seven Steps).

In 1975’s Gulzar-directed Aandhi, she is the powerful politician, whose looks and gait resembled that of former prime minister Indira Gandhi. She smokes and she drinks too—traits which raised the hackles of politicians during assembly elections in Gujarat, and for a combination of reasons, led to the film being banned during the Emergency.

From those Aandhi days, Gulzar, as he had previously mentioned in interviews, would refer to Sen as ‘Sir’—an endearing attestation to an actress who started her cinema career after marriage and having given birth to actress Moon Moon Sen, a fact which once again contradicts the insecurity of some present-day actresses to name their boyfriends or opt for wedlock lest their feminine aura be depleted in the male audience market. Photographs from Sen’s own wedding with Dinanath Sen, who strongly supported her acting career, reveal that she had not covered her head with the bridal veil during the ceremony—a scenario replicated in her film 1953’s Saare Chuattar (Seventy four and a Half). This film would be her first film opposite Uttam Kumar—a lead combine not unlike that of Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy, seen in 30 films over two decades.

Having sought spiritual anchorage in the Ramakrishna Mission’s teachings, even after she rejected public life, Sen would reportedly go on day-trips to Aantpur. About 50 km from Kolkata, this was the place where Swami Vivekananda (then Naren, one of the favourite disciples of the monk Ramakrishna Paramahamsa), took up the life of an ascetic. Though the Aantpur visits would always be guarded, it was to pay tribute to Uttam Kumar, following his death in 1980, that drew her out of her private cocoon—she was rarely seen since.

She has, with predictable regularity, been seen through her films. There are no Bengali households which could evade her sway. Family members, across generations, gather around television screens when her films are shown—Sen is the object of awe for grandmothers, aspiration for mothers and ambition, still, for young daughters. In my own family, we’ve been regaled by Suchitra Sen stories by my own aunt, Shikharani Bag, who as a child actress, played the role of the young Sen in films like Bipasha, Shilpi (The Artist), Balaygras, Annapurnar Mandir (Annapurna’s Temple) and Agnipariksha (Trial by Fire) Even at the zenith of her fame, Sen, my aunt would fondly recall, didn’t mind travelling in the same car with the child artist, or forging a very intimate friendship with the 12-girl-old actress in a frock.

But such anecdotes from Sen’s personal life are an exclusive preserve of some. For millions of her fans, the collective memories of Suchitra Sen will only remain imprinted permanently through her cinema—beyond the phantasmagoric reel presence.

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