By Premankur Biswas
A few years ago, a popular Bengali news channel carried out an undercover operation. A journalist dressed as a hospital staff was sent to one of the most reputed private nursing homes of the city. His mission was to photograph an ailing Suchitra Sen, Bengal’s most celebrated female actor who also happens to be one of its most enduring mysteries.
For more than 30 years, Suchitra Sen had successfully averted the public eye to lead her life in her own terms. While the insensitive operation carried out by the channel may seem cruel to some, it also puts to fore Bengal’s obsession with Suchitra Sen.
Born Rama Dasgupta in present day Pabna District of Bangladesh, Suchitra Sen was the fifth child of Karunamoy Dasgupta, headmaster of the local school, and Indira Devi, a homemaker. She completed her formal education in Pabna before being marrying Dibanath Sen, son of a wealthy Bengali industrialist, Adinath Sen in 1947. She had one daughter, Moon Moon Sen, with him.
It’s difficult to point out exactly when did Suchitra Sen started embodying the quintessence of Bengali feminity. Was it her turn as the girl next door in her debut film ‘Sharey Chuattor’ (1953) that endeared her to the Bengali psyche? Was it her ability to be the perfect foil to Bengal’s undisputable mahanayak (megastar) Uttam Kumar or was it her on screen persona, a strong woman rooted in values but defiant when it comes to her ideals.
Indeed, it’s interesting to observe how Suchitra Sen gradually shrugged off the cloak of victimhood from the shoulders of Bengali leading ladies. If she was the woman trapped in a bad marriage in 1963’s Asit Sen classic Uttar Fhalguni (which was later made into ‘Mamta’), her character was empowered enough to walk out of it. In 1961’s Shaptapadi, which is arguably the most celebrated romance of Bengali cinema, Suchitra Sen’s Rina Brown is a complex, flawed protagonist who fights her destiny to be with the man she loves and takes to alcohol after losing him. She is an equal to Uttam Kumar in the film, never a passive object of his affection. In fact, if there was any actor who matched Uttam Kumar in terms of charisma and popularity, it was Suchitra Sen. Uttam-Suchitra starrers ensured one thing, the script will have a substantial if not equal role for the female protagonist.
Such was the impact of Uttam-Suchitra pairing that whenever both of them took film assignments opposite other actors, it was seen a brief holiday by millions of fawning fans. A thing not to be taken seriously. Pages of popular Bengali film magazines like ‘Ulto Roth’ would talk about the pros and cons of the new pairing and dismiss them. Yet, we saw some of Suchitra Sen’s best performances in films where she was paired opposite other actors.
In 1963’s ‘Saat Paake Badha’ (which was later remade in ‘Kora Kagaz’ by Vijay Anand), Suchitra Sen’s marriage to a young idealistic professor (Soumitra Chatterjee) is destroyed by the interference of her overbearing mother (Chaya Devi). Caught between the two important people in her life, Suchitra Sen is confused, hurt and exquisitely neurotic. It was a performance that won her the best actress award at the Moscow Film Festival, making her the first Indian actress to have won an international award.
It’s a well known fact that Bollywood courted her repeatedly in her career. Raj Kapoor wanted to sign her for a film. Dilip Kumar was a good friend. Dev Anand recommended her for a number of films. In a past interview before his death, Dev Anand told The Indian Express about his fascination for Suchitra Sen, who was her co-star in two films, ‘Sarhad’ (1960) and ‘Bambaii ka Babu’ (1960) – “It was not just about beauty , though she is one of the most beautiful actresses I have worked with. It was her personality, which was strong and mysterious. The camera loved her.”
She chose her Bollywood assignment wisely, opting for films with experimental directors like Bimal Roy (‘Devdas’) and Hrishikesh Mukherjee (‘Musafir’), instead of big-budget blockbusters. “Had she wanted, Suchitra Sen would have had a long career in Bollywood too. But Bollywood didn’t have much to offer to her. She was the reigning queen of Bengali cinema and roles were written for her there,” said Dharmendra, who worked with her in ‘Mamta’, in an earlier interview.
Indeed, roles were written for her in the Bengali film industry. Allegedly, Satyajit Ray wanted in the titular role in his adaptation of the Bankimchandra Chatterjee classic, ‘Debi Chaudhrani’, but when things didn’t work out, he abandoned the project.
It took a determined, enthusiastic and charming Gulzar, armed with a script of a lifetime, to make her deign a stint with Bollywood again. The film was ‘Aandhi’, and the role was that of a middle-aged woman politician who has a chance encounter with her ex-husband during while campaigning. Rumoured to be based in the life of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, the film was banned during 1975’s emergency.
Soon after, Suchitra Sen went retired from public life and led a life away from the arc lights. She never made public appearances and every now and then there were rumours of Suchitra-spotting in the popular media. A grainy photograph of her stepping out of the car, a TV garb of her in the verandah of her south Kolkata residence, that’s all the legend of Suchitra Sen was fed on. Yet, it endured and how. Which is why, it will not be presumptuous to say that Suchitra Sen will live in Bengalis for a long, long time.