For Hindi cinema fans, Suchitra Sen’s name is synonymous with Aandhi, in which she played a character widely seen as representing Indira Gandhi.
Director Gulzar denied he had modeled the imperious Arti Devi’s character entirely on Mrs G, that it was Tarkeshwari Sinha — another tall woman leader of that time — who was his inspiration, but there was no fooling us. We had sharp eyes, we knew the context, we could see the similarity.
But the thing is, the act was no mere impersonation. Instead of that trademark single startling salt wing in a sharp pepper cut which framed the real Mrs G’s face, Sen affected a low-slung ‘jooda’, and had two white streaks gracefully sloping behind her ears.
In every other respect, the role was owned by Sen, who passed away Friday after suffering a cardiac arrest at a nursing home in Kolkata where she had been admitted since late December. She was 82.
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Sen was imposing and glacial as the female politician striding ahead in an arena filled with men. And dutiful and wifely when she sat with her handsome estranged husband, played by Sanjeev Kumar.
But again, what is remarkable is how Arti Devi was never subservient. She could draw the tea-tray to herself, away from him, and say: “main banaati hoon” (let me do it), and pour. But at no point is that the equivalent of pressing-the-husband’s-feet. She is regretful that they parted ways, and she is both surprised and pleased that they have met again, but there is no moaning and sighing: she is every inch the equal, if not more, of her man.
This quality that Sen had, this inhabiting the frame with the same weightage, regardless of her role, was what made her stand out from her contemporaries in Hindi cinema.
Strictly speaking, she was no contemporary, because she didn’t arrive in Bombay in order to conquer. She was like an accidental tourist who happened to stop by for a bit, take up temporary residence, blaze a brief trail, and then return.
In Bengal, she was as celebrated as Uttam Kumar, that other superstar with whom she made many popular films. In Bombay, her delivery heavily and determinedly laced with a Bangla accent, she remained an outsider.
In a career that lasted nearly 30 years, Sen acted in only a handful of Hindi films; the rest were in Bengali. Apart from Aandhi, whose songs are as iconic as the film, the ones that stood out were Devdas, Bambai Ka Babu, and Mamta.
It is an interesting mix of parts: in Devdas, her first Hindi film, she plays Paro to Dilip Kumar’s permanently soused loser-lover; in the second, she is facing off with the dashing Bambai Ka Babu Dev Anand (when she calls him ‘bhaiyya’, and he looks at her as no brother usually does, and she returns that look, you can feel the sizzle) and in Mamta, she plays a classic mother (courtesan)-daughter (feisty lawyer) double role.
Like Aandhi’s timeless `Tere bina zindagi se koi shikwa toh nahin’, Mamta’s songs have endured: you hear the gentle `Chupa lo yun dil mein pyaar aisa’, and you instantly fill in with `Ki jaise mandir mein lau diye ki’.
Sen was never entirely comfortable with the lip-synch, but at that point all you do is to hear the song, and see that face, and both are indelibly printed in your mind.
Sen wasn’t a great dancer. She wasn’t a great actress either, because she wasn’t able to completely become the part. She remained, essentially, Suchitra Sen, who could turn into a haughty miss, tossing her well-groomed head in urbane settings. What she was, was a great beauty. Who knew exactly how to leverage her striking looks, a question in her heavy-lidded eyes that demanded an answer, a flirty, sexy twist of the full mouth. She reminded many of the other famed starry recluse, Greta Garbo. Both actresses coasted on mystery, not giving of themselves completely, not revealing everything.
Like Garbo, Sen held back. She let you in just as much as she wanted to.
Her reclusiveness added to her mystique. Her daughter Moon Moon tried her hand at the movies but didn’t really go anywhere with it. Her granddaughters, Riya and Raima, act, the latter more successfully. But that elusive quality that leads straight to stardom hasn’t been passed on as legacy.
Suchitra Sen was a true star. She knew how to play it.