By Premankur Biswas
The last few days haven’t particularly been kind to Gopalkrishna Roy, a frail man in his ’80s. The loss of Suchitra Sen, a close friend, has been a grim reminder of his own mortality, and reliving his time with her over and over again has been difficult. Fatigue takes over him mid-conversation with a television reporter at his Kolkata residence. “Can I take a break?” he asks. But when he starts talking, yet again about his illustrious friend, Roy’s voice acquires a steady tone. He feels he owes it to her, as a friend and her biographer. “She trusted me. In some ways, I understood her,” he says.
Anecdotes tumble out of the time he has spent with the reclusive star: about how she once dragged him out of his home early one Sunday to get her weight checked, their evening strolls, his attempts to make her write something. “She joked that she didn’t have pen and paper,” says Roy. Stories where he comes across as a worshipful child, talking about a goddess who had gifted him her time.
It is not too hard to imagine the kind of impact Sen’s unadulterated attention would have had on anybody. Her charisma was not just about her beauty, mystique and intelligence, but also about the way in which she embodied vulnerability and sweetness, and hope and fear. “Her mood would fluctuate without warning. She would be gregarious one moment, sombre the next,” remembers Roy.
Her reclusiveness holds a special meaning for Kanika Chaudhuri, a professor with Netaji Nagar College for Women, Kolkata. Her perception about the superstar is not fraught with starry-eyed wonder and conjectures. In 1984, a few years after she disappeared from the public eye, Chaudhuri was introduced to Sen in the most unexpected of circumstances. “I was recuperating from a serious bout of rheumatic fever in a nursing home. One afternoon, there was a bit of a flutter in the normally quiet wing where I was staying. The nurses were talking to each other animatedly. I thought I saw Moon Moon Sen walk past. I asked one of them what was the matter and she told me that Suchitra Sen had been admitted to the hospital. I asked her if I could go and say hello to her and the nurse took me to Mrs Sen. Though I was a bit in awe of her, she was grace personified. She enquired about my health and family. We had a brief conversation,” she says. After returning to her room that evening, Chaudhuri thought she would never meet the actress again. “But the next afternoon, the nurse came and told me that Mrs Sen wanted to know if I will have tea with her,” says Chaudhuri. Even as she shared tea, and nuggets about her life with Sen, Chaudhuri knew that this was something she would tell her grandchildren about.
By that time, Sen had moved into a realm of exclusivity. Ageing actresses were supposed to make last-ditch efforts in lead roles before making peace with playing mother or bhabhi to their previous heroes, or marry and settle with rich businessmen. The option to disappear out of choice, instead of fading into oblivion, was a fate that most couldn’t make peace with.
“I wonder what will people in Bengal do now, they don’t have Mrs Sen to conjecture about,” says Amitabha Chaudhuri, a former journalist and author of Amar Bondhu Suchitra Sen (My Friend Suchitra Sen). He maps the last few decades of her life with a strange sense of authority, almost irritated with the lack of understanding of her life decisions. “What choice did she have? She wanted to lead a quiet life and that was not possible if she didn’t lock herself in her Ballygunge Circular Road residence,” says Amitabha.
She led a spartan life, and was weary of the onslaught of the consumerist culture which was so different from her humble beginnings in Pabna district of Bangladesh. “She had this luxurious bed full of pillows and cushions which she didn’t sleep in. She preferred sleeping on a narrow bench in one end of the room,” says the author.
Talking about her association with the Ramakrishna Mission, Amitabha says, “She had a shrine in her room dedicated to Shri Ramakrishna, Sarada Ma and Swami Vivekananda.” Apparently, she would spend hours in front of that shrine. “Once, she asked me to meditate with her and then went into meditation for several hours. I didn’t know what to do… she was in a different world,” says Roy. Sen met a senior Ramakrishna Mission monk, Bharat Maharaj in the early ’70s. Many believed that it was Bharat who influenced her decision to retire in 1978, after the failure of her last film Pranoy Pasha. “She would visit him every now and then and sit by his feet. She would say things to him which I couldn’t decipher. At times she would weep,” says Roy.
The fact that Bengalis treated Sen like some exotic, otherworldly creature, irks Roy and Amitabha alike. “Their deification of her bordered on voyeurism. It’s slightly embarrassing how photographers would hound her,” says Roy. Every few years, there would be rumours about the actor: she has been admitted to hospital, she has been spotted shopping in Gariahat market. Photographs of her waiting in a queue to cast her vote would be splashed across papers. Some television channels even released computer-generated-images of “what Suchitra Sen might look like”. In 2006, when then Union information and broadcasting minister Priyaranjan Das Munshi proposed that the Dadasaheb Phalke Award be conferred to her, the media was rife with speculation about her appearance at the award ceremony. Many felt that getting the legendary star to reappear in public would endear the minister to nostalgic Bengalis. But that was, evidently, not to be. “She didn’t really care about these things. She was intensely spiritual by then,” says Roy.
In his book, Amitabha does something rare: he chooses to dwell in the mind of a thinking actor who is taking stock of her career. “She was really proud of her work. But she also had a hermit-like detachment towards it. She told me that she really wanted to play the role of Damini in Rabindranath Tagore’s Chaturanga, but that never happened. She would have even played the role in a play, had someone come up with a script,” says Amitabha.
Both Roy and Amitabha didn’t meet Sen in the last few years of her life. Roy last met her in mid-2000, while Amitabha fell out with her in the 1990s, when he wrote a story on her decision to bring down her house and build an apartment complex there. Yet, their eyes almost brim over when they think of a life without Sen. “It will be difficult to drive past her Ballygunge Circular Road residence now,” says Roy.