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Suchitra Sen’s persona was made up of what she showed on screen and what she withheld.
In the late 1970s, soon after her last film, actor Suchitra Sen shut the door on the world. Neither the adulation of her fans, nor the promise of awards, could lure her out. In that, she stayed true to the many characters she portrayed on screen — strong-willed women who lived on their own terms. This was the actor who refused both Raj Kapoor’s and Satyajit Ray’s offers to act in their films.
For Bengali cinema, her death snaps its last connection to its golden age, when Sen matched wits and hearts with Uttam Kumar, in a series of romantic films made in the 1950s and 1960s that mirrored the life and yearnings of Bengal’s aam aadmi and aurat, and which continue to inspire nostalgia.
Born Rama Dasgupta in Pabna district of what is now Bangladesh in 1931, her acting career began in 1953, remarkably, after her marriage. Her radiance lit the desires of men, but it was in her spirit that women found a refreshing, if sometimes affected, individuality.
When most roles written for women were of martyred victims, Sen played the new woman — a headstrong medical student who takes to drink after a heartbreak, a courtesan who fights to give her daughter a better life (Uttar Falguni, 1963) and a psychiatrist who falls in love with her own patient. Her Rina Brown (in Saptapadi, 1961) is soul sister to Arati in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, another woman who stepped out of the confines of the domestic sphere. Sen made a brief but memorable foray in Hindi cinema, with roles in Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) and Asit Sen’s Mamta (1966). The role of a lifetime was in Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975), that of a woman politician in the male world of politics.
For the city, her self-enforced silence became part of the Suchitra Sen mystique, removing her from the tawdriness of time and age. She will be remembered as an actor with a secret self.