Today is Suchitra Sen’s 84th birth anniversary. Bengalis who thronged the cinema halls in the 1950s, the 1960s and part of the 1970s to see her on the silver screen, would agree that there was none like her. The blend of beauty and intelligence that Suchitra Sen carried with her – which would mesmerise Bengali men and influence fashion among urban women – turned her into a living legend.
Her breathtaking smile and the charm of her appearance probably made even MF Husain draw a sketch of Suchitra from her photograph, which he titled ‘Mystique’.
Living life on her own terms
It takes a lot of self-esteem to refuse roles offered by stalwarts of Indian cinema like Satyajit Ray and Raj Kapoor. But Suchitra Sen did not take time to take such decisions – or shutting herself off from public life after completing a stunning, three-decade-long career in 1978 or refusing the Dada Saheb Phalke in 2006 on the ground that she would not move out of her home for an award. They perfectly go with her persona.
Understandably, she was the only one who could tell her producers to keep her name ahead of Uttam Kumar in the posters of films starring the legendary duo.
A glimpse of Suchitra Sen for the public was like attaining moksha. Suchitra went behind the veil like the Hollywood star Greta Garbo. Like Garbo, she also represents a concept whereas other actors of her time are at best events.
“After Kanan Devi, only she is a star in the strictest sense of the term. The Suchitra-Uttam melodramas could historically read between the lines of emerging citizenship in the newly liberated democratic set up. Suchitra could create an illusion of defiance without actually interrogating the patriarchal norms. Therefore, the establishment and the commoners equally pampered her,” said film expert Sanjay Mukhopadhyay.
An icon of change
He added that while to commoners she represented a sense of liberation within a feudal set-up, to the establishment she appeared to be a social sync who effectively stabilised the uneven ripples of a confused youth in the 1950s and the 1960s.
According to Surendra Bose, a septuagenarian film buff who has watched many of Suchitra’s films, including Sharey Chuattor (1953), Hospital (1960), Saptapadi (1961), Saat Paakey Bandha (1963), Uttar Falguni (1963), Fariyad (1971) and Datta (1976), multiple times, the aura that she was able to create around her increased manifold because of her self-imposed exile from the public and the media. “People wanted to see her more and suddenly she could not be seen at all!” Bose said.
Multiple shades of an actor
Determination was another defining aspect of her character, say people who knew her from close and whose stories and anecdotes about her helps one have an idea about the real nature of the reel legend.
Quick decisions and then pursuing them like a stubborn fighter was a trademark of Suchitra Sen’s persona. The aura of her persona is amply reflected through an anecdote in Maitreyee B Chowdhury’s book, Uttam Kumar And Suchitra Sen: Bengali Cinema’s First Couple. She writes: ‘While working on Aandhi (1975), Gulzar resorted to calling her ‘Sir’, in retaliation to her persistently calling him so, despite being friends. Such was Suchitra’s persona.’
Diffident, as many called her. Proud, as some others described. A glimpse of her was what the media hankered after – for more than three decades – but in vain. She wouldn’t let anyone peep into her life; her ‘yes’s’ and ‘no’s’ were always spelt in capital letters.
“I look for intelligence in men, I like intelligent conversations,” writer Amitabha Choudhury quoted her as saying in his book, Amar Bondhu Suchitra Sen (‘My Friend Suchitra Sen’). “And I have no problem at all in maintaining a private life. Time passes nicely watching the tree in my garden and looking at the sky.”
The thorough professional
It took her only 10 minutes to decide on her marriage to Dibanath Sen, who almost forced a reluctant Suchitra into the film world. She was initially rejected, but this rejection only made her determined to succeed in a career in the reel world. And then, when their marriage went sour, in 1963, she never let it affect her film career.
She was shooting for Saat Paakey Bandha, co-starring Soumitra Chatterjee, in 1963 when her marital life was going through its worst phase. She would soon leave home and go to Kanan Devi’s place, to stay with her. But she gave her best in this film, which, ironically, was also based on marital discord. Suchitra later recounted that she incorporated her character in the film despite the turmoil in her personal life.
Creating a mystique around oneself is difficult; making it permanent is almost impossible. Very few actors across the world have managed to keep the craze about their stardom alive even decades after their last screen appearance, and Suchitra Sen was among these very few. Her works will forever remind us of the charm, grace and beauty that helped her attain immortality.