Suchitra Sen: Reclusive legend

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Suchitra Sen in "Agni Pariksha" (1954). Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

With Uttam Kumar in "Sagarika" (1956). Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

In "Subharatri" (1956). Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Suchitra Sen (1931-2014), the “Mahanayika” of Bengali cinema, was the first Indian to win the best actress award in an international film festival.

FOR over 60 years, Suchitra Sen (real name Roma Dasgupta) has remained the unchallenged queen of Bengali cinema, and the symbol of Bengali femininity, beauty and grace. Even after she suddenly retired from the public gaze in 1978, her mystique and aura remained undiminished—in fact, her self-imposed seclusion only heightened the mystery about her. Her death on January 17, after a prolonged illness from a heart and lung infection at a Kolkata nursing home, marks the end of one of the most enduring chapters of popular Bengali cinema. She was 83 years old and is survived her by her actor-daughter Moon Moon Sen and granddaughters Riya and Raima, both actors.

“There can only be one Suchitra Sen, and that is Suchitra Sen herself,” said the veteran actor Dipankar De. “She will always live through her roles and her films,” said the actor Saswata Chatterjee. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also mourned Suchitra Sen’s death and called her a “wonder”.

The Suchitra Sen phenomenon was never before witnessed in the history of Bengal. She was not just the biggest female actor of her generation, she was one the biggest stars ever to blaze across the Bengali silver screen, and her mass popularity can only be compared to that of Uttam Kumar, with whom she acted in 30 of her 60 films. She was the first and only one to be given the sobriquet “Mahanayika” (Great Actress). The only other person to receive a similar honour was Uttam Kumar.

At the peak of her success in the 1950s and 1960s, it is believed she was paid around Rs.1 lakh a film. Such was her brand value and so dependent was the film industry on her star power that she was always the one to be projected on movie posters, and with the exception of Uttam Kumar, her name was given more prominence than the hero’s. Even with Uttam Kumar, she got equal billing.

The Suchitra-Uttam legend

The Suchitra-Uttam pair on the movie screen represented one of the defining periods of Bengali cinema. In the 30 films that the two made together, beginning with Sare Chuattor (1953), film history was rewritten. For over 20 years (from 1953 to 1975), Suchitra and Uttam dominated the industry with hits like Agni Pariksha (1954), Sapmochon (1955), Sagarika (1956), Harano Sur (1957), Indrani (1958), Saptapadi (1961) and Bipasha (1962). They were the stars that the youth could identify with and place their aspirations upon. The on-screen chemistry between the two was such that in spite of being the two biggest stars of the time they became a single identity: Suchitra-Uttam/Uttam-Suchitra. Uttam Kumar himself once said, “Had Suchitra not been by my side, I would never have been Uttam.”

Suchitra is considered the first style icon of Bengali cinema. Her mannerisms have been emulated by more than one generation of young Bengali women. Even the roles she chose were those of women far ahead of their times. In most of her films she played the role of the “professional woman”, be it an artist in Jiban Trishna (1957), or a doctor in Harano Sur, or a politician in the Hindi film Aandhi (1975). “Her star persona was created through her roles. There was always an excessive star value both in the way she looked and in the way she played her roles. She was practically placed on a pedestal when compared with the life of women in society at that time. She represented their aspirations,” Madhuja Mukherjee, associate professor of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, told Frontline. What is most extraordinary, according to Madhuja Mukherjee, is that she continued to be a main star throughout the 1960s, when she was well into her thirties.

Suchitra’s remarkable beauty and her enormous stardom often overshadowed her acting abilities. Yet, she was the first Indian to be given the best actress award in an international film festival (she was given the prize for Saat Paakey Badha (1963) at the Moscow film festival). Even the Hindi film market was aware of her star value and she starred in several high-budget Hindi movies, including Devdas (1955), for which she received a best actress award, Bombai ka Baboo (1960), Mamta (1966) and Aandhi (1975).

Born on April 6, 1931, in Pabna town, now in Bangladesh, Roma was one of eight siblings. Her father, Karunamoy Dasgupta, was a school headmaster, and Suchitra grew up in an environment of art and culture. Partition brought her and her family to West Bengal, and Roma, already a striking beauty, was soon married to Dibanath Sen, the son of a wealthy industrialist. Before she entered the film industry, Roma was keen on embarking on a career in music and, according to a recent report, had even made quite a few recordings in her own voice.

For all the adulation that she received and the constant attention of an adoring public that never lost interest in her, Suchitra Sen remained an enigma. “Mrs Sen”, as she was known in the industry, was often perceived to be aloof and unapproachable. She was already married and a young mother when she entered films, and her unique beauty, her reticent manner and her affluent family background often intimidated people around her. Yet, she was also known to be warm and friendly. The veteran actor Mousumi Chatterjee said, “Suchitra Sen was class personified. She knew how to keep her private life separate from her public life.”

According to observers of the industry, Suchitra’s awareness and understanding of her own star power helped create the “myth” around her. That may be one of the factors behind her long reign as the queen of Bengali cinema and also why 36 years after going into complete seclusion interest in her never diminished. Her inexplicable and sudden disappearance from public view made people even more interested in her. Discussions, debates and theories abound as to why she suddenly sought seclusion. She was hardly ever seen in public, and she remained the most famous recluse of West Bengal, comparable only to Greta Garbo of Hollywood. Her determination not to be seen and the measures she allegedly took to maintain her privacy seemed to border on paranoia. In 2005, she reportedly turned down the Dada Saheb Phalke Award as it would require her to accept the award in person. Even in death she maintained her mystery: her final journey was made in a black-tinted hearse through which it was impossible to see her body.

The whole world has changed in the last 36 years, except Suchitra Sen’s image. It is an image that continues to haunt the Bengali, as was evident by the number of people of all ages who thronged Kolkata’s streets on her final journey.

While most people spoke of Suchitra Sen’s death as a huge loss to the film world, the renowned director Buddhadeb Dasgupta, speaking to Frontline, put it into perspective thus: “She will always be known as the greatest heroine of Bengali cinema. Nobody can come close to her as far as mass appeal is concerned. However, the film industry lost her when she went into seclusion more than 30 years ago.”