“Should I hold on to my tears or let them roll down my cheek?” Suchitra Sen (April 6, 1931 -- January 17, 2014) asked Ajoy Kar, the director during the shoot of one of the scenes of “Saat Pakhey Bandha”. Tears soon filled her eyes, the way Ajoy Kar had wanted them. To the Mahanayika, it came naturally, without any glycerine.
Known in the film circle as Mrs. Sen, she in many ways was a trendsetter. A married woman and a mother when she joined the film industry, she was the first to be viewed as both assertive and feminine. And unlike others, socially, she was notches above as she was married to a renowned Sen family from Dhaka.
Almost always in cotton saris on celluloid, at least to begin with, she was what the Bengali middle class liked -- a beautiful face, an amiable personality with a penchant for 'care', 'sacrifice' and 'understanding'! Directors in the likes of Bibhuti Laha (“Agradoot”) and Saroj Dey (“Agragami”) created this 'La Femme Mystique' around her with their films, “Agni Parikkha”, “Shobar Uporey”, “Sagarika”, “Shilpi”, “Pothey Holo Deri” etc. So, as these films unfolded on screen, it was kind of a routine affair to find her oversee the 'goody' Uttam Kumar, who was always the underdog socially or financially!
The films had the usual stuff to pull in the middle class -- the ill-doings of some characters and the omnipresence of a good 'Kaku' to help her sort out the mess. Some dramatic scenes, tear-jerking dialogues, catchy songs formed the rest of the items of the films' menu. Frankly, to serious film critics, Mrs. Sen's roles from this perspective was no great shake when compared to the ones depicted by Arundhuti Devi in “Mahasthaner Pothey”, Kaberi Bosu in “Shyamoli” and Supriya Chowdhury in “Meghe Dhaka Tara” during the same period.
But then, why a fairytale-like story about Sen?
First her grace, then an original style of screen presence and finally the roles that allowed her to travel to areas without male company, something women always dreamt of but seldom attempted. The combination of these three laid the foundation to her immense popularity, to the extent, that in Bengal anyone with these traits was 'Suchitra Sen'! But were these enough for her to be the cynosure of all eyes for her 25 years in films and then again be a subject of discussion for another three decades despite being in seclusion? The answer lies elsewhere.
It began with Debaki Kumar Bosu's 1954 hit, “Bhagoban Sree Krishna Chaitanya” where she was Vishnu Priya opposite Basanta Chowdhury. The film caught the sharp eyes of Bimal Roy who took her to Bombay for “Devdas”. Here, despite her flawed Hindi she left an All-India mark that led Raj Khosla to cast her in “Bombai Ka Babu” and Hrishikesh Mukherjee in his maiden directional venture, “Musafir” while at home, Kolkata, it was Asit Sen's “Dwip Jele Jai”. Her unconventional roles in these films singled her out from her contemporaries. “Smriti Tuku Thak”, “Hospital”, “Saptapadi”, “Saat Pakey Bandh” (for which she won the 1963 Moscow Film Festival's best actress award), “Uttar Falguni”, “Sandhya Dwiper Shikha” and “Mamta” -- the Hindi version of “Uttar Falguni” -- further cemented this fact. Here, she transported her characters' innermost feelings through her movements, gestures and above all those eyes of her which subtly conveyed complex attitudes, feelings toward others and the gravity of the situation. She didn't act, she lived her roles. If she had to look at someone with anger and another with love, one could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other; there was no need to change the expression. Call it 'underplaying' but she outplayed all others in the scenes with the cine-goers and critics both swept off their feet. She continued doing that till end as in “Megh Kalo”, “Fariyad”, “Aandhi”, “Debi Chowdhurani”, and “Datta”. And mind you, these are all non-Uttam films except “Saptapadi”. Regretfully, most of us undervalue her by linking her with Uttam Kumar with whom her biggest achievement was “Agni Parikkha”, “Harano Sur” and 'Sapatapadi', if one was to evaluate her work, truly cinematically.
In the mid-sixties when Sharmila Tagore, Aparna Sen, Madhavi Mukherjee and Tanuja gave the Bengali cinema a new turn, Sen tried to evoke a sensation in the industry with scanty outfits and even played some trendy roles -- as in “Fariyad” for example. But that did not last long as by then that magnetic charm in her largely got jaded. When “Pronoy Pasha”, in 1978 bombed at the box office, she wisely chose to quit. Her portrayal of Sarat Babu's feministic Bijoya in “Datta”, a blockbuster, released the year before kept her image of the past.
Interestingly, Sen always worked with mainstream directors and never with the greats of Bengali cinema, Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, where make-up mattered little and natural self was the top priority. Satyajit Ray wanted her for “Debi Chowdhurani” with the condition that she would not work for others during the making of the film. Sen refused it on the ground that her colleagues who made her 'Suchitra Sen' would be seriously affected by it. Ray shelved the project and she missed the opportunity to become the artists' artiste. Her lifetime desire was to play Tagore's Damini in “Chaturanga” but Hemen Ganguly, the producer suddenly committed suicide and director, Purnendra Potri gave up. She then considered enacting the role in theatre, but no one came up with a script.
Sen's 'worshippers' often recall her tough personality. In the late fifties, Uttam Kumar kept her waiting on the sets of “Harano Sur” of which he was also the producer. She did not like that and 'paid him back' by demanding her name be put first in the film casting and posters when the trend was the other way round. Again, when Uttam Kumar chose films bypassing her in favour of others, she dumped him and went to Bombay to work with stars like Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar as a result of which the release of “Saptapadi” -- again an Uttam Kumar production -- was delayed by three years. This time it was her way of settling score with the 'flop master general' whom she gave the first 'break' of a big hit through “Share Chuhattor” in 1954. Yet they were the best of friends!
She never chased Bollywood. In fact it was the other way round. Raj Kapoor was on his knees with a bouquet trying to sign her but failed (she thought it was demeaning for a man to do that) while Dev Anand tried unsuccessfully to contact his 'doe-eyed, dusky beauty and immensely popular star of Bengal' whenever in Calcutta.
After retirement, she made no public appearances and assiduously tried to avoid publicity. This created the Greta Garbo-esque image that also worked for her being deeply missed. Plagued by ill-health, the last few years were kind of a long death watch but she never slipped from public memory as she was 'Bengal royalty'.
The life of Mrs. Sen was blazing, giant size and yet so underwritten. But that was what she had wanted.
The writer is a film enthusiast. He has authored a work on Sachin Dev Burman.