Friday, April 20, 2018

Suchitra Sen: The exquisite enigma

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The only time I came face to face with the legendary actress Suchitra Sen was when some 14 years ago, I stopped during a morning walk down Ballygunge Circular Road, in front of a car coming out of a sprawling gated villa.Someone rolled down a window, and I saw a beautiful face with huge dark goggles on and a shawl wrapped around her head. She looked at me without saying anything, the driver honked and I stepped aside.

It was after she had left that I realised that I had gained a rare glimpse of India's Greta Garbo! The one actress about whom people knew hardly anything beyond what she was willing to reveal. Born Rama Dasgupta in 1931 in the district town of Pabna in what is today's Bangladesh, Sen was the only true lady Superstar of Bengali Cinema.

Despite her success, or maybe because of her success, Suchitra Sen rarely called colleagues home and kept her family life totally separate from her professional one. Suchitra was perhaps the only Indian actress who successfully shut one life from the other, as she crossed over in an ambassador car down Lansdowne Road and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Road towards Tollygunge's fabled studios.  

Some argue that without Uttam Kumar, her leading man in many a memorable film, she would never have become the larger than life persona she is. However, there are quite a few like me who argue Uttam would not have been the romantic heart-throb that he did become without the aura and mystique of that exquisite enigma, wrapped in a riddle, called Suchitra Sen.

Remember `tumi je amar'  (you are mine), the extraordinary romantic song which defined the 1957 Uttam-Suchitra super-hit `Harano Sur' (Lost Melody), a dreamy romantic movie based on the Shakuntala-Dushyant legend but set in 20th century India, where Uttam is a rich businessman who loses his memory, and Suchitra is the village girl who saves him. It was about `they', the ultimate screen duo, not about Uttam alone nor about Suchitra alone.

From `Sarhe Chuattor' (Seventy-four-and-a-half) (1953) ( a romantic comedy set in a men's boarding lodge) to `Deep Jele Jai'(Light a lamp) (1959) (where a Suchitra as a nurse at a mental hospital sacrifices her sanity to help out mental patients) to `Saptapadi'  (Seven Steps) (1961) (which has Suchitra acting as Rina Brown, an Anglo-Indian medical student who first spurns and then falls in love with Uttam Kumar, a fellow medical school student from a conservative Bengali Brahmin family, which has Suchitra acting as a carefree, nouveau riche youth in the first half and then as a sensitive woman of principles who spurns Uttam for changing his religion merely to win her), both the actors showcased extraordinary repertoires of acting talent, and underlined that `the sparks flew when they were together'.

As Supriya Devi, the real life heroine who was the love of Uttam Kumar's life, says very simply, the "whole world knows and loves the pair. The Uttam-Suchitra pair was like Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton."  In all she acted in some 30 movies opposite Uttam Kumar, out of the 53 Bengali movies and 7 Hindi movies she acted in.

It was not just romance alone that made this pair the cynosure of several generations. It was also the mystique of the times. Calcutta was decaying as the industrial capital of India, with old industries like tea and jute dying a natural death and people in search of a job from India's teeming hinterland as well as from across the border, choking the mega-polis.

Labour and student unrest was the order of the day in both the Bengals - West Bengal as well as Bangladesh, where she and Uttam Kumar were equally popular. Yet intellectual churn in its coffee houses, great writing from its authors and poets, beautiful cinema and astoundingly fresh theatre from its artists flowed through that great city. It was the time of romance and rebellion. Somehow Uttam and Suchitra symbolised just that - a break with the old, refreshingly modern and yet so other-worldly romantic !  

Mrs Sen as she was called by everyone, including big name directors and producers at Tollygunge, where the Bengali movie industry churned out its best movies, always believed in keeping her personal and professional life separate. She married soon after she came to Calcutta at the age of 16 (then the legal age of marriage) to Dibanath Sen, a businessman scion of an aristrocratic Bengali family which owned, among other properties, the sprawling villa on Ballygunge Circular Road which was to be her home till her death.

Some six years later she acted in her first film, `Saat Number Kayedi' (Prisoner No. 7). People say movie world legend  Bimal Roy, who was a relative of her husband, introduced her to `Tollywood'. The screen name Suchitra was given to her by an assistant director, who felt it would be more saleable than a plain Rama, and it did sell! Her rise from then on was phenomenal.

Despite her success, or maybe because of her success, Suchitra Sen rarely called colleagues home and kept her family life totally separate from her professional one. Suchitra was perhaps the only Indian actress who successfully shut one life from the other, as she crossed over in an ambassador car down Lansdowne Road and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Road towards Tollygunge's fabled studios.  

Despite her on-screen sizzling chemistry with Uttam Kumar, Ashok Kumar (Hospital), the much younger Soumitra (Saat Pake Bandha) and Dharmendra (Mamata), her personal life remained untouched by rumours of affairs. The little known Dibanath Sen remained the only man in her life till he died in 1970, only to be replaced by God.

 Though many thought of her as haughty and aloof, those who worked with her felt she was just the opposite. Lively, funny, sarcastic at times, but in a good natured way and very sensitively humane in real life to those few to whom she opened up, that is how her fellow actors and technicians saw her.  However, she drew her own lines. Everyone - from the producer to the junior-most spot boy had to call her Mrs Sen, not Suchitra.

A few like Supriya Devi called her Rama-di. Even the legendary singer-music director Hemanta Kumar, who was certainly older than her,  called her by her chosen Mrs Sen. Directors often did not decide how she would emote, she did.  Lines in the script often changed because Mrs Sen felt that was what was needed.   Dates were difficult to come by, as Oscar-winning director Satyajit Ray found out to his discomfort, when he wanted to cast her in his never-made movie `Choudhurani'.

But then, often she would become the perfect pupil for those who she felt did have something to teach her. Lyricist-movie director Gulzar tells us how she insisted that she would call him `sir' during the filming of Aandhi, the 1975 movie where she copied Mrs Indira Gandhi's mannerisms to act as Aarti Devi, a successful politician who leaves behind a marriage to take over her father's political legacy.

The movie  with its memorable songs `Tere Bina Zindagi' and `Tum Aagaye Ho', became a hit, only to be banned by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's  paranoid Information minister V.C.Shukla during the emergency years of 1975-1977.

Somewhere along the way after her husband's death and a few flop films, she became a disciple of Ramakrishna Mission, the Hindu savant order founded by Swami Vivekananda. As she turned to God, she turned away from the world --- rarely appearing in public, rarely meeting people, refusing movie offers and interview requests, always hiding her face with sunglasses and veils.

Many saw this as the ultimate `Greta Garbo-esque' refuge of a haughty actress who wanted the world to remember her as she was and not as she is. But to those she turned to, Monks of the Ramakrishna order, saw it as a deliberate attempt to cut her links with the world and to turn towards the divine. Well, the divine actress has gone on to the `Great Unknown', retaining her mystique.

The writer is Senior Editor,The Telegraph, and isbased in Delhi

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