By Sahana Ghosh
Bengali celluloid queen Suchitra Sen captivated generations with her beauty, elegance and portrayal of myriad characters, yet remained an enigma despite over three decades of self-imposed reclusion that prompted constant parallels with Hollywood icon Greta Garbo.
In a 26-year career with 59 films, the “Mahanayika” (greatest heroine) worked with Bengal’s biggest matinee idol Uttam Kumar to usher in the golden era of Bengali cinema. She also came up with memorable performances in a number of Hindi movies like “Devdas”, “Mamta”, “Musafir”, “Bombai Ka Babu” and “Aandhi”.
Sen, 82, who had bewitched generations of filmbuffs with her grace and beauty, died at a Kolkata nursing home Friday following a massive cardiac arrest, a doctor said. She was under treatment for the last 26 days following serious respiratory problems.
Sen’s seductive appeal – accentuated by her intense and dreamy eyes, subtle gestures, a bewitching smile as also the uniquely romantic way she used her eyes and face in close-up frames – floored countless male fans cutting across age and time barriers.
Among the Bengali speaking people, both in India and Bangladesh as also across the world, Sen’s popularity remains unmatched.
The songs she lipped are still a rage, and she is still the reference point for budding actresses, even though her last movie appearance came way back in the 1978 release “Pronoy Pasha”.
Acclaimed British film critic Derek Malcolm once said: “She was very, very beautiful. She had this ‘still’ quality. She did not need to do a lot of ‘acting’.”
However, Sen did give strong but restrained performances in most of the 52 Bengali and seven Hindi films she featured in, and was the second Indian actress to get an international award after Nargis’ win at Karlovy Vary for “Mother India”.
Her excellent depiction of the trauma of a woman unable to hold on to her marriage in “Saat Pake Bandha” won her the Silver Prize for best actress at the 1963 Moscow International Film Festival.
She was a trendsetter in many respects – one instance being her entry into films five years after her marriage to Dibanath Sen in 1947, something unimaginable in those days. The marriage, was, however, said to be rocky.
Born Rama Dasgupta April 6, 1931, in Pabna district – now in Bangladesh – to a school headmaster father Karunamoy Dasgupta and homemaker mother Indira Devi, in 1952 Sen took the nom de plume Suchitra in her first movie “Sesh Kothai”. But the film was not released.
It was her next venture, a successful comedy “Sharey Chuattar”, that saw the coming together of the Suchitra-Uttam team.
The pair went on to enthral audiences for 20 years. They acted together in 30 movies, including super hits like “Agnipariksha”, “Shap Mochan” (1955), “Sagarika”(1956), “Harano Sur” (1957), “Indrani”(1958), “Chaowa Pawa”(1959), and “Saptapadi” (1961).
The film “Saptapadi” showcased her multifaceted talent. She essayed Rina Brown, a drunken Anglo-Indian woman soldier, getting much kudos that paved the way for more unconventional roles.
Interestingly, many of her greatest performances came in films where she was paired opposite heroes other than Uttam Kumar. If it was Soumitra Chattejree in “Saat Pake Bandha”, in “Uttar Falguni”, in which Sen did the double role of a courtesan and her lawyer daughter, the male lead was Bikash Roy.
Again in “Deep Jele Jai”, she played a nurse trying to cure the mentally ill hero – played by Basanta Chowdhury. “Hospital” had Ashok Kumar as the hero.
But there were those like Chatterjee, who had reservations about her acting calibre. “She was beautiful, but I don’t consider her as a great actress”, he often said.
Sen made a well-appreciated debut in Hindi films with Bimal Roy’s “Devdas” in 1955 as the elegant Paro opposite Dilip Kumar’s Devdas. Despite several remakes, Sen’s Paro reigns supreme.
It is said during the film’s shooting at Mumbai’s Mohan Studios, hundreds lined-up outside to catch a glimpse of her beauty.
Added to her charm was her boldness, evident in the hit “Aandhi” (1975), in which where her character was modelled on former prime minister Indira Gandhi, fetched her a National Award.
Such was her demand that the legendary Satyajit Ray scrapped his proposed film “Devi Chaudhurani” as Sen or Mrs. Sen – as she liked to be called – could not provide the dates, says her biographer Gopal Krishna Roy.
Her refusal to act in a film by Raj Kapoor made headlines. “She was moody, and Hindi films were never her first love. May be, that’s the reason,” said Roy.
Sen continued to act after her husband’s death in 1970, but called it a day when “Pronoy Pasha” flopped.
Like the later life Garbo, Sen withdrew from the public eye, refusing to meet even top VIPs and her old friends from the film fraternity. Photographs were almost always a strict no-no. Only her daughter Moon Moon and granddaughters – Raima and Riya – all known actors and a handful of close people had access.
“It was to preserve her youthful image among her countless fans,” said Roy.
She even turned down in 2005 the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest honour in Indian cinema, as she would have had to collect it in person from the president.
She kept herself occupied in religious chores, gardening, reading, and devoting her time to the Ramakrishna Mission. When she ventured outdoors, she took all care to camouflage her identity.
In 2012, the West Bengal government’s conferred its highest award “Banga Bibhushan” on Sen in absentia.
The actress who had once famously stated, “I’m to be seen only on screen because I am an actress”, will always live on, in black-and-white or colour, through her films.