The reason this is a first-person account, and not a comprehensive back story about Suchitra Sen, is that my colleague was reluctant to send over a ready-reckoner on the actor's body of work, requested at the time she was in Kolkata's Belle Vue clinic.
"She is stable," he said the first
time. "She will be out of the hospital," he sent me a text message the second time. The third time, I mailed and my inbox froze.
His reluctance was touching, even representative of the way I and perhaps many Bengalis felt — awkward in the face of a possibility that Suchitra Sen might die.
So what if her career ended before some of us could learn to sit up? So what if her last screen appearance was almost 40 years ago? So what if the lady herself never appeared at any book readings, p3ps or film awards?
I cannot remember at what point Uttam-Suchitra (because you can never, ever, think of one without the other) entered my psyche. But it must have been pretty early, because I have distinct memories of this game we played in kindergarten.
We would sit in a circle, hold hands and swing them up and down and chant, "Pen, pen, pen, pilot pen/ Plane theke neme elo Suchitra Sen/Suchitra Sen tomar bag e ki/Uttamda diyechhe tomar tate ki."
A complete nonsense rhyme loaded with confusion — pen and plane — and precociousness to boot, completely eluding translation. But of course you got my point.
I also remember one particular evening, when animated neighbours discussed how Uttam Kumar was dead. I asked my grandmother if it was possible to marry someone who had died.
The reason I can recall it so clearly is because that same day I signed up at the neighbourhood dance class and got told off because I couldn't spell my name correctly in Bengali. I was all of four.
If you are wondering at this point why this obituary is yet to hit a somber note, I don't blame you. But then if you are an Uttam-Suchitra fan you will know why, and even if you've never heard of them before and are still reading, maybe you will find out.
In Bengali households Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar were not so much film stars, as synonyms for beauty and grace. If you thought someone was beautiful and dignified you said she looked like Suchitra Sen. If you thought a couple looked good together, people said "ekdom Uttam-Suchitra" (just like Uttam-Suchitra). Just the way at some point people must have said Hara-Gauri and now say Brangelina.
Many of you will remember a scene from Basanta Bilap, where a stick-thin Chinmay pleads with his sweetheart, played by Sumitra, to call him Uttam Kumar.
"Ekbar bolo Uttam Kumar," he begs.
She relents and a euphoric Chinmay jumps into the nearest pond.
The reason this pair had a different equation with viewers, very distinct from the adulation say an Amitabh-Rekha or a Rajesh Khanna-Sharmila Tagore commanded, possibly had to do with the roles they assayed.
To begin with, their best works belonged to the black and white era. The sepia frames were in sync with the story lines and characters — uni-dimensional in a good way, special in their simplicity.
Suchitra Sen, whether she played the rich spoilt brat or the demure college girl, was always seen in cotton saris and Uttam Kumar in his immaculate dhuti-panjabi (dhoti-kurta).
So, while their good looks and grace set them apart from the viewer, the clothes they wore and the roles they played and the surroundings they habited made them "one of us". They were different and yet they were commonplace. And this near-far quality made their magical romance seem at once inspiring but attainable.
So growing up, you were tricked into believing that one's Bengaliness, and consequent kinship with the duo, was guarantee enough for a happily-ever-after, with dollops of musical skills thrown in.
All you had to do was say "non-sense" with a frown and toss of plaits with freakishly big ribbons and the admirers would queue up or ride pillion on a certain someone's bike and you could break into Ei poth jodi na shesh hoye, tobe kemon hoto tumi boloto…
Another place, another time, another mindset altogether.
For many of us Uttam-Suchitra is one of the essences shaping our socio-cultural identity. And we are the horcruxes.
Will Suchitra Sen's death leave a void? For her immediate family and friends, yes. For the Bengali cine goer she will remain so-far yet so-near.
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