Suchitra Sen, the Bengali prima donna, who refused Dadasaheb Phalke award
The 1950s West Bengal must have been a fascinating place -- the British had just left and despite the painful partition of Bengal, there was new hope. India then was dripping with Nehruvian optimism. West Bengal was represented by its remarkable chief minister, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy. At the heart of it all was Calcutta (yes, very much ‘Calcutta’ not Kolkata) -- its modern character intact -- her buildings, her boulevards, her river banks, her cleanliness and overall, sensibilities were very much a driving force.
In cinema, this modernity expressed itself in two distinct yet dominant sensibilities - the high-brow intellectualism, often symbolised by the city’s ‘adda’ culture; the other, perhaps less authoritative, was the middle-class way of life. If Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were the high priests of the former, Suchitra Sen (born Roma Dasgupta) was the prima donna of the latter.
On her 87th birthday today, here’s a look at what made her so special, why there can never be another ‘Roma di’.
No ordinary diva
To appreciate Suchitra’s unrelenting charm, it is essential to familiarise oneself with the quintessential Bengali sensibility. Suchitra was a strikingly good-looking woman -- sharp features, big expressive eyes, a gainly figure, a disarming smile. Yet, to many an Indian, growing up on classic Indian features as epitomised in the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, she would, perhaps, fall short by a step. Here’s where the likes Madhubala, Nutan, Waheeda Rehman and Nalini Jaywant etc would score over her.
Much of Suchitra’s endless appeal lay in her persona. She was refreshingly free of the clutches of tradition -- she could be playful, provocative, intelligent, controlled, poised and dignified -- a radical change from the notions of a woman set to patriarchy. Yet, she was no rebel really. In so many of her roles, she was a giving and a caring person, who excelled as the beloved, friend, sister-in-law, daughter, etc. It is a combination of these two, somewhat, contrasting value systems that made her a classical beauty.
So complete was her hold over the Bengali public and the film industry that she was often referred to as Mrs Sen, out of awe and admiration. All those who comment (and lament) about the lack of roles for married woman, ought to borrow a leaf from Suchitra, whose career began after marriage.
Suchitra Sen-Uttam Kumar: A pair made in heaven
No discussion of Suchitra can be complete without a mention of her legendary pairing with the other great exponent of acting, Uttam Kumar (born Arun Kumar Chatterjee). They were the golden pair of Bengali cinema from 1950s till the 1970s. In a career spanning close to 25 years, she acted in 60 films, of which 30 were with Uttam Kumar.
This writer grew up on staple stories on the draw of a Suchitra Sen-Uttam Kumar film. In the 1950s, while my father was still a college student, watching these two in films like Shapmochan, Saptapadi, Shilpi, Ekti Raat and Rajlakshmi Srikanto, was to tug at the heartstrings like nothing else.
The fact was Uttam provided the perfect foil to Suchitra. He was the elemental bhadralok to her ‘expressive emotiveness’. Decency of demeanour was their calling card. Subtle expressions their biggest strength. Stories of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (Rajlakshmi Srikanto and Kamal Lata) of people’s destinies undone by prejudice-ridden society their ideal turf. Adding to the lure of the pair was the haunting melody sung by Hemant Kumar, Sandhya Mukhopadhyay and Geeta Dutt. Who can forget bike ride in Ei Poth Jodi Na Sesh Hoye (Saptapadi) and Tumi Je Amar (Harano Sur)?
The other films in which they worked together include Agnipariksha, Harano Sur, Pathey Holo Deri, Indrani, Sabar Upore, Suryatoran, Shaare Chuattor, Sadanander Mela, Jiban Trishna, Ekti Raat, Chaawa Paawa, Bipasha, Naborag, Trijama, Har Mana Har, Alo Amar Alo, Ora Thakey Odhare, Grihaprabesh among others.
Their iconic pairing was magical yet Suchitra always maintained that they were “just friends”. Ardent fans have for long speculated that the chemistry they created onscreen could not have been possible if they did not share a close bond. Whether or not their onscreen chemistry translated into something off screen is something we will never know. The affection, the passion, the spontaneity, the passionate romance and the teasing humour that they could conjure between them was, perhaps, born out of mutual trust, appreciation and admiration for each other’s work and personality.
According to studio gossip, Uttam had proposed to Suchitra on several occasions. However, she said no as she believed in the sanctity of marriage and was aware of her image and standing in society. Whatever be the case, it was beyond doubt that they shared a deep platonic and spiritual bond. Suchitra was a devout follower of Ramakrishna Mission. Many say that Uttam too followed her to the Belur Math.
Suchitra went on to work in many films that didn’t feature them together. One of her best-known turn as an actor remains in the film Deep Jwele Jaai (1959), directed by Asit Sen, where she plays a hospital nurse who is required to develop a personal relationship with male patients as part of their therapy. The film was remade in Hindi as Khamoshi with Wadeeha Rehman as the lead and is considered an all-time classic.
Suchitra Sen’s Hindi avatar
To the Hindi cinema buff, Suchitra is synonymous with the songs of Aandhi (1975). Paired with Sanjeev Kumar, this Gulzar directed film has survived the test of time. However, Aandhi was not her only claim to fame in Mumbai. Who can forget her as Paro in Dilip Kumar starrer Devdas, directed by Bimal Roy? Of all the versions of Devdas there are (including films by Pramathesh Barua and now Sanjay Leela Bhansali), the Bimal Roy film remains the finest film adaptation of Saratchandra Chatterjee’s timeless classic.
And while Suchitra appeared in films Bombai Ka Babu (in 1960 with Dev Anand) and Mamta (in 1966 with Dharmendra), she could not repeat the success of her Bengali films.
In the late 1970s, after her film Pronoy Pasha flopped, she disappeared from films (and society at large) for good and shunned limelight completely. She dedicated the rest of her life to Ramakrishna Mission, even refusing Dadasaheb Phalke award!
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