Remembering the legendary Suchitra Sen on her death anniversary

As we fondly remember Suchitra Sen on her death anniversary, let’s take a trip down memory lane reminiscing the iconic actress’ evergreen classics.

The name Suchitra Sen evokes immediate sighs from generations of moviegoers, even if they are not Bengali or born 43 years ago when Ms. Sen chose to retire unconditionally and completely from the public eye. For decades before her death, Ms. Sen’s only connectivity with the outside world was her daughter Moon Moon and her granddaughters Raima and Riya.

Raima Sen says she was deeply flattered when people compared her to her grandmother. “There is a physical resemblance between my grandmother and me. But I couldn’t imagine playing her on-screen as a couple of filmmakers wanted me to. Her image talent and aura are much too imposing for any actress to attempt to play her. And yet to us, she was our grandmother, very caring and affectionate, always making sure we were comfortable.”

Born in present-day Bangladesh in 1931 as Rama Dasgupta, Suchitra Sen’s aura and fame went much beyond the precincts of Bangla cinema. She made her screen debut in 1932 with Shesh Kothaay. But it was her pairing with Uttam Kumar in 1933 in Sharey Chauttor that established her as a woman of indomitable substance. Bengali producers clamoured to cast the Uttam-Suchitra pair. But Suchitra was extremely careful about her projects. Sensible and shrewd about her stardom Suchitra ensured she balanced out her Uttam Kumar starrers with hefty projects with other leading men. Marriage to industrialist Dibanath Sen in 1947 did not dim her aura. Fans continued to look at Suchitra Sen with awe that very few actors in India can match. In 1963 her career peaked with Saat Pake Bandha, a powerful marital drama where she played the estranged wife to Soumitra Chatterjee. The film was remade as Kora Kagaz with Jaya Bhaduri in Suchitra’s role. Many of Suchitra’s classics were remade into Hindi, for example, Asit Sen’s Dweep Jwale Jai which became the same director’s Khamoshi starring Waheeda Rehman. Asit Sen’s Uttar Phalguni was remade as Mamta by the same director. Suchitra Sen played the double role of mother and daughter in both versions. But somehow her career in Hindi cinema never really took wings.

Suchitra Sen’s journey in Bollywood began with Bimal Roy’s Devdas where she covered herself in glory as Paro. Next, Hrishikesh Mukherjee cast her in the experimental Musafir. She also appeared in the semi-experimental Bambai Ka Babu with Dev Anand where they played almost siblings! Though Suchitra was far more comfortable in Bangla films one of her last screen appearances was in Hindi opposite Sanjeev Kumar in Gulzar’s Aandhi where she played a politician akin to Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The film became controversial because of its content. Suchitra Sen who shunned the limelight with vehement delight, hastily withdraw completely from cinema and the public eye.

One of Bengali cinema’s most prominent actors Victor Bannerjee recalls running into the reclusive Mrs. Sen at the airport. Says Victor, “This was the only time I saw her in person. She was hidden behind glamorous dark glasses on a misty Kolkata morning strutting with titillating allure on high heels at Dum Dum airport.”

How Victor wishes he had worked with Suchitra Sen. “Years ago she and I were cast in a play together. But she dropped out in characteristic style and left me deprived of what would no doubt have been a glorious experience. Alas, that was not meant to be! Another lustrous star has disappeared from our firmament.”

Daughter Moon Moon Sen, a starkly contrasting figure to her mother, has never stopped, missing her mythic mother. “She was so loved by everyone… She was my entire universe. Beautiful memories seem so painful at the moment. I think everyone’s mom is very special. But she was special to not just me but all of Bengal, and beyond. What was she like? She was very undemanding as a person. She was the closest to me. But she knew I had my life to lead and came to terms with that. She liked being alone. But it’s not that she didn’t like meeting people. She liked meeting interesting people.”

As a child, Moon Moon remembers her mother always working. “I was put in boarding school in Darjeeling and then in England. It was a big joy and privilege for me to come back home for every holiday…thrice a year to spend time with her. Every time I was home I realized how special she was. When I left to go back to boarding school in Darjeeling and later in Surrey she’d cry more than I did. I was very spoilt and pampered. Later when I was studying in Kolkata even when she was at work she would ring up twice a day to find out about me, my meals, etc… As I grew older I realized how special she was. During my vacations, she’d bring me down from boarding school in England to any part of India. I remember my father driving me to the Taj hotel from the airport in Mumbai when she was in the city shooting for Aandhi. I had to be content with those three annual visits.”

Moon Moon did get a chance to live with her mother. “After school during college, I lived with her in Kolkata. We were very very close. When I got married(quite late) and moved out, it must have been very difficult for her. I looked after her when I was there. My going away must have been very hard for her. But she never expressed her anguish. I have a very kind husband. Every morning I went to see my mother and my husband never minded. My husband has always given me a lot of space.”

Moon Moon remembers her mother as maintaining a perfect balance between career and family. “My mother not only dealt with the film industry on her terms and also look after the home and me. She did everything that a man and a woman combined could do in a family. She was both father and mother to me. We slept in the same room, ate together, and did everything together. I remember I’d be doing my studies and she would be in the next room just back from her shooting relaxing sipping tea and keeping an eye on me. I knew she was always there for me…I can feel her presence now too. When I was not in boarding school she would make sure she was home when I needed her, although she wouldn’t pick me up or drop me at school. She didn’t have time for that. We had a nanny for all that. Sometimes she would come to school to pick me up. People would not accost her. They respected her privacy all her life in Kolkata. When did I realize she was an iconic star? As a child, I knew her as my mother at home and as the actress in the studio. She started the star system in Bengal. No one had an aura like hers. But our most fun times were when I was in boarding school in England. Both my parents would come to pick me up and we would drive to Scotland and other destinations. There was no question of her privacy being violated during those precious family holidays in and around England. Even in India, everyone respected her need for privacy. But it’s a myth that she didn’t meet people. She met everyone she had to and was extremely polite and easy-going in her social interaction.”

The daughter doesn’t dismiss the mercurial side of her mythical mother. “Of course, she had a fierce temper which my daughters and I have inherited. She was very choosy about her friends and a stickler for punctuality. If anything didn’t go well while shooting my mother would be extremely upset and would make no effort to hide it. That’s because she was very particular about the quality of her work. One reason why she quit acting in the 1970s was the kitschy mediocrity that overtook Bengali cinema in the 1970s and 80s. Many of the directors she knew well and felt comfortable working with, passed away. The scripts that were offered to her were awful. Uttam Kumar passed away and she’d say, ‘Whom am I going to work with?’ Once she left acting she left it behind completely. When I started acting she would hardly ask about the film industry except for maybe an odd question about how Gulzar Saab was doing. She was extremely fond of him. Otherwise, she was totally out of cinema both Bengali and Hindi.”

Despite staying away from the screen Suchitra Sen remains a star in the public’s mind.

Recalls Moon Moon, “She let her stardom go quite easily. But stardom never let go of her. I remember I was on a flight with Andhra Pradesh’s eminent producer D Rama Naidu. He said to me, ‘Tell your mother I’ve got a blank cheque waiting for your mother whenever she decides to work with me.’ And Salim Khan Saab told me she refused Yash Chopra’s Deewaar. After she opted out they changed the whole script. From Ma and Sons, it became just sons. …I think she missed the company of like-minded people. She had me and her aunts, sisters, nieces, and very few friends. Why am I so different from my mother? I don’t know! That’s just the way it is. I am more outgoing. But let me tell you when she was working anyone could approach her. She was there to help quietly. She looked after her makeup man’s schooling. She looked out for her entire staff, visited their homes if they were indisposed. Her charitable work was not tom-tommed. She was a very generous soul. She had a great deal of self-respect mixed with a whole lot of humility. But she never allowed outsiders to come close to her.”

Suchitra Sen also taught her daughter the value of self-respect. “ One thing she always taught me was to hold my head high. She taught me so many values that I find so credible now. She followed them herself. When we are younger we want to find out everything on our own. As we grow older we realize our parents were right. She never put any restriction on the way I dressed or behaved. When I joined the Hindi film industry many people smirked about Suchitra Sen’s daughter wearing a bathing costume. But my mother always let us swim. And I’d move around the house wearing swimsuits. When I grew older I wore mini-skirts. Not once did she comment on my clothes. She told me, ‘You aren’t comfortable wearing a Saree? Don’t worry about it unless we’re going to a Shraddh or something.’ It made no difference to me if the Hindi film industry thought I was wild because I wore a swimming suit. Now the Mumbai film industry has grown up a bit. During my days it was different. My behaviour seemed unconventional in Mumbai. I’d keep shuttling between Mumbai and Kolkata trying to keep a balance between my mother and husband in Kolkata and my career in Mumbai. I had this bunch of wickedly fun-loving girlfriends to keep me company in Mumbai and my husband would send his friends over to Mumbai to keep me company. I’ve been very lucky with my mother and my husband. After a point, I stopped working in Mumbai and moved back to Kolkata because I wanted to be with my mother. I felt she was lonely without me. Now I am without her…For her final journey, I dressed her up so beautifully. I made sure her face was covered from public view. What a pity that was! Because to the end, she was so beautiful. She kept urging me to do a few more films and to write. I suppose now I will write again. Maybe a coffee table book about my mother. You know, I promised her I’d never write about her personal life. Keeping out her details it’d be very easy for me to write a coffee table book on my mother. I feel my daughter Raima can take over my mother’s histrionic legacy forward and my daughter Riya would take forward my mother’s spiritual legacy. During my mother’s final days Riya was holding her hand through the pain, giving her strength. My mother used to say Riya had the makings of a great comic actress. Now she’s gone leaving behind memories. They would never fade. I am certain of that.”

Though in my opinion, Suchitra Sen was superior in Raj Khosla’s Bambai Ka Babu and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir, Gulzar’s Aandhi is her best-known work in Hindi.

When she was still with us, Gulzar Saab once spoke to me about the pleasure of working with THE Suchitra Sen in Aandhi. “I feel Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen were not given due recognition. Glad that my ‘Sir’—that’s what I call her— got the Dada Saheb Phalke award during her lifetime. Contrary to people’s perceptions, Suchitra Sen is an extremely warm and very very friendly person. I adore and respect her. But she has the right to choose her friends. Surely she’s justified in keeping away from every Tom, Dick, and Harry. She’s the only example of such quiet dignity in show-biz. That’s why the media compares her with Great Garbo. Suchitra Sen is my Sir. I’ll explain. During the shooting of Aandhi, she started calling me Sir. Everyone in Kolkata calls her Madame. Since I’m her junior I requested her not to call me Sir. But she insisted. (We always converse in Bengali). So I call her Sir and she calls me Sir.”

Aandhi was one of the very few hand-picked projects that Suchitra Sen did before calling it completely quits from the limelight. Recalled Gulzar Saab, “The whole project came to me in a package. I was told by producer J.Om Prakash to make a film Because Sanjeev was very keen to work with Suchitra. I was made to hear a story by the well-known Sachin Bhaumik. It was a run-of-the-mill suspense story. I wondered aloud, ‘Why to bring The Suchitra Sen from Kolkata for this film when this could be done by an actress in Mumbai?’. Sachin Bhaumik readily agreed with me. Then we started searching for another story. J Om Prakash asked me to suggest a story. I narrated the idea of Aandhi to him. Nobody had made a film on a powerful female politician. Indira Gandhi and Tarakeshwari Sinha were the role models for the character.”

Gulzar Saab observed Suchitra was always choosy. “Aandhi was one of her rare Hindi films. Her other famous film is Asit Sen’s Mamta. As for the legendary Uttam Kumar-Suchitra pair, it was Nirmal Dey who introduced it. But her most celebrated films were with Asit Sen. Three years before Aandhi I had gone to Suchitra Sen with another script for producer Sohanlal Kanwar. She suggested some changes. I refused and left. When I went back with Aandhi to Kolkata she said, ‘This time I won’t make any suggestions. I said her suggestions were most welcome. She rewarded me with such a lovely smile. She loved the story of Aandhi and she offered me cold milk. That remained a ritual between us. Recalling the shooting Gulzar Saab says, “We were all outdoors on the outskirts of Bangalore. Raakhee was also there. I’ve photographs of my daughter Meghna in Suchitra Sen’s lap. Her daughter Moon Moon was a child then. I believe Moon Moon’s daughters have also grown up and are actresses. They should come and meet me.”

Since the actress had a problem with her Hindi she was turned into a Bengali character.

Fellow Bengali-actress Sharmila Tagore had nothing but admiration for Suchitra Sen: “As far as I am concerned Suchitra Sen was a true legend, no two ways about it. She withdrew from public life nearly 40 years ago before she died. So we only know her through her films. I last saw her when she was shooting for Gulzar’s Aandhi. I just loved the way she used her voice and her beautiful eyes. Ms. Sen brought up her daughter very well. She sent Moon Moon to the best schools, made sure she gave the best possible facilities to her. Her granddaughter Raima does have a little jhalak of Suchitra Sen. Mrs. Sen led a beautiful life. She tried to give her daughter the life of comforts that she didn’t have. She was deeply spiritual. All of us past a certain age have a craving for a certain public platform. She didn’t. She left it all behind and led her life away from the public eye. I couldn’t do that. But that was what she chose to do. And she never wavered in her decision. I can’t disengage from public life the way she did. She chose to engage with her spiritual endeavours, with her daughter and grandchildren. Her gravitas, that sense of ‘self’ that she had was unparalleled. She was feminine and yet so strong. What I remember the most about her is her royal bearing.”

Speaking on why Suchitra Sen never worked with Satyajit Ray Sharmila had said to me. “Manikada(Satyajit Ray) was very keen to work with her in Ghair Bhaire.He wanted to cast her with Uttam Kumar. Whereas Uttam did eventually work with Manikda and Suchitra Sen never did come together. There was this ‘ego’ tension between them. Both were giants. I wish they had worked together. But mediators created trouble between them. Manikda never had any money to offer her. Uttam-Suchitra was to be the ultimate pair. All their films together were magical. They too had an ego clash. Right at the beginning of my career, I was working at New Theatre in Kolkata when I came across Mrs. Sen. She was giving me a close look. Then she said to me, ‘You’ve very pretty eyes.’ Coming from her, that was such a compliment. She was truly a star and carried herself like one. In the same way that British actors are much superior to their American counterparts, Bengali actresses are, I think, a class apart. Ms. Sen was first a star, then an actor. Of course, she was very talented. But more than that there was a certain presence about her that was unparalleled. She had an amazing aura. No one knows what she looked like after the 1960s. I hope her privacy is preserved in her death and that her body is not put up for public viewing. I am sure Ms. Mamta Bannerjee will make sure of that. It would be such a betrayal of her privacy if her face is now seen by the public.”

Will there be another Suchitra Sen? Probably not. Who is making Aandhi anymore? Not even Gulzar Saab.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based journalist. He has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.

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