RIP Suchitra Sen. It is the end of a fairytale
In 1947, one of the wealthiest businessmen in Calcutta, Adinath Sen, welcomed a young bride into his home. Given how rich and well-respected Sen was, to be his daughter in-law must have been something of a coup, even though there was gossip about how Sen junior was a party boy inclined to both alcohol and gambling.
Adinath Sen didn’t look at Calcutta’s posh set when trying to find a bride for his son. He plucked his daughter in-law to-be out of nowhere. There was nothing extraordinary about 18-year-old Rama Dasgupta, excepting her beauty. Her oval face and chiselled bone structure were striking and even though she didn't quite fit the traditional mould of a Bengali beauty, there was no denying her loveliness. If the younger Sen wasn’t enchanted into being reformed by her, people whispered to themselves, then there was no hope for him.
In 1953, when a film called Sharey Chuattor became a big hit, there must have been at least a few people in the theatres who would have squinted at the screen when the heroine appeared on screen. She was a debutant, but she'd have looked familiar to some, like Adinath Sen's neighours because his "dana-kata pari" (wing-snipped fairy) daughter in-law was the heroine of Sharey Chuattor. No one would have guessed then that in 20 years, Adinath Sen would be largely forgotten, but that this actress, rechristened from Rama to Suchitra Sen, would enchant audiences so completely that she would become a legend of Indian cinema.
Between her debut in 1953 and retirement in 1978, Suchitra Sen made 60 films and history. When she entered the movie business, she was a married woman and a mother. This didn’t stop her from creating with Uttam Kumar one of the most winsome onscreen couples Indian cinema has known. While her forays into Hindi cinema were hit and miss, she was very selective about the Hindi films she signed. Sen didn’t grovel at Bollywood’s door. It was the other way round, with filmmakers like Raj Kapoor trying to sign her (and failing).
In 1978, she retreated from public life. The tight bind of her charm is obvious from the fact that many fans say Sen retired from films at the peak of her beauty and career. Sen was 47 in 1978 and the signs of age were beginning to show, particularly on unforgiving colour film. But that’s not what her audience remembers. True to the name she was given, Suchitra Sen remains in our imagination as a beautiful picture — a reversed Dorian Grey, who keeps the image before the public eye and the person under wraps.
It's true that Sen is one of the first Indian actors to win an acting award at an international festival (she won the Best Actress award at the Moscow film festival in 1963), but it’s also true that Sen wasn’t much of an acting talent. In fact, one could go so far as to say she was a pretty bad actress. The moment Sen needed to deliver a performance — for instance, depict an emotion like shock — the melodramatic contortions her face suffered lay somewhere between hilarious and embarrassing.
Of course, it’s not as though Sen has no good acting performances to her name. There are a few films, like Saptapadi and Mamta, in which she does manage to hold her own. But it wasn’t to see Sen disappear into a role that people saw her films. They went to see her. Sen would raise that one heavily-painted brow and smile languidly, and every pulse pitter-pattered. As the hero held her in his arms, she’d throw her head back so that you could see the elegant angles of her face and the curve of her neck, and everyone sighed. Audiences didn’t love Sen because she was a performer, but because she was charismatic. For all the cringe-worthy moments in her acting career, the moment Sen walks into the frame, you notice her and your gaze follows her till the last scene.
Despite the belief that a basic requirement to become an actress is good looks, few women have made it in the movies just on the strength of their appearance. Most have needed acting talent and determination to power their careers. Sen may not have been much of an actress, but she had that elusive thing called screen presence and she worked hard.
Between 1954 and 1956, Sen acted in more than 20 films. That’s a staggering number, no matter how short the shooting schedules may have been. Practically every film during that period had Sen in it and it was clear that she was building her career very seriously. She may have been married into a rich family, but Sen was clearly determined to make a name for herself that was independent of her husband and father in-law.
Looking at her filmography, it becomes obvious that Sen didn’t pick her roles unthinkingly. A large number of the characters she plays are strong, independent-minded women whose existence isn’t defined by the men they fall in love with but the work they do. The heroines Sen played were usually educated and often defined by their demanding professions (Sen often played a doctor in her movies). These heroines were career-driven women who weren’t ashamed of choosing their careers over domesticity, women who were able to walk out of unhappy marriages, women who weren’t afraid to react like men do to heartbreak (remember Rina Brown taking to the bottle in Saptapadi?). These women were nothing like Sen herself, who had only a basic education, had chosen to stay in a marriage that was rumoured to be unhappy and was rarely open about her emotions, particularly in public.
Few people in show business can say that they have been remembered only for the work they’ve done.
Ironically, despite Sen’s modest acting talent, she is remembered exclusively for her films. Her personal life could easily have become the stuff of gossip but Sen preserved her privacy zealously. People who worked with her could only say of Sen that she could be “moody”. Everyone suspected her marriage was unhappy, but what she made known was that she had her father in-law's blessings and when she was starting out as an actress, her husband had helped her establish herself. Sen and actor Uttam Kumar were the golden couple on screen, making hearts flutter when they looked into one another’s eyes, but there was no gossip about Sen’s love life off screen. The only little snippet she allowed the public to know of herself was that she was religious.
Bengali cinema has had a fair number of glorious actresses, but with the possible exception of Madhabi Mukherjee, no one has wound generations of audiences round their little finger the way Sen did. From the fact that she made her debut as a married woman to her decision to retire as a heroine and not age on screen by playing roles of mothers and grandmothers, Sen disregarded almost every rule of show business.
No wonder Suchitra Sen was known as a "kimbadanti nayika", or a fairytale heroine. And now, after 82 years, the fairy tale is over. Rest in peace.
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