Sometimes a homebody, sometimes a diva: the many shades of Suchitra Sen

Jago News Desk Published: 7 April 2024, 09:32 PM
Sometimes a homebody, sometimes a diva: the many shades of Suchitra Sen
Suchitra Sen as Parboti (Paro) in Bimal Roy’s film Devdas (1955). Photo: Instagram via The Telegraph, India

With her large haunting eyes, Suchitra Sen evokes the image of a woman of incredible beauty and grace. And yet she remains an enigma. While her acting skills had worthy equals, none came close to her ‘star’ personality. Be it her carriage, demeanour, attitude towards life, or even her sudden retirement and withdrawal from public life, Suchitra remains a mystery.

A look at Suchitra’s life and films reveals an intelligent woman intensely aware of her capabilities and charisma, and someone who went to great lengths to retain her mystique. A veteran of 60 films, she lent her inherent charm and poise to each character that she portrayed. She mesmerised not only men, but an entire generation of women too. They imitated her personality, carriage, smile, and even dressed like her in Bengal and beyond. During Durga Puja celebrations, idols of Lakshmi and Saraswati (Goddesses of Wealth and Learning, respectively) were known to have been modelled on her face. Such was the adulation that she received in Bengal.

Much like today, Suchitra’s early life remains shrouded in mystery. She was born on 6th April 1931 (the year is still debated), to Karunamoy Dasgupta and Indira Devi in a small town called Pabna, now in Bangladesh. Her father was the headmaster of a school in Pabna. Suchitra’s real name was Roma and she belonged to a large family of three brothers, an elder sister named Uma, and three younger sisters Hena, Leena, and Runa. The family was steeped in music and dance, and were remembered as polite and amicable people. Roma was a beauty. The best-looking of the sisters, she went to school in a white sari with a red border. A girl with an enchanting smile, she made friends easily. Friends like Fulrani Chowdhury (later Kanjilal) affirmed that Roma participated in all cultural activities in Pabna Girls High School. Despite being an average student, Roma had a certain air about her. The way she wore her sarees or the way she walked set her apart in a crowd.

After Partition, her family relocated to West Bengal. Soon thereafter, the young Roma was married to Dibanath Sen, the son of a wealthy industrialist in Bengal. It is believed that no dowry was demanded for Roma at a time when the practice was rampant.

Roma took on the role of the lady-of-the-house. Conscious of her role as the daughter-in-law of a prestigious family, she conducted herself accordingly. This may have been the reason she remained so unapproachable on the sets of her films.

Interestingly, Roma had initially set her sights on a singing career. During a visit to a recording studio in Park Street with her husband, she was offered her first role in a Sukumar Dasgupta film. She was christened Suchitra by Nitish Roy, an assistant of Dasgupta. Though her ambition of making it big as a singer never really materialised, much later in life, she did sing for Kamal Ghosh’s Megaphone. The lyrics were written by her favourite lyricist Gauri Prasanna Majumdar, while Barin Chattopadhay was the music composer.

Suchitra’s journey into the world of Bengali cinema was not a smooth one. Besides fighting her way up through several screen tests and meetings with directors, she also encountered formidable resistance at home — her responsibilities as the daughter-in-law and being a mother to a daughter, and her father-in-law’s opinion about working women, were all issues that she had to tackle. Later, the family, especially her husband, supported her and even tried the Bimal Roy connection (her mother-in-law’s brother) to get her a foothold in Bengali cinema.

‘Mrs Sen’, as she came to be known in the Bengali film circle, was probably the first Indian actress to enter films as a young mother. Today, she is the forerunner of three generations of actors, including her daughter, Moon Moon Sen, and her granddaughters, Raima and Riya, who bear the famous ‘Sen’ surname.

With her beauty and grace alone, Suchitra made an impact on the audience from the very first film. Her family’s affluence only added to her appeal at a time when most actors were compelled to work for a living. To the amazement and curiosity of the audience, Suchitra’s films showcased a woman much ahead of her times, often playing the role of professionals — a doctor in Harano Sur, a nurse in Saptapadi or an artist in Jeeban Trishna (1957). In every way, she stood out, successfully carving a niche for herself rather early in her career.

The way she dressed, her makeup, her way of talking, everything bespoke of a woman in command of herself and accustomed to attention. Her awareness of her social status added to her charisma. Her fashion sense was well ahead of her times too, especially in Bengal. The way she wore her sarees, her elaborate hairdos or her sunglasses became a rage among the youth.

Dhiren Deb, chief photographer of the English weekly, Cine Advance, and privy to some of Suchitra’s private and special moments, recounts how she and her husband lived it up in Mumbai during the shooting of Devdas.

Daughter Moon Moon remembers her mother being very glamorous off-screen too. At times, her mother would be dressed in black lace and red feathers for a night-out. Days in the Sen household were full of fun and frolic, and parties. Almost every night was a party night, whether the Sen couple were in town or holidaying. Home was filled with warmth with unending celebrations, especially at Diwali, Christmas and Suchitra’s famous Lakshmi Puja. Easter cakes were distributed to everyone in school and trucks were hired after Durga Puja and Saraswati Puja to immerse the idols.

Life came to an abrupt halt after the untimely death of Dibanath Sen in 1970. The loss brought about a great transformation in Suchitra. Despite her style and sophistication, Suchitra embraced a life of simplicity, even austerity to ward off undue attention. Journalist Amitabha Chaudhuri mentions how he was pleasantly surprised to discover her spartan lifestyle at this time — her room had only a small wooden cot and minimum furniture.

Somewhat imperious and formidable, Suchitra encouraged the public perception that she was ‘a cut above the rest’. ‘Madam,’ as she was called, lived life on her own terms, something quite extraordinary given the social constraints of her time. She is even known to have turned down an offer to work with Satyajit Ray because his conditions did not suit her. Given the success of Pather Panchali (1955) and Ray’s stature, that was indeed a bold decision.

Aparna Sen recalls that when she entered the film industry, Suchitra was already a celebrity. Asit Chowdhury, a producer, had thrown a party at Grand Hotel in Kolkata to honour Suchitra for winning the best-actor award in Moscow International Film Festival for Saat Pake Bandha. Suchitra surprised the audience by suddenly ripping actor Soumitra Chatterjee’s shirt off his chest, as she had done in the film! In those days, such a stunt could have been carried off only by a personality such as Suchitra, believes Aparna Sen. It would be impossible to define the woman that Suchitra was those days — sometimes childlike, sometimes the diva, at times the complete homebody, and at other times the blazing cine-star. Her charm in each of these avatars captivated and mesmerised her admirers. She was an enigma. There was also a bewitching duality about Suchitra’s personality. She could be snooty and reprimanding at times, and loving and soft the very next moment. While the woman in her was well aware of her charms, she did not use it to entice others.

However, she was certainly impish, a quality that endeared her to others. Author and friend Gopal Krishna Roy, in his book Romantic Juti, recounts that at times she used her mesmerising smile to ward off inquisitive questions about her personal life. Stories of how she dealt with men who dared to cross the Rubicon also abound. It is believed that she slapped a Mumbai producer who made a pass at her on the sets.

Old-timers remember her as a thin girl with beautiful expressive eyes, a lovely smile and long hair, when she started acting. She had a striking face that matured into something more fascinating over a period of time. Dilip Kumar, who worked with her in Devdas, was reportedly captivated by the combination of her beauty and brains. His admiration for Suchitra is believed to have irked Vyjayanthimala, who played Chandramukhi in the film.

Suchitra also had the unique ability to convincingly portray both an Indian girl as well as the anglicised city sophisticate. While she was excellent in her heel-trotting, skirt-attired persona of Rina Brown in Saptapadi (1961), her role of a devotee united with the lord in Bhagaban Shrikrishna Chaitanya (1953) spoke equally well of her acting abilities.

Suchitra, the actor, and Roma (as she was called by those close to her), albeit one, were distinct from each other. Though Roma lived a private life like any other married woman, cinema was an inseparable part of her existence. She was a caring and soft person, a true friend who fussed around her friends, but was acutely conscious of her alter-ego, the ‘Suchitra Sen’ persona. A gracious host one minute, she could be completely unapproachable the next minute if provoked.

Suchitra has often been described as temperamental by people who have worked with her. Amitabha Chaudhuri observed that despite being temperamental and moody, Suchitra had some very good friends who she stood by and supported whole-heartedly in their hour of need. Filmmaker and poet Gulzar recalls how she never forgot that he liked a glass of cold milk and always offered him one. Director Pinaki Mukhopadhyay remembers that while he was working with Suchitra in Alo Amar Alo (1971), Suchitra asked him to visit her at home to discuss the script. When he reached her house, he realised that she had no intention of discussing the script. Instead, she wanted him to see a doctor! Cholera was rampant those days and Suchitra knew that being a film director, Pinaki Mukhopadhay was a busy man who spent much of his time outdoors. As soon as Mukhopadhay arrived, she ordered a doctor who she had summoned, to give him a cholera injection. Dumbfounded, Mukhopadhay tried to wriggle out of the situation due to his innate aversion to medicines. But Mrs Sen’s persistence paid off and he was inoculated. Such was Suchitra with people she cared for.

Probably the transition from Suchitra the actor to Suchitra the diva was responsible in part for her temperamental behaviour. Sabitri Chatterjee, a renowned Bengali actress of yesteryears, recounts instances when at the height of Suchitra’s popularity, several producers and directors would hurry to hold an umbrella to ‘Mrs Sen’.

Film critic Ranjan Bandopadhay had famously termed her ‘vintage wine’. MF Hussain drew a sketch of her based on her pictures and named it ‘Mystique’. Derek Malcolm, one of Britain’s best-loved critics who had a special connection with Bengali cinema, observed how Suchitra had this ‘still’ quality about her. She did not have to do a lot of ‘acting.’ She ‘underplayed’ her role and, of course, looked wonderful. If on the one hand, Suchitra was warm, on the other hand she was also very possessive about the people she liked. One such person was Dhiren Deb. Suchitra would often ask him to accompany her on her outdoor shoots. He recollects that when they went to Mumbai together for the shooting of Devdas, he had decided to stay with Mala Sinha, an acquaintance. He soon found out that it did not go down well with Suchitra. She enjoyed being admired and adored, but retreated into a shell the moment someone tried to peek into her private world. No one was allowed to intrude into her private space. She guarded that fiercely. The media had no access to her inner circle and she enjoyed her reclusive film star status. She maintained a demeanour that conveyed that she would rather be known for her work than for anything else.

Kana Basu Mishra, a friend, writer and media person who had visited Suchitra’s parents’ home in Shantiniketan, recalls how Suchitra’s reputation kept her away from her parents as well; she did not meet them till many years after her rise to fame. Stories abound on how she stopped the filming of Grihadaha (1967) just because she did not want to shoot in the presence of outsiders (including some technicians on the sets). On repeatedly being coaxed by Uttam, the producer of the film, she resumed work. The same Suchitra was putty in the hands of those she liked, provided of course that she was in the right frame of mind. Dhiren Deb recollects an occasion when he had told her he wanted to click a photograph of hers that would drive the youth crazy. Suchitra calmly walked to her bathroom and called Dhiren Deb in. Clad in a towel, she posed for him. When he asked if a ‘No Kiss’ could be written on her cheek, she allowed her daughter Moon Moon to do the honour. The photograph truly drove the fans crazy.

Suchitra was reluctant to talk about her personal life even with trusted confidantes. Gopal Krishna Roy remarks in his book that Suchitra would neither corroborate nor dismiss the rumours about her personal life. At times it was hard to make out whether she was serious or joking. Suchitra weighed her words carefully before replying to a query about her professional or personal life, with the diplomacy and dignity worthy of a star of her stature.

When asked to comment on her relationship with Uttam, she is known to have famously said that they were neither brother-sister, nor lovers. She was his ‘Priya Bandhabi’ (‘good friend’ in Bengali; the eponymous film [1970] they acted in). To whether Uttam had ever tried to influence her to act in more films, she had replied, ‘Why should he? He would never question my personal preferences.’

Source: The Telegraph, India