What can be one of the most telling histories of the cinema world – the life and untold story of Suchitra Sen – came to a halt on the morning of January 17th this year. Critics and fans have hailed her as the Greta Garbo of Bengali cinema, a mysterious figure for the generation that came after her, who only knows her through her films.
She was living her dream, the dream that most people in the glamour world would die for – to live in the minds and hearts of her fans as young, beautiful and at the helm of her trade. She refused to come within the straight jacket of a falling star and decided to remain a star all her life just as her fans remembered her, as she wanted to remain. She would be the perfect subject of star studies today.
Just as popular cinema was beginning to catch the attention of serious practitioners of cinema studies, Suchitra Sen decided to give it all a slip. Long before the Kareenas and the Paolis came to scorch the screen, Bengal was already gifted with a screen goddess who was to capture the hearts of millions. Millions who would go on to crown her as the greatest that Bengali cinema has seen till date.
Suchitra Sen’s name is uttered in the same breath with Bengal’s ‘the star’, the mahanayak, Uttam Kumar. Together they went on to become the ‘the’ screen couple whom many dreamt of being the same even outside and beyond the silver screen. She might be known for the long series of romantic melodrama films that she worked in opposite Uttam Kumar, but she was an industry by herself.
In an industry, which has always been hero centric and unfortunately still is, Suchitra Sen was la femme. While other leading ladies squabbled to make a place for themselves and succeeded only to be a passing phase, Suchitra Sen’s name was uttered in the same breath as Uttam Kumar.
She turned the tables when she began to star in films that were not typically women centric, them being the typical popular melodramas of the time; and yet one cannot imagine the completion of the image of the figure of the hero without her or the character she played. She was the perfect foil to the Uttam Kumar that the audience could imagine, her very presence heightening the appeal of the story, its cinematography, its music, its dialogue – the film itself. It is not for nothing that there is an entire range of films starring Suchitra Sen.
Bad acting or not, wrong dialogue delivery or not, there was something that made these film a “Uttam-Suchitra” film. On a more serious note, it might not be too wrong to confess that she might have been an average among the great actresses of her time, but it is undoubtedly true that she came to define the star in the industry.
Suchitra Sen was the ultimate queen of melodrama – a crowning glory that she has been bestowed with down the decades that she went invisible from the glitter of the film industry. She belonged to a genre that was essentially meant to be mainstream commercial cinema. A film’s worth was judged more by the richness of the story and the telling way that the makers employed the cinematic medium to narrate it.
She came to embody the bhadramahila (again as a foil to the bhadrolok) – the ideal modern woman of independent India, who embraced the modernity that the fathers of the nation envisioned while perfectly balancing it with the cultural ethos that she represented. She was the modern woman who was independent, who questioned the diktats of tradition, who led her life by her own example and yet behind such radicalism (something interestingly she was never straightjacketed to be) was the anchor for the one man in her life.
Today, most of us modern audiences are aware that there exists an entire industry behind the creation of a star image. However, it was undoubtedly something quite new back in the fifties and sixties, though nevertheless the process had taken its roots in Indian film industry too – the whole idea of creating an image, maintaining it, making the audience almost believe that that portrayed image is the real.
In the case of Suchitra Sen, she seemed to have embraced this phenomenon, not by living it but by making a complete disappearance act. She thrived on the curiosity of the people who would give anything to see a glimpse of her. Every birthday would be spent with frenzied television channels and film magazines trying to imagine or create a projected image of an aging Suchitra Sen. She thrived as the shadow behind her daughter and later two granddaughters who made their way into the industry as well.
There are many questions that people are still waiting to ask – was this the future that she had foreseen for the industry of which she was such a gigantic part. But the very fact that she accepted a life away from it and its glamour and maintained that distance despite the ups and downs that the industry underwent, might come to say that she was there to just make history.
She did not appear in the horizon to be the burning star of hope who would make the industry, be a part of the cinema trade and walk along with it down its course in time. She was more like the figure who came at the time she was meant to come and left when she was to leave, leaving behind a body of work for the future to unravel and make sense of.