Suchitra Sen: India's Greta Garbo

17 Jan 2014


Enigma, according to dictionary meaning, is someone or something that is difficult to understand or explain. Suchitra Sen personified enigma in life and seclusion. Who was the real Suchitra Sen? The screen goddess or the woman who shut herself away from not just limelight but also public life? Perhaps no one would ever know the strength behind an almost spiritual existence for decades.

The Garbosque life of more than three decades and half has only mystified the aura around Suchitra Sen. As the screen goddess of Bengali cinema whom India remembers for her Bollywood roles opposite actors like Dilip Kumar (Devdas), Dev Anand (Bombai ka Babu) and Sanjeev Kumar ( Aandhi ) dies, film historians will perhaps try to Suchitra Sen was unparalleled.

"She was the Greta Garbo of India," says Gopal Krishna Roy, friend and the only journalist who had access to her even in her reclusive years.

While her first film was in 1952, her first released film was in 1953. A screen star was born in Tollygune studio in 1953 with the release of Saat Number Kayedi (Prisoner Number 7). What followed is what you call history.

Suchitra Sen was born in a middle-class family in Pabna, now in Bangladesh. She came to India in 1947 as a refugee. Eventually, she got married to Dibanath Sen, who was from an aristocratic family of Kolkata’s residential enclave for the rich and famous then, Ballygunge Place. Her surname before marriage was Dasgupta. She was Rama Dasgupta.

The name Suchitra Sen was given by Assistant Director Nitish Roy since Rama Sen was very small and uninteresting for a movie star. Many then felt that her role as Bishnupriya in the film Bhagaban Srikrishna Chaitanya in the same year was the turning point of her career and the beginning of a magical celluloid journey.

The romantic pairing of Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar is what cinema folklore is made of.

Bengali film audience will always remember her for many roles with Uttam Kumar including in films like Saptapadi. While they starred in films like Sagarika, Agnipariksha, Pathe Holo Deri and umpteen others for decades, the chemistry of Rina Brown (Suchitra) and Krishnendu (Uttam Kumar) in Ajoy Kar\'s Saptapadi will always remain a celluloid classic of all times.

She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1972. She had reportedly refused India\'s highest film award Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2005, since accepting the award would have meant appearing in public to collect it.

Suchitra Sen\'s daughter Moonmoon Sen and her grand daughters Raima and Riya are all actors.

While Suchitra Sen never acted in films of Satyajit Ray or Mrinal Sen, she was never wanting in critical acclaim. She got a major international award in the Moscow film festival for her role in the 1963 film Saath Pake Badha opposite Soumitra Chatterjee.

According to journalist Gopal Roy, Suchitra could stump anyone with her unpredictable actions.

"It was her everyday routine to walk on the Ballygunge Circular Road after 9 pm then. Sometimes I accompanied her. One day one gentleman suddenly recognised her during on such stroll. He immediately came up to her and asked for her autograph. Suchitra Sen asked her for a piece of paper but he was carrying none. The man was in a state of confusion since Suchitra had immediately agreed to oblige him with an autograph.

"Then she pointed towards an empty cigarette packet on the kerb and asked him to pick it up. She signed her name on the interior white side of the packet. The man was completely stumped by her action.

She acted in 53 Bengali films and in seven Hindi films. Out of 53, late matinee idol Uttam Kumar was opposite her in 30. They became an iconic romantic screen pair which Bengali cinema or for that matter Indian cinema never saw again.

"I doubt if you would ever see such on screen chemistry and magic," says Roy.

Suchitra and Uttam shared a deep respect for each other and were not romantically linked off screen.

She and Sanjeev Kumar were good friends too, and they would stay at each other’s place in Mumbai and Kolkata whenever they visited the city of each other. Since the Aandhi days they forged a very special friendship. She was very saddened by the death of Sanjeev Kumar.

Legendary filmmaker Bimal Roy was the man who had almost brought her to film. In 1955, she had acted in Devdas opposite Dilip Kumar, directed by Roy. Bimal Roy was related to them in some way from her in-law’s side. When Bimal Roy first saw her, he immediately said that Suchitra had every quality to be a film star. So when he himself decided to make Devdas he chose Suchitra Sen and called her in Bombay. 

Suchitra Sen retired from films after the forgettable 1978 film in Bengali, Pronoy Pasha, opposite Soumitra Chatterjee, and never ever visited Tollygune studios. For 35 years she remained in a kind of self exile.

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