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I want to be let alone: Garbo

The western world has seen many notable recluses, among them Howard Hughes, Bettie Page, Bobby Fischer, Lauryn Hill, Doris Day, Harper Lee, Emily Dickinson, Brian Wilson, Dave Chappelle and J.D. Salinger.

But Suchitra Sen was compared most often with Greta Garbo. Somehow in the imagination of film lovers, the two screen goddesses, both women of ethereal beauty, will remain inextricably linked, especially as they were obsessive about protecting their privacy once they had quit movies after very successful careers.

According to the dictionary, a “recluse is a person who lives in voluntary seclusion from the public and society”. But each individual is unique. It is said there are many reasons why someone becomes a recluse: “a personal philosophy that rejects consumer society; a mystical religious outlook that involves becoming a hermit; a criminal might hide away from people to avoid detection by police; or a misanthrope may be unable to tolerate human society”.

It can also be due to “psychological reasons, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, apathy, an autism spectrum disorder or avoidant personality disorder”.

Ironically, Garbo’s wariness of the spotlight only made her that much more appealing to the media. “I feel able to express myself only through my roles, not in words, and that is why I try to avoid talking to the press,” she once said during a rare statement to reporters in a plea for privacy.

Garbo was born in Stockholm in Sweden on September 18, 1905, and died in 1990 at the age of 84, having lived in determined seclusion in New York for half a century but she was well aware of her unique place in Hollywood history.

Though “the Swedish Sphinx” had been at the height of her fame and glamour in the 1920s and 1930s — more than two decades before the Suchitra Sen-Uttam Kumar phenomenon captivated India — she received a 1955 Honorary Oscar “for her unforgettable screen performances” and in 1999 was ranked as the fifth greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute.

She moved from Sweden to Hollywood after signing with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and made the transition from silent movies to “talkies”, where her husky, Swedish-accented voice was a compelling selling point. She had affairs with many men, most passionately with her leading actor, John Gilbert, but did not marry him or anybody else.

She played the seductive World War I spy in Mata Hari (1931) and a Russian ballerina in Grand Hotel (1932). She never won an actual Oscar although she was nominated for Best Actress for her roles in Romance and Anna Christie in 1930, Camille in 1936, and Ninotchka in 1939.

For most people, the Garbo legend has endured since her shock retirement in 1941 following a single critical review. Yet, curiously, Derek Malcolm, one of Britain’s most respected critics, appears to hold Sen in slightly higher regard.

Malcolm has always had a soft spot for Bengali cinema, having been the one who introduced Satyajit Ray to an audience at the National Film Theatre in London after the director had first caused a stir at Cannes with Pather Panchali in 1956.

“Some of the mystery of Garbo is gone,” argued Malcolm. “People have forgotten why she was mysterious. Her films are revived regularly at the National Film Theatre and on television.”

He believes there was an element of calculation in the way Garbo severed her relationship with journalists. “She did not like the press. She kept her private life private. She was bisexual and had a lot of affairs with women at a time this could not be made public. She used one of the tricks people have forgotten and which today’s Hollywood people could learn. She realised the less she gave interviews and the more she remained intensely private, the more it made people want her and the more mysterious she became.”

Though Malcolm cannot remember the titles of all the Suchitra films that he saw in the 1950s and 1960s, he remembers their effect and the actress: “She was very, very beautiful. She had this ‘still’ quality. She did not need to do a lot of ‘acting’.”

He went back to the comparison with the Swedish siren: “Some people have called her the Indian Garbo because of her extreme beauty, allied to a great dignity.”

The British academic and author of a number of books on Hindi cinema, Rachel Dwyer, who is professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has examined why stars such as Garbo and Sen chose to live in the shadows.

“There may be two major reasons,” she suggested. “One is that some stars, usually very beautiful, hate seeing themselves grow old. Some probably find it harder than the rest of us to deal with these changes. However, others may want to escape their own beauty and the image of them created by publicity in the media or made by their studios and the public’s concept of them created by the roles and the ways they were presented in the films themselves. Some may want to conceal something such as their private lives or their sexuality.”

Dwyer said: “Garbo wasn’t a true recluse in the sense she went out in public, unlike Howard Hawks. I think the true recluse may well suffer from mental illness rather than making a decision to do — or not to do — something. It’s also a paradox of film that the star is always present — on film — but absent because they’re not actually there. May be this makes us even more intrigued when they become reclusive in real life while we still have their screen images.”

Sen may have cut herself from her public but she remained close to her daughter Moon Moon and granddaughters Raima and Riya — she often had detailed discussions with Raima about the latter’s work.

Going back to Garbo, she was alleged to have remarked, “I want to be alone,” which she later corrected to, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be let alone.’ There is all the difference.”

Bette Davis once used words about Garbo that could easily be applied to Suchitra Sen: “Her instinct, her mastery over the machine, was pure witchcraft. I cannot analyse this woman’s acting. I only know that no one else so effectively worked in front of a camera.”