It is unbelievable that an actor, who left the limelight long ago, could draw such attention. Like the Hollywood legend Greta Garbo, Suchitra Sen too represented a concept while her contemporary female actors were events, with a beginning and an end. I am evoking Roland Barthes’s essay on Garbo to emphasise that Sen — in her own way — could embody the essence of stardom in a way few others can. In fact, before her, only Kanan Devi could create such an archetypal presence.
While reviewing Henry Hathaway’s Niagara (1953), Francois Truffaut, of the French Nouvelle Vague movement, elevated Marilyn Monroe to such a sublime height that the director became merely incidental. Newsweek, in 1965, described Josef von Sternberg as a creator of the ‘Blue Angel’ image, referring to the overwhelming spectacle of Marlene Dietrich in his films. Suchitra Sen, too, had the ability to rise above her directors and the melodramas she acted in.
Even in her later age and in Hindi films, when one thinks of a powerfully arrogant but equally lonely and vulnerable politician, one is left with no alternative but Sen in such a role in Aandhi (1975). She had already defined Parvati on a national scale in Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955). She never worked with the great triad of Bengali cinema — Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen — or with middle-order craftsmen like Tapan Sinha or Tarun Majumdar. Suchitra Sen always worked with mainstream directors (with, one can say, the possible exception of Harisadhan Dasgupta). Yet she reigned supreme in the cine-going imagination of the Bengali middle class and occupied a position hardly any other actress, as far as stardom is concerned, had access to.
The question is then, who or what is a star? Only good acting cannot make a star; for that matter, Gregory Peck was a bad actor. In fact, stars are industrial products; in a wider sense “actors with a biography”. In the post-Independence days, Suchitra Sen incarnated a new elite desire. She could propose and impose ‘new’ ethics of individuality, which was unique. In the days of new-found democracy, when the youth were at a loss, Sen signified a certain kind of autonomy of the individual. Though illusory, it convinced a generation that a modernity beyond the feudal-familial was in sight.
That way she could be compared to the stardom of Brigitte Bardot in post-war France. The overt sexual reference would be absent in Sen, still if we consider Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1956) and Ajoy Kar’s Saptapadi (1961), it is obvious that none of them was as emancipated as it appeared to be. Rather, they offered safer credentials to the patriarchal order. They did not question the status quo but redesigned it. That is why the moral establishment also never felt threatened and found unknown escape routes. Bardot created a hairstyle and Suchitra cultivated a practice of glancing obliquely. Actually, they were more a space of masculine desire for the new femininity.
The way Brigitte Bardot’s sexual aggression challenged the traditional catholic values of post-war Paris without questioning patriarchy, Suchitra Sen’s sense of haughty independence and the ease with which her characters travelled to spaces where women seldom ventured without male company till then, or the way she portrayed professional women, never questioned the dominant ideological order. She created the space for a newer kind of femininity.
Fortunately, both found competent directors who shaped them as stars. When Debaki Kumar Basu cast Sen as Bishnupriya in Bhagaban Shree Krishna Chaitanya (1954), he invoked through the brilliant soft-focus close-ups the mythical image of Radha. The same visual strategy was followed by Ajoy Kar in Harano Sur (1957), creating La Femme Mystique around her.
Edgar Morin had his own reasons to claim that “woman is more mythic than man as both subject and object. She is naturally more of a star than man”. The song Tumi je amaar in Harano Sur attests that the mythical tale of Shakuntala’s reclaiming of her identity in King Dushmanta’s court had gained a modern rendition.
This practice of using Sen as a part of antiquity in a contemporary scenario was time and again undertaken by Ajoy Kar and Asit Sen in the 1950s and early ’60s, as can be seen in Saptapadi, Saat Paake Bandha and Uttar Falguni.
The decades when Suchitra Sen ruled the box office along with Uttam Kumar were particularly effective for their charismatic appeal. They not only assured the passage from awe to charm but also with a different system of value counterpoised with the uncertainties and ambiguities of post-Partition Bengal. Sen’s image functioned as a social sync to stabilise the imbalances in the social order.
In a melodramatic way, the Suchitra-Uttam couple could resolve conflicts on the screen which were beyond resolution on the social plane. In this way, Uttam and Suchitra were perfect instances of stars. More than their individual abilities, they were celebrated because their image could consolidate popular desires and emerging parameters of social values.
In films like Pathe Holo Deri (1957), Indrani (1958) and Saptapadi, the greater feudal family ceases to play a decisive role in the narrative. The characters (Uttam-Suchitra) gain a kind of independence and authenticity which rendered them the dream figures of a particular historical era. Probably, the youth who admired them with devotion also didn’t have access to such autonomy and probably that is the reason they were always charmed.
In the post-globalisation scenario, the Bengali bhadralok finds it difficult to adequately cope with a newer modernity and recalls the moment when he successfully did so during the transition from the rural to the urban. In 1955, Pather Panchali and Shapmochan submitted two different tracks of this journey. The latter, starring Suchitra-Uttam, scripted a narrative that promised a solution to a riddle around this inevitable change.
Sen’s long absence has been a boon in disguise for her and her admirers. Her image proposed a nostalgic memorabilia for the middle class, which is a refuge in the cultural confusion of our chaotic times. In India, stardom doesn’t function like in Hollywood, though here too it is a construct of the media and the industry. One can never imagine a Marlon Brando or an Elizabeth Taylor reduced to important but peripheral characters on the screen when they age. While an Amitabh Bachchan is a lead character even in his seventies, this is almost never true for the Indian heroine. Suchitra Sen’s withdrawal from the limelight — though appearing to be a strategy marked with vanity — was therefore a courageous decision that few leading celluloid women can afford to take.
Sanjoy is a professor of film studies at Jadavpur University
That Suchitra Sen could be paired with another hero and yet deliver a hit was proved when she played a nurse opposite Ashok Kumar the doctor. Their love song Ei sundaro swarnali sondhaye is one of the best on Bengali screen.
Saat Paake Bandha (1963)
With a bun and a bindi, Suchitra turned pretty wifey to Soumitra Chatterjee’s professor. Their days in paradise were numbered.
A ghar ghar ki kahaani ahead of its time.
Uttar Falguni (1963)
Won the National Award for best feature film in Bengali, thanks to Suchitra’s power-packed double role as Pannabai and her daughter Suparna, a lawyer. Such a hit that it was remade in Hindi as Mamta where she shared screen time with then heart-throb Dharmendra. For some, her best act.
Debi Chaudhurani (1974)
Well past her prime, Suchitra had the rookie Ranjit Mallick as her leading man in this adaptation of the Bankim Chandra classic. Morphing from a mischievous girl to the fiery queen of dacoits, Suchitra showed her ‘shero’ side.
Suchitra played and looked the character inspired by Indira Gandhi, estranged from her husband, played by Sanjeev Kumar. Their reel chemistry was striking, their real friendship sparkling. No wonder granddaughter Raima picks Suchitra as Aarti Devi as the most powerful woman character in a movie.
She made a famous Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay character her own. As Bijoya, who falls for young doctor Naren, Suchitra was dignified and authoritative.