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Behind that veil of secrecy

- Inside the mind of a star recluse

From a politician who wanted to give her a ticket to the Lok Sabha to a German TV producer who wanted to explore her stardom to Gulzar who almost convinced her to make a comeback, no one managed to bring Suchitra Sen the actress-turned-recluse out of the shadows for over three decades.

It was after her last film Pranay Pasha released in 1978 and ran for only four weeks, unimaginable for a Suchitra Sen film, that she started to withdraw herself — first from the arclights, then from the spotlight and then from the public eye, till it turned into a full-fledged self-imposed exile.

Pranay Pasha was one of the biggest flops in her career, but directors continued to do the rounds of her Ballygunge Circular Road home. In vain. Scripts on the lines of Wait Until Dark, I Will Cry Tomorrow and Mother India were all rejected and she also began to bar the film fraternity from stepping into her house. She turned more and more inward and avoided the press.

In the early 1980s she made fleeting appearances at photo exhibitions, book fairs or even a furniture shop to buy just-born granddaughter Raima a cot. But she largely remained confined to her bungalow and garden on Ballygunge Circular Road. Her private world grew shrouded in mystery and her house, an invincible fortress.

“This tendency of turning recluse has mostly been seen among those in showbiz or who have always had the spotlight on them. A key factor here is the physical appearance. They are scared of being judged if that beauty or glamour is lost,” says psychoanalyst Nilanjana Sanyal.

From a psychoanalytical point of view, Sanyal sees two dimensions to the mind of a star-turned-recluse — positive and negative. On a positive note, it is a sign of “mental maturity”.

Says Sanyal: “It means that when in showbiz, she did what was required of her. Then she realised it was all over for her and therefore she must retire. She would then search for solitude and not want to connect with the world anymore. If that is the case, a contemplative mind would like to avoid general people and be a recluse for a flavour of oneself. This is called positive or healthy narcissism.”

And then there is negative narcissism, which is about “self-love or an inflated self-concept”. Explains Sanyal: “When people are so conscious of their self-image they fall in love with that image that earned them applause, recognition in terms of their physical appearance, and they develop insecurity about losing it. It signifies an unrealistic mindset that cannot accept changes and in order to avoid any negative judgement they prefer to opt for the life of a recluse.”

People’s curiosity about Sen’s hidden image in the later years, feels Sanyal, might have “created fear and insecurity in her”.

Back then, the few close friends who had access to Suchitra would describe a typical day as one where she would wake up at the crack of dawn, bathe at 11.30am and then lunch at 1.30pm. In the evenings she would sit in her garden, do the evening arati herself and then sit down to watch television. Every two months she would rearrange the furniture, plants and antiques and redo her living room, that made up her world.

Sen had mastered the art of dodging the public eye. Sometimes after dark she would put on her signature dark glasses and take a stroll down the Ballygunge Circular Road stretch with her specially appointed maidservant.

Bob cut mehendi-ed hair covered with a scarf, perfectly manicured fingers, kajol-lined eyes but no hint of make-up. In her left hand she’d carry a small purse and in the right, a handkerchief to keep her face hidden during the walk. She would step out in salwars or saris but at home she’d be in maxis, long skirts and gowns reminiscent of Rina Brown from Saptapadi.

Even till the early ’90s she would take her granddaughters out for movies and lunches, bowing to their demands, her face all but covered with her sunglasses and dupatta. She even switched from her Fiat to daughter Moon Moon’s Esteem when she sensed she was being watched.

As she turned 60, her diet comprised a minimal meal of curd, roti, cucumber and seasonal fruits but she had a real sweet tooth, favouring a particular para shop for kanchagolla, golapi pera, jolbhora sandesh, gulab jamun and rosogolla....

As she gave up everything outside the four walls of her house, she turned towards spirituality and went on to take diksha at Ramakrishna Mission from Swami Vireshwarananda, in the late 1970s.

In her early days as a recluse, she seldom passed an opportunity to visit Belur. Sometimes early in the morning, in the evening, or late in the night, to avoid prying eyes. But almost always in a taxi driven by a Sikh and always with her pallu pulled over her face.

At home, she was immersed in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, and in prayer.

“Moving towards spirituality is a way of contemplation as a primary process of the mind. Understanding of the self in depth,” says Sanyal, adding that this state of mind cannot be reached overnight. “It’s a gradual process of evolving into the other self based on the inclination and feelings of looking inward.”

In what a psychoanalyst sees as “looking inward”, an author spies “a very attractive mystery”.

“Maybe Suchitra Sen was intrigued by the mystery of Suchitra Sen,” speculates author Kunal Basu. “Maybe she was fascinated by the mysterious perception of who she could be and then stayed true to that persona. A persona that she created out of being a recluse that evoked tremendous curiosity about what she’s thinking, what she might look like and what must her daily activities be. Maybe she was trapped in her own mystery.”

When Sen’s bungalow was being razed in 1994 to make way for a multi-storeyed building where she was to live the last two decades of her life, many of her belongings were auctioned. Fans travelled from far and wide for a grab.

Sen at that time had contemplated moving to Pondicherry but leaving Calcutta — her daughter and granddaughters — for good was never really an option.

From behind the veil of secrecy, Suchitra would make an occasional foray to New Market and even Vardaan to shop for saris — mostly cotton in buti, nakshapar and tangail.

The last time she was seen in full public view was in 1995, a full 15 years after she had emerged to bid her final farewell to Uttam Kumar in July, 1980. On July 16, 1995, she arrived discreetly at the David Hare Training College to get clicked for the voter’s identity card and stood in a serpentine queue for more than an hour. No one realised who was in their midst, till photographs — showing an aged Suchitra with hair thinning, in a chikan salwar, thick-rimmed glasses and a simple pair of sandals — made headlines the next day.

Legend has it that she continued to hold a dupatta to her face till instructed to remove it for the voter ID picture. Away from the spotlight for all these years, she was annoyed and burst out “Stop it!” as the flashbulbs went off.

STOP was the unwritten sign that hung at the Sen household for years and years. Not denying access to the next two generations of daughter Moon Moon with husband Habi (Bharat Dev Varma) or granddaughters Raima and Riya, but to the grand old lady of the house.

“It’s always seemed strange, attending great parties at the Sens, knowing that somewhere behind a closed door sits The Suchitra Sen! But to Moon Moon and Habi’s credit, they have never let that stop them from being the perfect hosts at some of the best parties in town,” says a family friend.

A fiercely protective family and a group of loyal helps ensured that the veil of secrecy at home was never breached.

A rare secrecy alert would be sounded at Belle Vue Clinic every time the star patient would be admitted for various ailments since mid-2007. Doctors and the medical staff would be forbidden from leaking information from her hospital bed.

Outside, the world waited patiently for her to recover and head back home. Unseen. Often in the shadow of darkness.

This routine was followed several times. But on Friday, January 17, she left Belle Vue Clinic for the last time — in a wooden coffin.

THE HERO

Sabyasachi Mukherjee

Some people should only be worshipped from a distance

She’s not an icon. She’s an enigma.

To compare her with Greta Garbo is an insult. Suchitra Sen was in a league of her own.

She was so ahead of her time. In her intelligence, her demeanour, her fashion and her poise…. Suchitra Sen was not a heroine. She was a hero. And she single-handedly carried the film on her shoulders, much before the Bachchans and the Khans arrived.

So strong was her aura, that she was almost untouchable on screen. She wasn’t a woman you could lust for. She wasn’t the girl next door. She wasn’t obtainable. So the Bengali put her on the mantlepiece, to worship.

I don’t know of any other Bengali actress who had the power to stir such emotion. I remember once I had an argument with my grandmother and I didn’t agree with something she said about Suchitra Sen. I almost got pushed out of the will!

To many Bengalis, Suchitra and Uttam are like Radha-Krishna!

She was the biggest influencer of Bengali cinema. The way she wore her saris. The way she wore her sunglasses. The make-up… she influenced an entire generation. And beyond.

If I had to use one word to describe her style, it would be ‘dignity’. To so many men and women, she was so aspirational. I have learnt so much by just watching her. But the biggest thing I have learnt is dignity. She has been one of the biggest influencers in my life and career.

I have given many interviews and spoken about many people. But no one has ever asked me about Suchitra Sen. The fact that a newspaper like The Telegraph is talking to me about her,

I feel teary. I know that both my father’s and my mother’s side of the family are now proud of me.

Every time I meet Moon Moon, Raima and Riya, I marvel.

They have the genes of Suchitra Sen! And that’s the closest I will ever get to her.

I am happy I didn’t meet her in my lifetime. Because, some people should only be worshipped from a distance.

FAN. FRIEND. FORGOTTEN.

LOLITA CHATTERJEE

Haar Mana Haar was the only film where we shared screen space. When I was told that Suchitra Sen would be my co-star, I was elated as well as nervous.

Stories about her being reserved and whimsical were on everyone’s lips. When shooting began, I went up to her to introduce myself. I said: ‘Onekeyi toh apnar bhakto, aami apnar shanghatik bhakto!’ (You have many fans, I am your ardent fan).... She laughed a lot and from that day on, she was very nice to me. She would call me to her room, chat with me for hours.... I found her quite the opposite of a reserved lady. She would crack jokes in front of technicians and would interact with the crew members. I was flattered and proud about my friendship with her. I would boast about our friendship to my colleagues. Some of my colleagues would warn me that ‘after a few days she won’t recognise you’.

She was whimsical. One day she told the director, ‘Amar aar kaj korte bhalo lagchhe na, pack up’ (I don’t feel like working anymore, pack up). And she left in her car. But our friendship flourished and she invited me to her house. At that time I didn’t have a house of my own and she told me that whatever you do in life, it’s very important to have a house of your own. As days passed, I lost touch with her and even if I called, she didn’t speak to me. When my son was getting married, I had gone to invite her but the gatekeeper didn’t allow us in. Maybe this, too, was a whim. But I want to remember the good part. I want to remember that she was very nice to me, very gracious, very elegant….

THE CO-WORKER

I had done Annapurnar Mandir (1954) with Suchitra Sen at the beginning of my career but it was a very long time ago and I recall nothing. Then we did Grihadaho together but I had just a day’s work with her and we worked like two colleagues who never interacted with each other. I don’t know why she became a recluse. If she chose a life like that,

I respected it.

Sabitri Chatterjee

I had worked with Suchitra Sen in Bipasha.

I was very young then and she never spoke to me on the sets. Mrs Sen would never talk to her co-artistes except while saying her dialogues. But I used to see her often in Dakshineswar. We never spoke.

I interacted with her only when she was in Bombay working in Gulzar’s Aandhi. I had done Achanak with Gulzarji. So when Suchitra Sen was shooting, Gulzarji sent his assistant to pick me up from Calcutta to see the shoot. I had become family to Gulzarji.

I was a little hesitant because I thought I would be disturbing Suchitra Sen. But I was pleasantly surprised that she was very happy to see me. The moment she saw me, she said: ‘Kotodin Banglay kotha bolini, kotodin machher jhol khaini

(I haven’t spoken in Bengali for so many days, haven’t had fish curry for so many days).’

She was very nice and we chatted a lot. That’s the last time I ever saw her in person.

She was very conscious of being the number one actress and would always maintain a distance from everyone. Maybe she chose to shut herself because she wanted to be remembered as the most glamorous heroine.

Lily Chakraborty

The only film where I designed costumes for Suchitra Sen was in Debi Chaudhurani. She didn’t speak to me even once during the shoot. She would remain very aloof. On the sets after a shot, she would go straight into her make-up room and lock the door. No one ever dared to go inside her room and talk to her. She preferred to be left alone. But since

I was her dresser, I had the permission to go in. So I would go hang her clothes on the hanger and leave.

She was very particular about wearing clean clothes. She would be very angry if the clothes were not cleaned and ironed properly. After Debi Chaudhurani I never saw her again.

Sharajulal