I never cared much for Suchitra Sen. I found her acting stilted and her mannerisms irritating. While she grew as a star, she did not grow as an actress. Actually, I found even her legendary beauty not to my full satisfaction. It was rather staid. She had not the sparkle that Madhubala brought to her screen presence. As I look back on those youthful years of my generation when Suchitra Sen was the reigning queen of the Bengali film world, I ask myself whether this attitude was an expression of distancing oneself from popular culture. Did she really leave cold the likes of us with intellectual pretensions?
This is something that needs to be worked out. What needs to be worked out as well, perhaps with greater urgency, is the mystery of her seclusion. This has intrigued many. With her passing away recently, this mystery has attracted renewed interest. Her wish that nobody should see her except those closest to her was honoured even when she was struggling for life in a nursing home in Calcutta. Indeed, she was shielded from the public eye on her last journey as well. A coffin was used for the purpose. Why did she not want to be seen?
I have asked this question to my friends whenever there has been an opportunity to discuss it ever since she passed away. Many say that she was an egoist who wanted to be remembered as a beautiful woman. The image that she wanted to leave behind was the image of her beauty, not its withering away with age. Some have gone a step ahead and argued she made a conscious choice to create an aura of mystery so that the public interest in her did not wane. She learnt from Greta Garbo that the less she was seen the more interest there would be in seeing her. In creating the mystery of her life as a recluse, she was making sure that she was still, so to speak, in the limelight.
As far as is known, Garbo had other reasons for hiding. Her sexuality, for instance, could not be made public, especially her affairs with women, for that would have been found unacceptable in her time. The other famous recluse, Syd Barrett, the English musician of Pink Floyd band fame, had problems with drugs. Did Sen have any such problem? She was apparently living normally in her seclusion. Her biographer, Gopal Krishna Roy, has talked of her evening strolls with him. The story of a gentleman who recognized her during one of these strolls is particularly interesting. He asked for an autograph, even though he had neither a pen nor a piece of paper. He was given the autograph with her borrowing a pen from Roy and picking up an empty cigarette packet from the road. He has also talked about finding her happily talking with her grand daughters in her house, with her face under a veil.
Did she go through a grotesque deformity that was too painful to show? By all accounts, this was not the case. Her doctor, Subrata Maitra, did talk at the time of briefing reporters while she was in the nursing home of her chronic airways disease and medical conditions as thyroid and diabetes. There is nothing to suggest that these conditions had led to a repelling deformity. All that can be assumed is that she had aged, like all mortals.
Why then the veil? Was her wish to be remembered as a beauty so compelling that she underwent the trouble of living in seclusion? It was surely not easy to carry on living in this manner from 1978, when she retired from films. Reportedly, her refusal to receive the Dadasaheb Phalke award in person in 2005 cost her the award, the most sought after award for lifetime contribution to Indian cinema.
Rachel Dwyer, a British academic with an interest in Indian cinema, has been quoted in Indian newspapers as saying that the reason that some film stars go into hiding may be that they are unable to face the decline of beauty with age. These stars find it difficult to cope with the changes associated with ageing. Others may wish to escape from the image created by the publicity machinery. Yet another reason may hold true for those who wish to hide something of their private lives. Dwyer makes an interesting point, though without conceptual depth.
That hiding something of her personal life, as in the case of Garbo, was not Senís reason may be assumed to be true. I do not think she wanted to escape from the image that was created by the film world. It is possible that the egoist argument applies in her case. She was known to be a proud person. To leave behind an image of youthful beauty, adored by her fans, must have been a compelling reason for a proud person. It is also possible that she took a leaf out Garboís book and tried to create a myth about herself.
Here we need to consider the conceptual distinction between normal and pathological narcissism. This distinction was introduced by Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst known for his contribution to the study of narcissistic pathology. While in normal narcissism a person maintains a coherent sense of self and realistic goals, this is not the case with pathological narcissism. According to Kernberg, withdrawal into Ďsplendid isolationí becomes habitual under such circumstances. Persons with this tendency find it difficult to face age-specific losses. Could it be that Sen suffered from this pathological condition?
We need to consider yet another dimension of her life. It is widely know that she turned to Ramakrishna Mission for solace. Soon after her film, Pranay Pasha, proved to be a box-office failure, it is believed that she went to Belur Math and met Bharat Maharaj there. This was in 1978. Bharat Maharaj reportedly advised her to compose herself and give up greed. This proved to be the beginning of an association with the Mission that lasted till her last day. People recall that when Bharat Maharaj passed away in 1989 she went to Belur Math and walked barefoot there.
The monks see her as a person whose life changed after she had received diksha or initiation. Her faith showed her the way to spiritualism and to peace. This spiritualism, many believe, was the reason for her turning into a recluse. According to Maitra, her doctor, she cut herself off from her film life because of this spiritual initiation.
We may now try tentatively to put the pieces of the puzzle together. It is possible that with the failure of her film, Sen was unable to face the loss of her glamorous life. Her age was not in her favour. It is at this juncture that the path of spiritualism was shown to her. While she took this path, she kept her image alive by her isolation. She could thus have her image as well as go beyond it. Indeed, in a paradoxical manner, her spiritualism made it possible to maintain the image, for it would have been difficult to live the life of a recluse for so many years but for the spiritual space she created for herself. She could have thus for herself the best of both worlds under a difficult condition. Kernberg did notice that persons suffering from pathological narcissism tend to turn to asceticism or to grotesque attempts at youthfulness. Sen turned to asceticism and at the same time succeeded in keeping her youthfulness free from ludicrousness by freezing it in time.