The epitome of beauty to all Bengalis, with her iconic smile and seductive doe eyes, glamour queen Suchitra Sen ruled the golden years of Bengali cinema. The happy pairing of Uttam-Suchitra constructed the romantic genre and fed into the optimism of the í60s mainstream Bengali cinema.
After being discovered by Bikash Ray in her stage role of Srimati in Natir Puja, Sen made a humble debut in 1953 and grew to become the most iconised female star in Bengali cinema. Senís trajectory really marked the transition from early cinema to a post-Independent modernity and the golden era of Bengali cinema. She was backed by big producers, dedicated directors, author-backed roles and incredible musicmakers.
Sen played complex female roles in films like Deep Jwele Jaai (a nurse in a psychiatric hospital who falls in love with her patient) and Uttar Falguni (double role of mother-daughter in which she packs in the performance of a courtesan and holds forth as lawyer in the long-drawn court scene). Bengalis were swept off their feet by Senís Dr Romola (Harano Sur), Rina Brown (Saptapadi) and the long list of Uttam-Suchitra hits.
It would be wrong to define Sen as only a glamorous star. Senís flamboyant beauty held nuances of shifting light and cold steel as the actorís formidable presence built up through the years. Asit Sen brought out her worldly charm and resolve in that enduring drama of domestic conflict, Saat Paake Bandha, a role which fetched her the best actress award in the 1963 Moscow Film Festival.
In the era of melodrama and overarching narratives, Sen held centre stage when there were no other female stars to rival her meteoric rise. Newcomer Supriya Chowdhury started with Ritwik Ghatak. Madhabi Mukherjee and Sharmila Tagore belonged to Rayís camp. Sabitri Chatterjee, with her theatre background, was a strong talent but Sen constructed an urbane, sophisticated, glamorous self ó a sort of Hollywood/Bombay film-inflected persona. I would draw parallels with Nargis in terms of stature and with Waheeda Rehman and Nutan for the dignity that she exuded.
Senís outings in Hindi cinema are also well remembered ó the much loved Paro in Bimal Royís Devdas, Asit Senís Mamta, remake of Uttar Falguni, and much later in Gulzarís Aandhi where she played a mature politician. Salim-Javed wanted her to play the mother in Deewar but she refused to work in Bombay any more.
Sen was a product of her time, of prolific beauty in black and white, of a certain style of histrionics, gradually captured in stylised performance. Sen exemplifies the glamorous star in mainstream cinema, a construct shaped by the media and sustained by the star herself ó the much-photographed face, the eventual withdrawal from the public eye, the elusive Garbo-like recluse ó who consistently drew headlines.
For children of the í70s, who grew up after Senís years of glory, it is interesting to view her filmography with a critical eye. She was an untrained actress who inhabited with conviction the mature, nuanced roles offered to her in Deep Jwele Jaai and Uttar Falguni.
The huge success of the Uttam-Suchitra pair propelled her to stardom and the trappings that came with it. The star mannerisms consumed the early spontaneity. Then came the predictable smile, a certain turn of the head, a definitive look and enunciation which defined her histrionics of melodrama. A style which later actors emulated and Madhuri Dixit consciously evoked in Hindi cinema. More recently, Sonakshi Sinha evokes the same look playing a Bengali girl in Lootera.
Sen was a diligent, disciplined actor who projected a professional and no-nonsense profile and carved a sustained career. Her star status was unparalleled, her formidable personality gradually building urban myths.
In keeping with her star aura came the chiffon sari-sunglassed look. She slowly made herself unavailable to the public eye, therefore never ageing in the public imagination. Thus the romancing duo of Uttam-Suchitra remained captured in a time-defying bubble which explains the huge nostalgia factor and also feeds into their enduring popularity.
Satyajit Ray had started with a fiercely critical eye for mainstream Bengali cinema. His neo-realistic films displayed strong contempt for contemporary Bengali melodrama. He cast new faces and created his own stable of talent. Suchitra Sen was an established star at that time and her mainstream profile was just the stuff that Ray was turning away from.
But her larger-than-life screen persona seemed to suit a certain role. He offered Sen Debi Chaudhurani but she could not give dates or agree to the terms on offer. As a result Ray shelved the project as he did not believe any other Bengali star could have done the larger-than-life role.
Just as no one but mainstream star Uttam Kumar could have been cast for his Nayak.
To me, Sen was a directorís actor, turning in several nuanced, author-backed roles before submitting to mainstream melodrama which made her a much sought but stylised star. She remains an extraordinary star.
Sangeeta is a London-based filmmaker and film historian