Nostalgia is not very good news for the nostalgic. The elegy of age lies a layer below the surface, trying hard but unable to hide. As the present hurries along towards the future at its usual frenetic pace, the draw of the past persuades one to pause in contemplation, unredeemed by any practical definition of utility. But nostalgia is not the sadness of an end; it is search, melancholic maybe, for nuggets in the rubbish dump of time.
Suchitra Sen has entered the last days of her life, in some Calcutta hospital. This is no longer news. In the 1950s and 1960s there seemed to be no other news worth bothering about in Bengal except the enchanting Suchitra Sen, particularly when she appeared on screen with her great paramour and thespian partner Uttam Kumar. Suchitra Sen was married to someone. No one knew who, and no one cared: Suchitra and Uttam possessed chemistry beyond science. Marriage seemed irrelevant. Everyone was married, including all — unlike today, when the operative if ebbing word is most — parents. But how many gorgeous women and handsome men were in love that was both subversive and flagrant? The world spun on the axis of the heart.
I had not put razor to chin when I first saw them in a movie, in a cinema hall called Jyoti. The seats confirmed my knowledgeable view that bedbugs were misnamed; they had quite a life outside bed as well.
We lived, or were locked, in a hamlet outside a jute mill on the banks of the meandering river Hooghly; but the imagination always escaped into an interwoven collage of dreams unbridled by any boundary. Nothing set fantasy on fire more quickly than a Suchitra smile, subtle, mischievous, and in full command of the relationship. Uttam Kumar was happy to become an adult boy before the goddess.
I cannot recall the name of that film; perhaps Saptapadi, perhaps not. It would be easy to check through the smooth alleys of modern internet technology. But that is only as necessary as a shrug. It was a time of black-and-white. It was an age of grain and velvet, and the sheen of velvet became a separate colour. Memory is better served in diffusion than in the particular.
The 1960s were draped by a grainy peel of shifting dots: nothing was clear, not a job in sight, not a prospect in place, the economy as disconsolate as aspiration. Little wonder then that the decade was marked by insurrection and violence, some in a Maoist cause, others for ethnic or communal reasons. A large comfort zone was the company of Suchitra Sen — and, to be fair, Uttam Kumar.
It was not the only one, of course. Dev Anand's jaunt, his street-smart zigzag through petty crime [selling black market movie tickets, picking pockets, finding courage in a gambling den] as the only option for survival, was equally irresistible. I never understood why Suchitra Sen and Dev Anand looked so distant from each other in their one film, Bombai Ka Babu. Every part of the construct was separately perfect: hero and heroine at the top of their game; the music divine; the plot far better than the soporific nonsense that was the usual diet for scripts. There could be only one reason. Suchitra and Dev were cold. There was nothing personal. We who knew Bengali cinema felt relieved. It was Suchitra and Uttam and Suchitra or nothing. Suchitra and Uttam even did a Bengali rendition of Othello in one film. Through some human miracle, it worked.
Suchitra never adapted to Hindi cinema; and nor did Uttam. Suchitra succeeded only when she did not need a stand-in for Uttam, in films where she was stellar rather than co-star. If you have not seen her brilliant performance in Mamta, order a copy now. It is a moving story of love lost and life betrayed. Two songs are classics: Lata Mangeshkar's Rahte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein hum jaan se bhi pyaaron ki tarah/Baithey hain unhi ke mehfil mein hum aaj gunahgaaron ki tarah, and Hemant Kumar's immortal Chupa lo yeh dil mein pyaar mera. The second success was Aandhi, where Suchitra portrayed a politician modelled on Mrs Indira Gandhi. Suchitra belonged to Bengal and Bengali.
Uttam Kumar died, suddenly, more than three decades ago. I was editor of the newsweekly Sunday then. The commemorative issue in his memory sold out the moment it reached the stands, and not just in Calcutta. His funeral had an element of insanity, as young crowds fought to touch their idol on his final trip through the city he loved. Suchitra is still with us, and may the inevitable be delayed as much as a generous Providence can manage. But her memory will not die, as long as admiration is alive.