At a time when top A-grade heroines grumble about not being paid as much as their male counterparts, it’s heartening to note that even half a century ago, Suchitra Sen was not only the highest paid actress, but was also paid higher than most of her contemporary actors.
When we talk about hit celluloid pairs of different eras, the names of Raj Kapoor-Nargis, Dharmendra-Hema Malini, Rajesh Khanna-Sharmila Tagore and Shahrukh Khan-Kajol crop up. But the most romantic and saleable pair for decades was formed by Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar, who appeared together in over 30 films.
Generally, the volume of films done by any actor underlines her or his versatility in different genres and their long love affair with the audience. Sri Devi is believed to have done 300 films in different languages. But Suchitra Sen acted in only 61 Bengali and Hindi films. However, the sheer brilliance of her acting, the range and the depth of emotions which she expressed through her characters left the audience mesmerised, sometimes speechless. So many scenes of her films remain etched in the mind for weeks after one has seen them. No wonder in West Bengal she was reverentially hailed as the Mahanayika!
Many Bengali heroines would have grabbed any opportunity to do a film with maestros like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. But Suchitra Sen didn’t do a single film with these three legendary directors. In fact, she refused Manik Da’s Devi Chaudhurani, based on Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novel, because he wanted her to give bulk dates which she couldn’t; Ray never made that film. It may sound unbelievable but she even refused do a film for the inimitable Raj Kapoor; gossip columns of that time suggested that she didn’t like the manner in which Raj beseeched her with flowers!
Most actors, even after their retirement, hanker for some spotlight and headlines but Suchitra Sen, after the failure of her film Pronoy Pasha in 1978 just called it quits and never staged a comeback. Thanks to this decision, her film Nati Binodini with the first superstar of Hindi filmdom, Rajesh Khanna, was never completed. She spent 25 years of her retired life in the service of the Thakur (RK Mission).
Unlike other awardees, she even refused to come to Delhi to accept the prestigious Dada Saheb Phalke award! She lived in self imposed seclusion for 30 years and richly deserved the media title: the enigmatic Greta Garbo of India.
Sen gave unforgettable performances in four Hindi films: Devdas, Bombay Ka Babu, Mamta and Aandhi, portraying totally different characters which would be a huge challenge for even the most seasoned actresses of India. (Her three other Hindi films were: Champakali, Musafir and Sarhad.)
Sanajy Leela Bhansali, with his palatial havelis, opulent sets, fascinating choreography, mega dance sequences and star power of Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai, created a visual feast in his Devdas which the audience lapped up. But the pain, anguish, despondency, loneliness, suffocating helplessness and inevitability of the ensuing tragedy which Dilip Kumar and Suchitra Sen conveyed on the screen through their portrayal in simple white Bengali attire engulfs and overwhelms the viewers even today. Theirs was the best ever portrayal of Sharat Babu’s Devdas and Paro. While Dilip Kumar lived up to his hard-earned reputation as the tragedy King, Suchitra, conveying thousands of emotions through her big beautiful eyes, body language and little gestures, lived the character of Parvati (Paro) and didn’t allow the thespian to steal even a single scene.
According to Rinki Bhatacharaya, daughter of Bimal Roy who had directed Devdas, Suchitra Sen was born to play Parvati: “I can’t think of any other actor in the role of Paro. My father wanted Paro with a quintessentially Bengali look which she had to the T.”
Another film critic said, “Her rendition of Paro remains a supremely eloquent cinematic essay in understated and poignant pathos.”
Raj Khosla’s Bombai Ka Babu (1960), supposedly inspired by a 1909 short story by O. Henry, “A Double-Dyed Deceiver”, narrated a bold and unusual story with a screenplay by the renowned Punjabi writer Rajendra Singh Bedi. It offered ample scope for Suchitra and Dev Anand to display their talent through complex and multilayered characters.
In Asit Sen’s Mamta, the Hindi version of the National Award-winning Bengali film Uttar Falguni, Suchitra Sen was pitted against the Veteran Ashok Kumar, and the dashing and debonair Dharmendra. She played a double role of mother and daughter, Devyani and Suparna, and gave superbly evocative performances. As the mother lives two lives—a courtesan and a loving mother—Suchitra, in fact, portrayed three characters in this film. She was nominated for Filmfare’s best actress award but lost out to Waheeda Rehman for her role in Guide.
In Gulzar’s Aandhi, as the feisty and ambitious politician Aarti Devi for whom political priorities took precedence over family needs, Suchitra Sen gave arguably the finest performance of her life. Her hairdo, with a white plait in the middle, bore some resemblance to Indira Gandhi. There were allegedly shades of Mrs. Gandhi’s persona in that character, creating a controversy that led to a ban on the film and its withdrawal from the Moscow Film Festival. Opposite Sanjeev Kumar, Suchitra conveyed various shades of the character in a very subtle manner.
Suchitra’s body of work in Bengali films was far greater than her seven films in Hindi. In Deep Jwele Jaai (1959) as psychiatric nurse who looks after a patient with great care but in the end loses her own sanity, Suchitra gave a moving performance. It was remade in Hindi with the title Khamoshi, featuring Waheeda Rehman and Rajesh Khanna. In Saptapadi (1961), based on Tara Shankar Bandhopadhyay’s novel of the same title, Suchitra portrayed the role of an Anglo-Indian medical student who joins the Red Cross as a nurse and earns accolades for her services.
In Saat Paake Bandha (1963), an adaptation of Asutosh Mukherjee’s novel directed by Ajoy Kar, Suchitra portrays the character of a young lady who can’t stop her mother from interfering in her married life, which eventually leads to her separation. She delineated the complex emotions sublimely and made them look believable. She won the Best actress award for this film at the Moscow International Film Festival, the first Indian actor to do so. Uttar Phalguni, a highly-rated film of Sen’s, received both critical acclaim and commercial success.
Several of her films with Uttam Kumar were based on Indian/foreign classics and Hollywood masterpieces. Harano Sur was based on James Hilton’s novel Random Harvest; Chandranath on Sharat Babu’s novel of the same title; Suryatoran inspired by Warner Brother’s Hollywood flick The Fountainhead; and Chaowa Paowa on Clark Gable-Colbert starrer It Happened One Night.
She won four “Best Actress” awards from the Bengal Film Journalists Association, for Saptapadi, Uttar Falguni, Alo Amar Alo and Aandhi; a regional Filmfare award for Priya Bandhabi; but surprisingly, no award for the unforgettable Devdas. She was awarded the Padma Shri (though she deserved a Padma Bhushan), and was honoured with the Bengal Bhushan Lifetime Award & Fimfare’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” (posthumously).
The noted cinema chronicler Isaq Mujawar once said about Suchitra Sen, “She came like a whiff of fresh air to Mumbai’s film world, blending glamour with grace.”
Another critic aptly sums up the matter: “Suchitra Sen redefined stardom in a way that few actors have done, combining understated sensuality, feminine charm and emotive force and a no-nonsense gravitas to carve out a persona that has never been matched, let alone surpassed in Indian cinema.”
The author is a former diplomat