On the sets of Aandhi, Gulzar addressed her as ‘Sir’. To the Bengali film industry, she was ‘Mrs Sen’. Even with Uttam Kumar, with whom she forged a phenomenal professional liaison that lasted 20- odd years, she wasn’t exactly on back-slapping terms.
Suchitra Sen, daughter of a school headmaster and wife of a wealthy entrepreneur’s son, was anything but just another movie star. A combination of ethereal charm and unwavering gravitas, Suchitra commanded awe and respect. Her mystique was only reinforced when she pulled out of the industry in the late 1970s.
In 1980, Uttam Kumar’s funeral was one of the last occasions on which Suchitra was seen in public. Without its two brightest stars, the Bengali film industry went into a tailspin that took decades to reverse.
She was Indian cinema’s first Power Woman since Devika Rani. She redefined movie stardom and box office clout in a way that few film actors, Indian or otherwise, have done before or since. Her fans adored her, but could do so only from a blurry distance. Thanks to the screen image she cultivated, she was unattainable — the ultimate in feminine allure, both hauntingly beautiful and sublimely steady. She wasn’t a cerebral actress. But so strong were her instincts that she rarely, if ever, missed a histrionic trick in fleshing out the minutest psychological nuances of the strong women she played.
She employed every available tactic — a fixed set of mannerisms, facial outlines accentuated by flawless makeup and the expressive power of kohl-lined eyes — to underline emotions and connect with the audience. It is understandable why her timeless appeal is so inextricably linked to the figures she brought alive on the screen.
In Saptapadi, she was the Eurasian Rita Braun. In Uttar Falguni, she played the dual role of a courtesan and her grown-up daughter. Saat Paake Bandha saw her in the role of a married woman torn between her domineering mother and her husband. And in Deep Jwele Jai, she delivered one of her most memorable performances as a mental asylum nurse driven over the edge. In these and several other films, her screen persona was indistinguishable from the flesh-and-blood star. One fed off the other.
Suchitra, born Roma Dasgupta, was barely out of her teens when she became a somewhat reluctant actress. She had moved from her birthplace Pabna (now in Bangladesh) to post-Partition Calcutta to make it as a singer but began to land acting assignments instead. She did not, however, achieve overnight stardom. Her first film was still-born. Her second is barely remembered. But it took the not-so-happily married aspiring star less than half a decade to transform herself into a diva without peer. In an acting career that spanned 26 years — she turned her back on the arclights well before she turned 50 — she achieved as much as, if not more, than any contemporary who worked far longer.
Indian cinema, in the century that it has been around, has seen innumerable romantic pairs that are part of this country’s entertainment folklore. But never has there been a duo quite like Uttam and Suchitra who, together, were a full-fledged genre unto themselves. They were first seen together in the 1953 comedy Sharey Chuattar, but not as a romantic couple.
That distinction belongs to Agni Pareeksha, released the following year. Suchitra was cast as an educated village girl who meets a wealthy young man on a trip to a hill station and falls in love with him despite being married. Agni Pareeksha was the first in a historic series of romantic melodramas that changed the face of Bengali cinema. This film, and a string of Uttam-Suchitra releases, gave the Bengali youth of the era the much-needed sliver of hope that had all but dried up in the aftermath of Partition. But not all of Suchitra’s landmark films were opposite Uttam Kumar. In Deep Jwele Jai, remade in Hindi as Khamoshi, her costar was Basanta Chowdhury, while Saat Paake Bandha, which transmuted in Hindi into Kora Kaagaz, had Soumitra Chatterjee.
Suchitra acted in only a handful of Hindi-language films, but at least three of them are regarded as all-time classics — Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) with Dilip Kumar, Asit Sen’s Mamta (1966) with Dharmendra and Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) with Sanjeev Kumar. She was also seen opposite Dev Anand in Raj Khosla’s Bambai Ka Babu (1960) and in the Ritwik Ghatak-scripted Musafir, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s directorial venture.
Unlike Madhabi Mukherjee, Supriya Chowdhury, Aparna Sen and Sharmila Tagore, Suchitra never figured in the cinematic universe of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. In an orbit of her own, she carved a singular niche that has never been matched.
Chatterjee is an independent film critic based in New Delhi