Suchitra Sen, a superstar of Bengali cinema who became a recluse for over three decades after she quit acting, was born Rama Dasgupta on 6 April 1931 in East Bengal (now Bangladesh).
Her father, Karunamoy Dasgupta, was the headmaster of a school in what is now the Pabna district of Bangladesh. She was the fifth child of Karunamoy and his wife Indira Devi.
The young Rama studied in Pabna till the family shifted to West Bengal because of the Partition. In 1947, she married Dibanath Sen, the son of Adinath Sen, a rich businessman. Suchitra and Dibanath’s daughter Moon Moon Sen also became an actress. Suchitra Sen seemed to be initially interested in singing and auditioned as a playback singer in 1951. But director Sukumar Dasgupta offered her a role. The name ‘Suchitra’ was reportedly given to her by Sukumar’s assistant director Nitish Roy.
The greatest Bengali onscreen pair
The first film she acted in was Sesh Kothay but it remained incomplete. The 1953 film Sat Number Kayedi, in which she appeared opposite Samar Roy, was her first film to be screened at a theatre. In the same year her other films such as Kajari and Bhagaban Sri Krishna Chaitanya were released. But it was in the Nirmal Dey-directed Sade Chuttar that she first appeared opposite the Bengali film icon Uttam Kumar. The two together would become the most successful star romantic pair of the Bengali film industry.
“[Suchitra] was an all-weather star in Bengali films where her pairing with Uttam Kumar was almost a guarantee of box office success,” Ziya Us Salam wrote in The Hindu in January 2014. “In a career in which she acted in only seven Hindi and 52 Bengali films, she did 30 films with Uttam Kumar. Beginning with ‘Sade Chuttar’ in 1953 to ‘Priya Bandhobi’ in 1975, the two were regarded as Radha-Krishna. Sen usually played a fiery character and Kumar a subdued one in their films together. It was a radical departure from tradition.”
The other films in which they acted together included Shapmochon, Sagarika, Harano Sur, Indrani and Saptapadi. In a tribute to the actress after her death, The Indian Express noted: “The iconic bike sequence of . . . [Saptapadi] became a template for most Bengali romantic songs. Made during the height of the Uttam-Suchitra wave, the film is about the doomed romance of a Bengali Brahmin boy and a Christian girl.”
Her other memorable roles include that of a hospital nurse in the 1959 film Deep Jwele Jaai, and a dual role of a courtesan and lawyer in the 1963 film Uttar Falguni.
Paro and Arti Devi
Though Suchitra acted in only a few Hindi films, she made a strong impression on the Hindi film audience, many of whom were not familiar with her large body of work in Bengali cinema. Her two most memorable Hindi film roles were perhaps as Paro in Bimal Roy’s 1955 classic Devdas and as Arti Devi in Gulzar’s 1975 film Aandhi, said to be inspired by the life and personality of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The film was — not unpredictably — banned, albeit not for long. Gulzar claimed it was not based on Indira Gandhi’s life, but after she lost the next elections, he admitted that it was indeed made with “Indira Gandhi in mind”. The character of Sanjeev Kumar was loosely based on Feroze Gandhi.
After 1980, Suchitra Sen steadily, almost obsessively, avoided the public gaze. So much so, she even refused to come in person to accept the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2005, for that meant coming out in the open. “A shrewd and canny woman, Suchitra understood the transition and found seclusion as the best way to be remembered as a diva forever in full bloom . . . .[Her] determination to be alone won till the end, so much so that she died almost behind a veil, and was taken to the crematorium in a tightly closed coffin,” the journalist Sumit Mitra wrote in the Outlook magazine.
Hospitalised after a lung infection, Suchitra Sen died on 17 January 2014 following a heart attack. She was 82, but there is almost no visual record of her being old.
Describing the place Suchitra Sen, known as the “Greta Garbo” of Indian cinema, has in the Bengali imagination, Shamik Bag wrote in the Mint in January 2014: “She has, with predictable regularity, been seen through her films. There are no Bengali households which could evade her sway. Family members, across generations, gather around television screens when her films are shown — Sen is the object of awe for grandmothers, aspiration for mothers and ambition, still, for young daughters.”
Also on this day:
1956 — Dilip Vengsarkar, Indian cricketer, was born
2011 — Sujatha, Indian film actress, passed away