indian cinema heritage foundation

A Star Like No Other

06 Apr, 2020 | Short Features by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri
Suchitra Sen. Image Courtesy: Filmfare June 19 1970

Rahen na rahen hum – how prescient the words have proved for the actor on which they were picturized. Fifty-four years after the film (Mamta, 1966), and over forty years after her final film appearance in Pronoy Pasha (1978), the ‘legend and enigma’ of Suchitra Sen endures. 

It is impossible to define the reasons behind stardom of this magnitude. What is it the x-factor that makes a star? For instance, it has always intrigued me why Uttam Kumar’s career in Hindi cinema has never received the kind of attention Suchitra Sen’s has. Both battled the same issues with the language. Both had the same sort of trajectory: one unambiguous hit – Uttam Kumar (Amanush) and Suchitra (Aandhi) – among other indifferent performers. Yet, Suchitra Sen has always had greater recall. 

Fifty-four years after the film (Mamta, 1966), and over forty years after her final film appearance in Pronoy Pasha (1978), the ‘legend and enigma’ of Suchitra Sen endures. 
A number of factors came together to make Suchitra Sen’s mega-stardom unique in the annals of Bengali cinema. One, of course, was her on-screen partnership with Uttam Kumar – 30 of the 60-odd films she acted in were opposite Uttam Kumar, each as big a box-office success as the other. As Satyajit Ray said, ‘This was a romantic team which for durability and width of acceptance had few equals in world cinema.’ Madhabi Mukherjee, a contemporary, and arguably one of Bengali cinema’s finest actors, likened them to ‘Radha-Krishna on the silver screen’. 
A booklet cover of Indrani (1958) from the Cinemaazi archives
 
A number of factors came together to make Suchitra Sen’s mega-stardom unique in the annals of Bengali cinema. One, of course, was her on-screen partnership with Uttam Kumar – 30 of the 60-odd films she acted in were opposite Uttam Kumar, each as big a box-office success as the other.
Also, in an era not quite known for heroine-oriented films, Suchitra Sen starred in a surprisingly large number where she drove the narrative. Turning the given box-office wisdom of the era on its head, she was never an appendage on screen – even in her films with Uttam Kumar, she got equal billing. Not only that, she was also paid more than the ‘hero’ opposite her and often guaranteed a film’s commercial success. 
 
Suchitra Sen featured on the song booklet of Uttar Phalguni (1963) from the Cinemaazi archives
Turning the given box-office wisdom of the era on its head, she was never an appendage on screen – even in her films with Uttam Kumar, she got equal billing. Not only that, she was also paid more than the ‘hero’ opposite her and often guaranteed a film’s commercial success. 
Even more interestingly, Sen was a career woman in most of her celebrated films. Consider, for example, Deep Jwele Jai (1959). Based on Ashutosh Mukherjee’s story Nurse Mitra, the film explores the relationship between a nurse and a patient entrusted to her care. Suchitra Sen is brilliant as a psychiatric nurse in a mental hospital who falls in love with a patient and slowly loses her own sanity. Jyoti Laha and Anil Gupta’s black-and-white cinematography pioneered some of the tropes that filmmakers would later use to frame the actress: magnificent close-ups, backlit with a halo around her.
 
Deep Jwele Jai (1959). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives


Then there was Saptapadi (1961), probably her most celebrated performance. In a testimony to her character’s enduring appeal, an opinion poll in the mid-1990s asked contemporary actresses to name their dream role. Every actress polled wanted to play the character of Rina Brown in Saptapadi. Sen plays an Anglo-Indian medical student who becomes a nurse with the Red Cross, portraying the whole range from a feisty young college student to an alcoholic wreck. Though this is considered a high point in the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen partnership, halfway through the shoot, Suchitra Sen announced that she would not work in it, reportedly upset about the priority of names of actors appearing in the credits.
 
Saptapadi (1961). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives.
In a testimony to her character’s enduring appeal, an opinion poll in the mid-1990s asked contemporary actresses to name their dream role. Every actress polled wanted to play the character of Rina Brown in Saptapadi.
In Saat Paake Bandha (1963), directed by Ajoy Kar, and adapted from a novel by Ashutosh Mukherjee, scripted by Nripendra Krishna Chatterjee, Suchitra Sen again plays a woman with a mind of her own, unwilling to bow to patriarchal diktats, even if it came at great personal costs. At the same time, she is not strong enough to stop her mother from interfering in her married life, which ultimately wreaks havoc. For a film of the era, this broke new ground, doing away with the mandatory happily ever after ending while also being narrated almost entirely from ‘the perspective of a woman’. As Shoma Chatterji mentions in her book on the star, The Legend and the Enigma. ‘She is the storyteller, the voiceover, the anchor and the central character. The first seventeen minutes of this 125-minute film are dominated by Archana alone.’ The film fetched Suchitra Sen the Best Actress Award at the Moscow Film Festival. Among Indian actors, only Nargis before her had received an international award – for Mother India at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. 
 
Saat Paake Bandha (1963). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
In Saat Paake Bandha (1963), directed by Ajoy Kar, and adapted from a novel by Ashutosh Mukherjee, scripted by Nripendra Krishna Chatterjee, Suchitra Sen again plays a woman with a mind of her own, unwilling to bow to patriarchal diktats, even if it came at great personal costs.
Another landmark film of the actor, again providing her with a role more substantial than the male star’s was Uttar Phalguni (1963), remade as Mamta in Hindi. This is one of two films in which the actress played a double role, the other being Smritituku Thaak. In Uttar Phalguni, she plays mother and daughter. The mother’s role in itself has two separate facets: Debjani, who is forced to marry a rascal not averse to pimping her, and Pannabai, a courtesan, after she runs away from her husband. Years later, her daughter Suparna, a successful lawyer, takes up the task of defending her in court. Pannabai has shot dead her husband who had returned to blackmail her by revealing her secret to Suparna who is unaware that Pannabai is her mother. 
 
A booklet cover of Uttar Phalguni (1963) from the Cinemaazi archives
Another landmark film of the actor, again providing her with a role more substantial than the male star’s was Uttar Phalguni (1963), remade as Mamta in Hindi.
Aandhi (1975) is of course the one film that has given Suchitra Sen her pan-Indian recall. Sen acted in seven Hindi films – Devdas (1955), Champakali (1957), Musafir (1957), Sarhad (1960), Bombai Ka Babu (1960), Mamta (1966) and Aandhi (1975). Despite well-appreciated performances in Devdas and Bombai Ka Babu, it is Aandhi on which Suchitra Sen’s reputation in Hindi cinema primarily rests. The film again offers her a role that was off-the-beaten-track for women in the era: an ambitious politician who prioritizes her career over her marriage and family.  
 
Bombai Ka Babu (1960). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives


Suchitra Sen played a working woman in many of her others films like Sabar Uparey (1955), Harano Sur (1957), Indrani (1958), Hospital (1960), Haar Mana Haar (1972). This gave her an agency that most actresses of the era never had. Also, in a profession notoriously unforgiving to married women, Suchitra Sen’s career in cinema began after her marriage. ‘In her embodiment of an unparalleled agency, she was distinct from the suffering women of Sarat Chandra, as well as the overtly sexualised, erotic object of the contemporary Bollywood film,’ wrote Sharmistha Gooptu in her book Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation.
 
Harano Sur (1957). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
Suchitra Sen epitomized the new Bengali bhadramahila of the 1950s, career-oriented, urbane and sophisticated, who could hold her own in modern society.

Unlike, her contemporaries like Uttam Kumar, Madhabi Mukherjee and Supriya Devi who found their cinematic highs in the films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, Suchitra never ventured out of the mainstream cinema mould. She refused Satyajit Ray’s offer to cast her in an adaptation of the Bengali novel Devi Chaudhurani as also Raj Kapoor.

One of the reasons for her enduring enigma is her complete withdrawal from public life in the wake of the dismal failure of Pronoy Pasha (1978). (One unknown trivia pertaining to this is that it stalled one of Rajesh Khanna’s early films, Nati Binodini.) Not even the Dadasaheb Phalke Award could bring her out of seclusion. In the last decades of her life, she become closely associated with the Ramakrishna Mission. As Shoma Chaterji narrates, ‘Once, author Kana Bosu-Misra called her up. “They are telecasting Deep Jwele Jai on the small screen. What a brilliant performance you have given in the film,” she said. The voice at the other end of the line kept quiet for a few moments, and then said, “That is the actress Suchitra Sen, that is not me at all… I did all that once upon a time for my bread and butter. Today, my entire world is filled with thoughts of Thakur (Ramakrishna).”’

Suchitra Sen epitomized the new Bengali bhadramahila of the 1950s, career-oriented, urbane and sophisticated, who could hold her own in modern society. Despite shunning the limelight in the last three decades of her life, the spell she cast on the Bengali psyche endures, so much so that even now, the best compliment one can pay a Bengali woman is to tell her ‘You look a bit like Suchitra’.
 

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About the Author

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is either an 'accidental' editor who strayed into publishing from a career in finance and accounts or an 'accidental' finance person who found his calling in publishing. He studied commerce and after about a decade in finance and accounts, he left it for good. He did a course in film, television and journalism from the Xavier's Institute of Mass Communication, Mumbai, after which he launched a film magazine of his own called Lights Camera Action. As executive editor at HarperCollins Publishers India, he helped launch what came to be regarded as the go-to cinema, music and culture list in Indian publishing. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema and the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. He also commissioned and edited some of India's leading authors like Gulzar, Manu Joseph, Kiran Nagarkar, Arun Shourie and worked out co-pub arrangements with the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives, apart from publishing a number of first-time authors in cinema whose books went on to become best-sellers. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has been a regular contributor to Anupama Chopra's online magazine Film Companion. He is also a published author, with two books to his credit: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin Books). 

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