Asit Sen was the director of such well known films as Mamta (1966), Anokhi Raat (1968), Khamoshi (1969) and Safar (1970) in Hindi and Chalachal (1956), Deep Jele Jai (1959), Swaralipi (1961) and Uttar Falguni (1963) in Bengali.
Asit Sen was born in Dhaka – now in Bangladesh – on September 24, 1922. Showing a keen interest in photography, he joined films as a camera assistant to DK Mehta before assisting his uncle, the then noted cameraman Ramananda Sengupta on Purbaraag (1947). He then joined Gandhiji’s entourage for a month, shooting an independent documentary on 16mm covering Gandhiji’s tour of Noakhali and Patna. He made his directorial debut in the Assamese Film Biplabi (1948). The film was about a young radical who sacrifices his life for the country. Several Assamese Films, often featuring former IPTA members broached the theme of radical martyrdom and nationalism but Biplabi remained a standard work in the genre for many a year to come. Ironically, Sen went uncredited for the film following a dispute with the producers over its ending!
Sen ran a photographic studio while studying Hollywood films extensively particularly the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Danny Kaye, often persuading the managers of theatres in Calcutta to run specific reels for him! He made a major splash with his very first film in Bengali, Chalachal (1956). The film starring Arundhati Devi was a box office hit. The director and actress reunited with another memorable film – Panchatapa (1957). However, among his Bengali films, Sen would always be associated with two landmark Suchitra Sen starrers – Deep Jele Jai and Uttar Falguni.
In Deep Jele Jai, Suchitra plays Radha, a hospital nurse employed by a progressive psychiatrist, Pahadi Sanyal, and is expected to develop a personal relationship with male patients as part of their therapy. Sanyal diagnoses the hero, Basanta Choudhury, as having an unresolved Oedipal dilemma – the inevitable consequence for men denied a nurturing woman. He orders Radha to play the role though she is hesitant as earlier in a similar case she had fallen in love with the patient. She finally agrees and bears up to Choudhury’s violence, impersonates his mother, sings his poetic compositions and in the process falls in love yet again. In the end even as she brings about his cure, she suffers a nervous breakdown. The film is full of beautiful often partly lit close ups of Sen which set the tone of the film and is aided by a mesmerizing performance by her. Hemanta Mukherjee’s music includes the haunting Ei Raat Tomar Aamar.
Uttar Falguni sees Suchitra carrying the film on her shoulders in the double role of mother and daughter – a Thumri singing courtesan and an emancipated lawyer who defends her when the former goes on trial for shooting her drunken husband. The film makes extensive use of Asit Sen’s characteristic panning shots and lap dissolves as narrative bridges particularly in the sequence of the daughter growing up. Sen remade the film in Hindi as Mamta (1966) again starring Suchitra. The film along with Bombai ka Babu (1960) and Aandhi (1975) represents some the best work that Suchitra did in Hindi films, where otherwise she often came across as stilted and uneasy.
While being a technically accomplished Director, Sen never used flashy technique to tell his stories. He always maintained that if you have to resort to technical gimmickery to prop up your film, it means you have nothing of substance to say! To him filmmaking was about sharing emotions, about pain. According to him if you haven’t known pain, how can you call yourself a filmmaker!? In fact much of Asit Sen’s style as a filmmaker was in the vein of Bimal Roy in its simultaneous assimilation of romantic Bengali literature, Hollywood and neo-realism. (In fact Bimal Roy produced two of his films in Hindi – Parivar (1956), his first Hindi Film and Apradhi Kaun? (1957)). This is most apparent, particularly in the two films he did with Rajesh Khanna, perhaps his two most well known Hindi films – Khamoshi (1969) and Safar (1970).
Khamoshi was a remake of Deep Jele Jai with Waheeda Rehman taking on the Suchitra Sen role. The film, in spite of some good performances particularly Waheeda Rehman’s, superb B & W photography, haunting music by Hemanta Mukherjee (Humne Dekhi Hain Un Ankhon Ki Mahekti Khushboo, Tum Pukar Lo, Woh Shyam Kuch Ajeeb Thi), however failed to make an impact at the box-office and it has to be said here that the Bengali film is the better version of the two. Safar, a remake of Chalachal and starring the top star pairing of the day of Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore, however was a success making it both one of Khanna’s, Tagore’s and Sen’s best ever films.
Thereafter unfortunately, Sen could never reach such highs again. None of his subsequent films came anywhere close to Mamta, Khamoshi or Safar. Bairaag (1976) starring Dilip Kumar in a triple role was a total disaster, ruined, it is said, by Dilip Kumar’s interference and excesses. Sen directed his last film Pratigya in 1985.
Some of Sen’s other films include Sharafat (1970), Annadata (1972), Anari (1975) and Mehndi (1983). He passed away in Kolkata on August 25th, 2001 due to a heart attack.