Suchitra Sen was easily the most popular actress that Bengali Cinema has ever seen. Her ethereal beauty coupled with her phenomenon screen presence and immense box office popularity, particularly her on-screen pairing with the late Uttam Kumar, gave her a legendary cult status in Bengal. She, in fact, created a new image in Bengali Cinema of the articulate if tragic heroine carving out an independence space outside that of family and tradition.
Suchitra was born Roma Dasgupta on April 6, 1931. Her film debut was unfortunately in the unreleased Shesh Kothaimade in 1952 but thankfully for Bengali cinema, the following year saw her act opposite Uttam Kumar for the first time in Sharey Chuattar. The film, an effervescent comedy, was also the breakthrough film of director Nirmal Dey and was a huge hit at the box-office. However, it is today remembered more for launching the pair of Kumar and Sen rather than its own merits, which is a trifle unfair. Sen and Kumar went on to become icons of Bengali romantic melodramas for more than twenty years becoming almost a genre into themselves. Their films were famous for the soft-focus close ups of the stars particularly Sen and lavishly mounted scenes of romance against windswept expanses. poetic sunsets and richly decorated interiors with fluttering curtains and such mnemonic objects as bunches of tube roses etc. Some popular films of the pair include Shap Mochan (1955), Sagarika (1956), Harano Sur (1957), Indrani (1958), Chaowa-Paowa (1959), Saptapadi (1961), Bipasha (1962) and Grihadaha (1967).
Of these, special mention must be made in particular of Harano Sur and Saptapadi, both directed by Ajoy Kar. Harano Sur, inspired by the Ronald Colman-Greer Garson melodrama Random Harvest (1942), showcases Uttam-Suchitra at their peak of their delirious romanticism. In Saptapadi, a romance set against the backdrop of World War II, even today, every actress in comtemporary Bengali cinema considers the role of the Anglo-Indian Rina Brown essayed by Suchitra Sen as her dream role.
One of Suchitra’s best known performances was in Asit Sen’s Deep Jele Jai (1959). She played Radha, a hospital nurse employed by a progressive psychiatrist, Pahari 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. Asit Sen remade the film in Hindi as Khamoshi with Waheeda Rehman in the Suchitra Sen role and good though Waheeda is, Suchitra’s performance is iconic.
Suchitra’s other landmark film with Asit Sen was Uttar Falguni (1963). Suchitra carries the film single-handedly all on her own in the dual role of a courtesan Pannabai and her daughter Suparna, a lawyer. In particular, she is brilliant as Pannabai, bringing much poise, grace and dignity in the role of a fallen woman determined to see her daughter grow up in a good,clean environment. Suchitra as Pannabai is able to connect directly with the viewer and make him or her feel deeply for all that she goes through the course of the film thus giving her death at the end of the film a solid, emotional wallop.
But perhaps Suchitra’s biggest histrionic triumph was Saat Pake Bandha (1963). She played Archana who tries to overcome her domineering and snobbish mother (powerfully played by veteran Chhaya Devi) by marrying Sukhendu a serious University Lecturer played by Soumitra Chatterjee. However the mother continues to interfere reminding her son-in-law of his poverty. Suffering from divided loyalties, Archana’s problems are aggravated when Sukhendu insists she sever all ties with her mother. Archana separates from Sukhendu and stays independently completing her studies. When she finally accepts her wifely duties and returns home it is too late as Sukhendu has resigned and gone abroad. Suchitra Sen’s sensitively etched and finely nuanced performance won her the Best Actress Award at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1963 and the film itself was the basis for Kora Kagaz (1974) starring Jaya Bhadhuri in the Suchitra Sen role.
While her supremacy in Bengal was unquestioned, Suchitra’s forays into Hindi Cinema were far too infrequent and comparatively less successful. It is hard to fathom the reason for this. While her screen presence in her Hindi films was as stunning as ever, perhaps because of language problems, some of her performances look a trifle stilted and reined in. Her first Hindi film was Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) where she played Parvati to Dilip Kumar’s Devdas. It was her finely honed performance that gave the film its necessary tone of lofty virtue, noble sacrifice and loyal devotion. Musafir (1957), Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s episodic film of marriage, birth and death and Champakali (1957) failed to set the box-office alight and even her most uninhibited Hindi film performance in Bombai ka Babu (1960) opposite Dev Anand was plagued by troubles between her and the director, Raj Khosla. Mamta (1966), based on Uttar Falguni by the same director Asit Sen, saw her successfully repeat the dual role and she made a huge impact with Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) playing a powerful woman politician whose marriage had broken up since her husband, Sanjeev Kumar, opposed her having a career after marriage. Aandhi however ran into controversy due to her role which was said to be based on Indira Gandhi and was even banned for a while.
Suchitra Sen retired from the screen in 1978 and has since went into almost Greta Garbo like seclusion. A devotee of Ramakrishna Mission, she immersed herself in meditation and prayer. Her outdoor visits were mainly confined to Belur Math, the headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission.
Suffering from a lung infection, Suchitra Sen was hospitalized on December 23rd, 2013. She died on January 17, 2014 due to cardiac arrest.
Her daughter Moon Moon Sen and grand daughters Riya and Raima are all actresses as well.