It is a telling comment on both the 'legend and the enigma' that even forty years after her final film appearance, Pronoy Pasha (1978), Suchitra Sen continues to thrive in the popular imagination, a phenomenon defying description. 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, as one commentator remarked, the best compliment one can pay a Bengali woman is to tell her 'You look a bit like Suchitra'.
What accounts for this appeal? Though it's impossible to define the reasons behind stardom of this magnitude, in Suchitra's case it was a combination of factors. Her association with Uttam Kumar, for one, which is regarded as one of the most successful on-screen partnerships in Indian cinema. Then, in an era not quite known for heroine-oriented films, she consistently starred in films driven solely by her presence – even in her films with Uttam Kumar, she was never a mere appendage but an equal. Her image made for an interesting mix of tradition and modernity whose allure cut across generations.
Interestingly for someone of her calibre she never ventured outside the framework of popular cinema – unlike, say, her contemporaries like Uttam Kumar, Madhabi Mukherjee and Supriya Devi who reached their cinematic highs with filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. In fact, she refused Satyajit Ray's offer to cast her in an adaptation of the Bengali novel Devi Chaudhurani as he wanted her to block her dates and not shoot for another film while it was being made. She is also reported to have refused an offer made by Raj Kapoor because she didn't take to his 'filmi' style of kneeling down on the floor with a bouquet in his hand.
Selecting five best performances in an oeuvre glittering with gems is a tough ask. One criteria that drives my selection here is the fact that in each of these films, Sen is a career woman. In fact, she played a working woman in many of her films like Indrani, Harano Sur, Sabar Uparey, Haar Mana Haar, Hospital, thus giving her an agency denied to most actresses of the era. Also, it bears pointing out that in a profession notoriously unforgiving to married women, Suchitra Sen's career in cinema began after her marriage.
Deep Jwele Jai (1959)
Considered by many as her finest performance, the film, based on Ashutosh Mukherjee's story 'Nurse Mitra', explores the relationship between a nurse and a patient entrusted to her care. As a psychiatric nurse in a mental hospital who falls in love with a patient and slowly loses her own sanity, Suchitra Sen is pure dynamite in a heroine-oriented film, with the climax still counting as one of the most celebrated sequences in popular Bengali cinema. 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. The film was remade in Hindi as Khamoshi (1969) with Waheeda Rehman and Rajesh Khanna.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Bengali film fortnightly Anandalok conducted an opinion poll asking contemporary actresses to name their dream role. The choice was unequivocal: every actress wanted to play the character of Rina Brown in Saptapadi. In a radical departure from her popular image of a sari-wearing Bengali woman, Sen plays an Anglo-Indian medical student who becomes a nurse with the Red Cross. She traverses the entire gamut from a feisty and snobbish young college student to an alcoholic wreck in this adaptation of Jnanpeeth award-winning author Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay's novel of the same name. Considered a high point in the on-screen pairing of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, ironically enough, the film also marked the beginning of a break in their professional relationship as halfway through the shoot, Suchitra Sen, reportedly miffed about the priority of names of actors appearing in the credits, announced that she would not work in it.
Saat Paake Bandha (1963)
Directed by Ajoy Kar, this was an adaption of a novel by Ashutosh Mukherjee, scripted by Nripendra Krishna Chatterjee, who also wrote the screenplays of several hit films starring Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, including Shap Mochan, Ekti Raat, Harano Sur, Indrani, Chaoa-Paoa and Uttar Phalguni. Suchitra Sen plays Archana, a woman who is unable to stop her mother from interfering in her married life, which ultimately leads to her separation from her husband. The film did away not only with the then mandatory 'happily-ever-after' ending, but was also 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, only the second time an Indian actress had received an international award, after Nargis for Mother India at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The Hindi remake of this film, Kora Kagaz, starred Jaya Bhaduri.
Uttar Phalguni (1963)
Uttar Phalguni, remade in Hindi as Mamta (which too starred Suchitra Sen), 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, with the mother's role having two separate dimensions: as Debjani who is forced to marry a rascal not averse to pimping her, and then as a courtesan, Pannabai, after she runs away from her husband. Years later, her daughter Suparna, who is now a successful lawyer, takes up the task of defending her in court after she 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. The three diverse roles in this classic melodrama enable the actor in Suchitra Sen to give free rein to the entire range of histrionics at her disposal. And that one sequence where Hemanta Mukherjee's voice singing Tagore's 'Aguner parashmani' comes on the soundtrack is still capable of bringing a lump to your throat.
Aandhi is without doubt not only Sen's finest Hindi film performance but also ranks among her finest performances ever. In his Bengali book of essays Panta Bhaate, filmmaker Gulzar writes, 'Once, Sohanlal, a producer, decided to make a film with Suchitra Sen… Immediately after we had finished narrating, she started asking me for changes here and there, to make a particular character do certain things and so on. I almost lost my cool and said, "I have written the script after much deliberation. I will not change anything." … Later, J. Omprakash sent for me in connection with directing a film. He said it was based on a story by Sachin Bhowmick – a thriller. And the heroine is Mrs Sen. I suggested, "Well, if you are to make a film with Suchitra Sen, why go for a thriller? You are going to do a film with a heroine of the stature of Suchitra Sen, you must have something extraordinary." I wrote Aandhi as a short story and read it out to him. This time when I met her, she said, "No discussion, no question, I will not ask you anything, whatever you say I'll accept." I told her, smiling, "You will not be able to make any changes or modifications in this film even if you want to, because there are very few characters; and only one female character – yours." Mrs Sen was taken aback, because just like everyone else she had also not realized that it had only one female role. Even the audience did not notice this while viewing the film.'
As the ambitious Aarti, who prioritizes her political career over her family, Suchitra Sen in Aandhi is a class act. Gulzar continues, 'She never used glycerine for a scene that required her to weep. She would only ask for one thing. I had to play these two lines from the song "Tere bina zindagi se": Tum jo kah do toh aaj ki raat chand dubega nahi, raat ko rok lo… She would listen to that and say, "Take the shot".'
After the dismal failure of Pronoy Pasha, Suchitra Sen retired from cinema and retreated from all public appearances. So complete was this withdrawal that she even refused the Dadasaheb Phalke Award just to avoid being seen in public. But as Gulzar writes, 'She was always welcoming of me … Many a time I saw her at her Ballygunge Circular Road house, sitting in the veranda and feeding crows grapes. It was an astonishing sight. The crows used to pick at the grapes from her hand.'
She had left her film days well behind and had become 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)."'