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Suchitra Sen, the reclusive legend

 | January 14, 2014

Often described as the Indian Greta Garbo, Sen has always evoked curiosity about her privacy.


Suchitra Sen now lies ill in a Kolkata hospital. The 82-year-old actress acted mostly in Bengali films, a few in Hindi with Aandhi hitting the screens in 1975. Ironically, that was the year of the draconian Emergency in India, imposed by the country’s “Iron Lady”, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Even more ironical, Sen played a politician in Aandhi, a politician modelled on Gandhi herself with Sanjeev Kumar essaying the Bengali doe-eyed beauty’s estranged screen husband. The movie had great music (Gulzar-R.D. Burman-Lata-Kishore), and Sen’s role was to have gone to Vyjayanthimala; she refused as she was not comfortable playing it.

Aandhi could not get a proper theatrical exhibition in 1975, but it did well after the Janata Party came to power a couple of years later when Gandhi faced a terrible electoral defeat – clearly a vote against the Emergency. Although the film did very well, Sen did only two more movies after this, both in Bengali, the last being Pronoy Pasha in 1978.

She quite acting and went into a reclusive state, refusing to meet anybody other than her daughter, Moon Moon Sen, and some close members of her family. Nobody knows why she did this, and there was a time when I used to meet Moon Moon often in Kolkata, even visiting her home, but she could never tell me why her mother gave it all up.

And in all those years that I went to Moon Moon’s home, I never once saw Suchitra, who lived in another house, separated by miles of Kolkata’s concrete.

Often described as the Indian Greta Garbo – with the Swedish beauty too stepping down at the pinnacle of her career and leading the life of a recluse for 50 years before she died in 1990 aged 84 – Sen has always evoked curiosity about her privacy.

Derek Malcolm, the renowned British movie critic, once tried explaining Garbo’s reclusiveness in relation to Suchitra’s: “There was an element of calculation in the way Garbo severed her relationship with journalists. She did not like the Press. She kept her private life private. She was bisexual and had a lot of affairs with women at a time this could not be made public. She used one of the tricks people have forgotten and which today’s Hollywood people could learn. She realised the less she gave interviews and the more she remained intensely private, the more it made people want her and the more mysterious she became.”

But this may not quite apply in the case of Sen.  What can be possibly truer in the case of the Bengali star is what the British academic and author of a number of books on Hindi cinema, Rachel Dwyer, had to say: “There may be two major reasons,” she averred. “One is that some stars, usually very beautiful, hate seeing themselves grow old. Some probably find it harder than the rest of us to deal with these changes. However, others may want to escape their own beauty and the image of them created by publicity in the media or made by their studios and the public’s concept of them created by the roles and the way they were presented in the films themselves. Some may want to conceal something such as their private lives or their sexuality.”

We know that Garbo had something to hide from the public which worshipped her.

In the case of Suchitra,  we really do not know why she retired from the world, although as her granddaughter (and Moon Moon’s daughter), the excellent but oft-neglected actress, Raima, once said, her grandmother used to go shopping with them, hiding behind huge dark glasses. “Even then people would recognise her and chase her for autographs”. So, Suchitra was not a total recluse as some would have imagined her to be.

That Suchitra was iconic in Bengal (her fame did not quite spread outside) is an undeniable fact. People revered her (though it did not take on the kind of mad revellery which one sees in the case of Tamil Nadu’s Rajnikanth, Kamal Hassan and a few others).

But I have always had my reservations about Suchitra’s acting. Malcolm, who simply adored Sen (he has always had a soft corner for Bengali cinema having introduced Ray in Britain after he was discovered at Cannes in 1956 with Pather Panchali), once commented:  “She was very, very beautiful. She had this ‘still’ quality. She did not need to do a lot of ‘acting’.” The last sentence had Malcolm the critic talking, and therein lay the truth.

Sen was rather wooden, unlike Bollywood’s Madhubala or Nutan or Waheeda or Vyjayanthimala or Rekha. Probably, Suchitra’s boxoffice success came from what many saw in her, and easily, her ethereal beauty.

Also a large part of her glory came from the boxoffice Bengali hits she managed to give with the other Bengali legend, Uttam Kumar. While Kumar even acted in one of Ray’s movies, Nayak (after which there was a positive improvement in his style and substance), Sen never was part of Satyajit’s repertoire. She refused Ray’s Chaudhurani, because she did not have the dates. (Incidentally, Ray never made the film!) Maybe a Ray work did not matter to her: Sen’s beauty was her ticket to stardom and success.

This is the case not just with Bengal, but the whole of India -– with the cinema-going public getting hooked on the style and image of a star rather than his or her performing ability.

Rajnikanth’s flick of the cigarette gets his fans delirious, and when Tamil actor Vijay walks into the frame looking down with his head cocked to a side, two college girls sitting beside me in a theatre watching Jilla, blew my eardrum away by their shrieks.

And, pray, why is Aishwarya Rai so immensely popular? She is gorgeously beautiful, but quite frankly, a rank bad actress. Yet, the cameras at Cannes crazily click away as she steps on the Red Carpet.

This is not to entirely deny Suchitra Sen her due on the screen. But, but, I would any day say that one of her two granddaughters, Raima, is a far greater actress than Suchitra was. But Raima continues to be largely ignored, and this is a real pity. I am sure if Suchitra were to read this column, she would not but be happy about what I think about Raima.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at [email protected]


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