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Article Bengali Hindi

Suchitra Sen, the 'Mahanayika' who powered woman-centric films 60 years ago

Suchitra Sen, who would have been 90 today, was one of those rare actresses whose star power could not just match but eclipse that of many of her male co-stars.

Smita Banerjee

Often described as the dream woman star or only woman superstar, Bengali cinema's Greta Garbo, Suchitra Sen (1931–2014), earned other sobriquets as well in her career from 1950 to the late 1970s.

Hailing from Pabna district of Bengal (now in Bangladesh), Suchitra Sen started her career in 1949 with a few forgettable flops and faced flak for her guttural east Bengal dialect, the 'Bangal' pronunciation that she struggled with.

Lampooned and made the butt of chauvinistic jokes, she nevertheless persisted and was noticed in Sare Chuattar (1953) opposite another rising young star named Uttam Kumar in an ensemble cast. The film was a runaway hit.

Their pairing got a further boost with Agni Pariksha (1954), a film that cemented their status as the most popular screen couple of Bengali cinema of the day. So popular were they that from Agni Pariksha to Chawa Pawa (1959), as many as 22 of the 30 films in which they were cast as the leading pair were made in the decade of the 1950s.

While Sen is mostly remembered for her romantic pairing with Uttam Kumar, she also secured her status as a powerful actress with some of the more fascinating woman-centric films of those times which rode on her star status and where the male leads were secondary. Films like Deep Jweley Jai (1959), Hospital (1960), Smriti Tuku Thak (1960), Uttar Falguni (1963), Saat Pake Bandha (1963), Sandhya Deeper Sikha (1964), Megh Kaalo (1970) and Fariyad (1971) were among the big hits of her career through the 1960s and 1970s and were not dependent on her charismatic pairing with Uttam Kumar.

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What many outside Bengal may not know is that Suchitra Sen was the first leading lady from India to win an international award for her performance as a divorced woman in Ajay Kar's Saat Pake Bandha opposite the much younger Soumitra Chatterjee at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1962.

Interestingly, despite her accomplishments, Suchitra Sen has occupied a somewhat marginalized position in the intellectual firmament of the Bengali film fraternity. Many voices in her own time were openly derisive and scathingly critical of her mass appeal and commercial star power. The Moscow award added heft to her stature in the industry.

Sen also won several Filmfare and Bengal Film Journalists Association awards. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1972. She refused to accept the Dadasaheb Phalke award, Indian cinema's highest accolade, as she had been in self-imposed seclusion since 1978 except for a few public appearances. Even in death (on 17 January 2014), she remained in seclusion; though she was accorded a state funeral, her body was carried in a covered cortege as chief minister Mamta Banerjee walked along with family members to the cremation ground.

Suchitra Sen in Bimal Roy's Devdas (1955)

Sen is also little known outside Bengal, as she did very few films in Bombay. Her casting as Paro in Bimal Roy’s adaptation of Devdas (1955), opposite Dilip Kumar, introduced her to the Bombay film industry, but Champakali (1957), Musafir (1957), Sarhad (1960), Bombai Ka Babu (1960), Mamta (1966) and Aandhi (1975) are the only other Hindi films she acted in.

Champakali with Bharat Bhushan and Sarhad with Dev Anand fared poorly at the box office. But the other films were big successes and garnered her a measure of acclaim and lasting friendships in the Hindi industry. Also, two of her very successful Bengali films, Deep Jweley Jai and Saat Pake Bandha, were remade in Hindi with different artistes as Khamoshi (1969) and Kora Kagaz (1974).

Some of Sen's Hindi film roles also capitalized on the aspect of the strong, independent woman for which she had made a name in Bengali cinema. Her sensuous, charismatic and photogenic screen presence was captured in luminous black-and-white frames in Bombai Ka Babu with its ambivalent plot centred on the incestuous attraction of her character for Dev Anand. The songs were big hits as was her dancing, which was markedly different from her roles in Bengali cinema.

Her role as the woman politician Arti Devi in Gulzar’s Aandhi, opposite the brooding Sanjeev Kumar playing her estranged husband, was much appreciated but controversial, given the strong suggestion of similarities with then prime minister Indira Gandhi. The film brought Sen a nomination for the Filmfare award for Best Actress though she did not win it. Sanjeev Kumar won the statuette for Best Actor. The film was banned during the Emergency and could only get a proper theatrical release after the Emergency was lifted and the Janata Party came to power.

Sen's Bombay sojourns also resulted in well-publicized articles and mentions of her friendships with some of her leading men, in particular Dev Anand and Sanjeev Kumar. Magazines carried publicity shots of Sen and the stylish Dev Anand chatting and laughing during shooting and other public appearances. Since Sen was already married and even had a daughter, Moon Moon Sen, her star image was always predicated along the uneasy boundaries of the screen and the private lives that stars inhabited in the pre-social media landscape. The Aandhi phase saw many articles commenting on Sanjeev Kumar being smitten by the charms of the Bengali diva and his Calcutta visits became occasions for suggestive articles in Bengali film magazines.

Sen, however, navigated her stardom with aplomb, capitalizing on her photogenic screen presence and her ability to commandeer the frame, ably assisted by the dexterous cinematography of the camerapersons and directors who were able to use the black-and-white technology of the day to its full cinematic potential. Her glamorous appearance, statement jewellery and heavily made-up look all added to her star power and fan following.

The deeply desirable screen beauty had her fair share of critical appraisal, yet that simply added to her star appeal. After retirement, too, she continued to live in the interstices of nostalgic memorialization through other appearances, particularly her easily recognizable profile captured in a series of Radha-inspired paintings by the eminent portrait painter Suhas Roy in the 1990s.

Suchitra Sen continues to be present in many avatars even today, most notably in numerous populist biographies that keep appearing with unfailing regularity, similar to the kind of star accolades reserved for her most famous co-star, Uttam Kumar.

Smita Banerjee is associate professor at Delhi University. She has a doctorate in Cinema Studies and is also interested in post-colonial and feminist studies.