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Remembering Asit Sen through the performances of his stars

Yesterday marked the 99th birth anniversary of the filmmaker who made acclaimed and successful films in Bengali as well as in Hindi.

Roushni Sarkar

Few directors have excelled at making films in two different languages in two separate film industries, understanding the pulse of a regional as well as the national audience.

In a career that spanned more than three decades, director Asit Sen made eight Bengali and 14 Hindi films, which hold a crucial place in the history of Indian cinema for their engaging treatment of larger human crises.

He was also one of the directors who changed the dynamics of male and female leads in mainstream films, bringing women to the forefront and often assigning men supporting roles.

Asit Sen's female leads could have led better: Anniversary special

Apart from receiving a National award for Uttar Falguni (1963) and a Filmfare award for Safar (1970) for his understated yet penetrating style of storytelling, Sen, who had comprehensive knowledge of the use of music in cinema and knew the craft of building immersive moments, extracted some of the best performances from his actors and actresses who were otherwise known for their star personae.

With yesterday marking Sen's 99th birth anniversary, we look at some of the memorable performances in his films which also marked significant moments in the careers of the artistes involved.

Asit Sen made a successful debut as a filmmaker with the Bengali film Chalachal (1956), featuring Arundhati Devi, Asit Baren and Pahari Sanyal. The positive reception the film received eventually saw him remake it in Hindi as Safar (1970), which not only fetched him awards but also brought out different shades of the reigning superstar of Hindi cinema, Rajesh Khanna, as well as of Sharmila Tagore and Feroz Khan, who all deviated from their career graphs to deliver a deeply involving experience.

Tagore and Khanna were still savouring their success as an on-screen romantic pair in Aradhana (1969) when they dropped their glamorous avatars for a minimalistic film (by the standards of that era) that ends on a tragic note. Tagore played the surgeon Neela who marries business tycoon Shekhar (Khan) against her wishes because she is urged to do so by her love interest Avinash (Khanna), who is terminally ill.

Bereft of melodrama (again, by the standards of the day), the narrative expresses the agony of the three characters who are conflicted about whether to follow their hearts or perform their duties. Tagore embodies empathy and the depth of the tragic consequences of her sacrifice with elegance as Neela. While sensing both the love of her life and the possibilities of a blissful marital life slipping away, she gracefully infuses the resolute values of a doctor and the empathy of a true friend in her character.

Khanna, on the other hand, enacts the tragic character with such strength that Avinash eventually only evokes grief, no pity. The actor makes it apparent that Avinash is not afraid to face death — in fact, he sometimes laughs at his fate — and his sacrifice is simply the most realistic solution to a crisis that entangles the three lives.

Shekhar is probably the weaker of the two male leads. Feroz Khan convincingly portrays the vulnerability of his character who fails to take a step back despite sensing the bond between Avinash and Neela, nor does he trust Neela despite her dedication to their marriage. While Avinash tries to make each day before his death meaningful, Shekhar fails to stand up to the challenges life throws at him and eventually ends his life in frustration at his own incompetence and insecurity.

All three artistes put their heart and soul into bringing alive a melancholic shade of love, tinted with loss and death. The tragic ending is saved by the strong characterization of Neela, who, instead of losing the will to live, dedicates her life to medical service.

Along with its brilliant cinematic experience, Safar is remembered for the performances of the lead cast, who outdid themselves in their respective roles.

It is often said that two directors carved out Suchitra Sen’s career as an actress. While Ajay Kar contributed significantly to establishing Uttam Kumar and her as the most celebrated on-screen couple in Bengali cinema, Asit Sen placed the star actress in characters that explored her acting prowess.

Though Suchitra’s first work with Asit Sen saw Uttam Kumar cast opposite her, the popular on-screen pair shared mature chemistry in Jiban Trishna (1957), a film with a strong social undercurrent that poignantly explored the nuances of relationships that often do not come with titles.

In Deep Jweley Jai (1959), Suchitra’s performance as Radha, a nurse in a psychiatric hospital who is encouraged by the doctor to transform herself into the image of a patient’s ideal woman as part of the course of treatment, is tragic and deeply moving. Suchitra excelled as Radha, the nurse who immerses herself in a humanitarian process without foreseeing the consequences. While fitting the image of the patient's ideal woman, she invests her soul and eventually fails to remain in the shoes of a nurse.

Suchitra featured in both Uttar Falguni (1963) and its Hindi remake Mamta (1966), playing the dual role of the ill-fated woman Debjani — who chooses to turn into the courtesan Pannabai to raise her daughter — and Suparna, the daughter. While the actress didn’t have much scope while playing the daughter, she brought grace and dignity to the character of the mother who chooses a stigmatized profession for a noble purpose.

Uttar Falguni review: Suchitra Sen does justice playing mother and daughter in milestone film

While Suchitra’s Hindi accent in the remake has often been criticized, she has done full justice to the roles in both versions with exemplary restraint and economy of expression in her portrayals, elevating the story from a mere tragic tale of sympathy-inducing female victim characters.

The inherent traits of strength and resolution in her portrayals of Radha and Debjani placed Suchitra Sen in a different light from her popular star image.

Khamoshi (1969), the Hindi remake of Deep Jweley Jai, is often lauded for Rajesh Khanna’s performance as the patient, who, instead of recovering from his obsession, gets entangled in his devotion to Radha.

Khanna’s act heightens the film's emotional quotient; but the true star of Khamoshi is Waheeda Rehman, who, despite shifting from Suchitra’s portrayal of a resolute character, masterfully portrays the emotional overflow of a nurse who simply loses herself in the process of treating her patient despite being aware of the consequences.

How Asit Sen transformed his realistic drama Deep Jweley Jai (1959) into the romantic tragedy Khamoshi (1969)

While the inevitability of Suchitra's character comes across as hard-hitting and disturbing, Waheeda takes the viewers on a melancholic ride of a romantic tragedy in which both her and Khanna's characters sacrifice their sanity for an obsessive passion.

Asit Sen’s intent in catering to the mindsets of different audiences comes across clearly in the distinct performances of Suchitra and Waheeda even as both express the heartache and misery of self-sacrificing women on professional and personal fronts.

Another Asit Sen film that boasts a striking performance is Anokhi Raat (1968), in which Sanjeev Kumar played the guard of a mansion who turns into a dreaded dacoit in an unpredictable turn of events.

Sanjeev Kumar seamlessly brings out the transformation in his character with a strong emotional performance. As chowkidar Baldev, he is naive and innocently dreams of a blissful married life with his beloved, Gopa. He is unaware of life's complexities and fails to recognize people for who they are. As his innocence undermines his dreams, he cannot forgive himself and come to terms with reality.

Sanjeev Kumar does not turn the simple-minded Baldev into a buffoon; instead, his character comes across as adorable and one demanding empathy.

He is equally convincing as Daku Baldeva, who is full of rage and doesn't spare anyone who crosses him until circumstances see him get acquainted with Roma, Gopa's lookalike. Roma's impending misfortune makes him rise above his bent for relentless revenge and, instead of turning into a tragic figure, he holds himself with pride at the end, despite being on the losing side.

The conflict between inciting fear among people with threats and struggling to judge his own actions as a consequence of not recovering from the loss of Gopa is brought out well by Sanjeev Kumar. Though this was among the star's early films, he excels, emoting soulfully his romantic inclination for his love interest back in his native village and, at the same time, establishing the ruthlessness of the bandit.