Star, or just a dot in history? The story of Suchitra Sen

Profile | Asmita Das

“Tumi je amar…” from Harano Sur

One of the most telling stories of the Bengal film industry is the life and untold story of Suchitra Sen. Critics and fans have hailed her as the Greta Garbo of Bengali cinema, a mysterious figure for the generation that came after her, who knows her only through her films. Suchitra Sen vanished from the limelight as suddenly as the spotlight that goes off at the end of a shot. She went into self-imposed exile while still at the helm of her career and never made another public appearance, even though she remained popular till the day she breathed her last. Suchitra Sen lived a dream, the dream that most people in the glamour world would die for – to live in the minds and hearts of her audience as the young and beautiful star at the helm of her trade. She refused to confine herself to the straight-jacket of becoming a falling star and decided to remain just as her fans remembered her. She would be the perfect subject of star studies today. Just as popular cinema was beginning to catch the attention of serious practitioners of cinema studies, Suchitra Sen decided to give it all a slip. Long before the Kareenas and the Paolis came to scorch the screen, Bengal was already gifted with a screen goddess who was to capture the hearts of millions. Millions who would go on to crown her as the greatest that Bengali cinema has seen till date.

Suchitra Sen’s name is uttered in the same breath with Bengal’s one and only ‘star’, the mahanayak, Uttam Kumar. Together they went on to become the ‘the’ screen couple. She might be known for the long series of romantic melodrama films that she worked in opposite Uttam Kumar, but she was an industry by herself. In a primarily hero-centric industry, which it is even today, Suchitra Sen was la femme, whose name was uttered in the same breath as Uttam Kumar. She turned the tables by starring in not-typically women centric films – the popular melodramas of the time, where the hero is the focal point of the film and went on to lend completion to the image of the hero-figure. Films like Harano Sur (1957), Pathe Holo Deri (1957), Saptapadi (1961), Bipasha (1962) and Jiban Trishna (1971) when looked strictly from the perspective of the relationship between a man and a woman, are all examples of films that capture the emergence of the woman as a strong figure in otherwise hero-centric films. Most of the plots revolve around family relationships, touching upon star-crossed lovers and forced marriages. The villain here is mostly the family exerting its influence through the agency of a family member or sometimes even the larger society. At the end, the resolution to their crisis is obtained by accepting the powerful influence of the institution of family and its hegemonic position in society, where the only place for the couple is the space that they create.

Harano Sur opens in a mental asylum. Alok (played by UttamKumar) has lost his memory in a train accident and is being helped by one of the psychiatrists, Roma (Suchitra Sen). She gives him shelter after he escapes from the asylum, taking him to a place called Palashpur, where they eventually fall in love. They marry, but after a second accident, Alok recalls his life as a rich businessman in Calcutta and forgets all the time spent with Roma. He goes back to his old life. Roma follows him to Calcutta and meets him there. He, however, does not recognize her; instead, hires her as governess for his niece. She kept trying to stimulate Alok’s memory to remind him of their days in Palashpur through motifs like flowers, incense sticks, etc. Suspecting something wrong, Alok’s fiancée complains to his mother and gets Roma kicked out. He learns from his manager that Roma has gone back to Palashpur. The name reminded him of that moment when he recovered his consciousness after the second accident and found himself in that place. He goes back to Palashpur and finds his way to that spot under the tree where he and Roma had vowed to be with each other through the famous lines “tumi  je amar” (you are mine). He remembers the tune of the song sung (which keeps coming back again and again in the film) and his final recognition takes place.

“Ei poth jodi na shesh hoy…” from Saptapadi

The song plays a significant role in the film, not being one of the many repetitive tropes, but also the way it portrays the woman trying to lay a claim over the man. The feminine desire, as projected by Suchitra Sen in the film, can be studied under contrasting lights in the two parts of the film. In the first part, in the scene of the second storm, where Alok is under the care of Roma, the hero is cowering and almost pleading for a promise from the heroine to stay together forever. It is night time and Alok falls asleep. Roma turns off the light and crosses the corridor to go back to her room. Suddenly the storm starts, lightning flashes, sounds of alarm heard. At this point, the camera zooms in on Alok who looks almost demented, an ultimate victim of nature and society. Roma’s hand comes to rest on his forehead and he clutches her and says, “Don’t leave me, ‘Daktarbabu’” and she vows she never will. It is more like a wedding vow, but only this time the woman vows to protect the man from his fears – a complete role reversal. There is almost a sinister quality in the way the feminine desire is getting portrayed. This is reflected in the way she tries to control his life (the letters that she ensures never gets posted), the world in which he is made to live so that he remains under her supervision forever. This might read as a psychotic woman’s desire to ‘keep’ something she treasures safe. Or at the more normative representation of the woman who wants to take care of him, the mother figure who protects him from all possible danger as she begins to control his entire life, so much so he does not recognise the non-reality that he is living in, away from the harsh realities of the world. She might be indeed trying to protect him, as he is not yet cured. This incident in the narrative shows is loaded with possibilities of capturing that sinister quality. In the second part of the film, however, there is an element of legitimacy in the nature of the feminine desire that is portrayed. This is again captured in the final scene where Alok recovers his memory of Palashpur and ultimately goes back to Roma, who now has the legitimate ‘claim’ over him. In fact, it is interesting to note that the legitimacy of her claim seems to be valid only within the idyllic space of Palashpur. Thus she was the perfect foil to the perfect hero that the audience imagined Uttam Kumar to be, her very presence heightening the appeal of the story, its cinematography, its music, its dialogue – the film itself. It is not for nothing that there is an entire range of films starring Suchitra Sen. Bad acting or not, wrong dialogue delivery or not, there was something that made these film a “Uttam-Suchitra” film.

Suchitra Sen was the ultimate queen of melodrama – a crowning glory that she has been bestowed with down the decades that she went invisible from the glitter of the film industry. She belonged to a genre that was essentially meant to be mainstream commercial cinema. A film’s worth was judged more by the richness of the story and the telling way that the makers employed the cinematic medium to narrate it. She came to embody the bhadramahila (again as a foil to the bhadrolok) – the ideal modern woman, who embraced the modernity that the fathers of the nation envisioned while perfectly balancing it with the cultural ethos that she represented. She was the modern woman who was independent, who questioned the diktats of tradition, who led her life by her own example and yet behind such radicalism (something interestingly she was never straight-jacketed to be) was the anchor for the central figure – the man.

Saptapadi is the story of the romance that blossomed between Krishnendu (Uttam Kumar), a talented athletic Hindu Bengali and a Bengali Christian, Rina Brown (Suchitra Sen) – equally talented and a medical student at the National Medical College along with the hero. The story is set in 1940s Bengal – at a time when young Indian students were struggling to compete equally with the ‘goras’ or the British in all fields, when nationalist sentiments were high (1942 being when Gandhi launched Quit India movement). The protagonists’ paths cross each other during various college activities and events until they fall in love. However, marriage seemed impossible due to their religious difference. Krishnendu decides to convert. Notably, he loses his mother during his study, the only person who might have accepted the union and his father manages to get Rina to promise not to marry his son. In a sudden turn of events, Rina turns out to be born a Hindu but brought up by a Christian ‘gora’. She turns out to be the daughter of the governess. They separate only to be thrown back into each other’s lives in the backdrop of the World War when Krishnendu encounters a drunk and passed out Rina in a military hospital in rural Bengal. Here we see how the protagonists eventually find respite in a world created by them, through the conflict and trauma that they shared. While the story could have ended with the two separating for good, it rather started from the point where they meet again. Here too the family marks its presence through the agency of the father; however, there seems to be an effort to write their own fate. In this case, the couple separates, but they also dissociate from the intervening family or society as well. These films definitely do not make any easy comparison of black and white. The beginning in Saptapadi is significant in the way the woman is shown to be out of control. She comes into this doctor’s hut in a drunken stupor. It is the time of the World War when the norms of the society are falling apart. It seems that there is a slight hint in the way the figure of the woman has been carved out – that she is the fallen woman, who is born out of an illegitimate union between a gora (white man) and a lower caste woman. In fact, this indeed does say a lot about the nature of the women that are being portrayed in the film. At a larger level, it can also be seen how the hero is looking for his mother or her qualities in the woman he eventually falls in love with.

After being part of such films where the woman questions the very norms of family, society, marriage, it is indeed a mystery why Suchitra Sen did not continue to be the leading light for women today. Today we are aware that there exists an entire industry behind the creation of a star image – the process of consciously building a popular image, maintaining it, making the audience almost believe that that portrayed image is the real. However, it was undoubtedly something quite new back in the fifties and sixties. In the case of Suchitra Sen, she seemed to have embraced this phenomenon, not by living it but by making a complete vanishing act. She thrived on the curiosity of the people who would give anything to see a glimpse of her down the years when she completely withdrew herself from the limelight, and yet every Saturday evening one of her well-known films with Uttam Kumar would be aired. It was almost as if local Doordarshan too was trying to keep her alive in the audience’s imagination. Every birthday would be spent with frenzied television channels and film magazines trying to imagine or create a projected image of an ageing Suchitra Sen – How old would she be? How would she change with age? She thrived as the shadow behind her daughter and later two granddaughters who made their way into the industry as well.

There are many questions that people are still waiting to ask – was this the future that she had foreseen for the industry of which she was such a gigantic part. But the very fact that she accepted a life away from it and its glamour and maintained that distance despite the ups and downs that the industry underwent, might come to say that she was there to just make history. She did not appear on the horizon to be the burning star of hope who would make the industry, be a part of the cinema trade and walk along with it down its course in time. She was more like the figure who came at the time she was meant to come and left when she was to, leaving behind a body of work for future generations of audiences to unravel and make sense of.


About the Writer

Asmita Das is a Doctoral candidate at the Dept. of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, researching on Muslim socials.