January 17 was her fifth death anniversary. It passed away almost unnoticed in Bangladesh. But in the minds of three generations of Bangladeshi cine-goers who had watched Bangla films since the 1950s, her memory can never fade away. To them, she is immortal like the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, an evergreen icon of the silver-screen that remains forever fresh for the seekers of beauty. Born in Pabna and later coming to limelight in Kolkata, she was our very own Suchitra Sen.
The Bangla title 'Mohanaiyka' (great heroine) could not describe her fully. Rather, 'Mohataroka' (mega-star) perhaps portrayed her better. She was a mega-star, a mythical figure, an enigma and a living legend in the real sense. She could create a luminous space in the minds of Bangla cine-goers through her incomparable glamour, inimitable style, and sweetest smiles that kept the Bangalis spellbound for over five decades, and that lingered on even among the later generations. By coming out of a rigid casing of a heroine, she kept on shining like a glowing star in Bangla filmdom, so much so that nobody could approach her status of a mega-star with the possible exception of the legendary actor Uttam Kumar. In real life she was a paradoxical and mysterious lady, full of sweetness but distant and untouchable. But on the silver-screen, she was like the girl next-door, so familiar and innocent, so candid and unassuming. She could effortlessly juxtapose these opposite attributes in her life; and that is why Suchitra could leave behind such an indelible impression in the minds of her Bangali fans, staunch followers and lifelong admirers.
Born as Rama Dasgupta (nick-name Krishna), Suchitra's journey of life commenced in Pabna town of Bangladesh on April 6 in 1931 during the British era. Her father Korunamay Dasgupta was a sanitary inspector of the Pabna municipality living in the house built by his father Jagadbandhu Dasgupta, while their ancestral home was in the then Jashore district. Her mother's name was Indira, while her maternal grandparents were Haripada Sengupta and Jashoda Sengupta. They also hailed originally from Jashore.
Suchitra was the fifth among four brothers and five sisters. Everybody in the household called her 'Krishna', but she was given the name 'Rama' during admission to school. Although she was not good in studies, she had an exceptional knack in singing and dancing. She was also good at glass painting. But she was married off early in 1947 while still a student of class nine at Pabna Government Girls' High School. Her husband Dibanath Sen, the handsome younger son of affluent Barrister Adinath Sen and grandson of Boyra (Manikganj) Zamindar Chandranath Sen, used to live in Kolkata. Consequently, she had to move to her husband's abode in Kolkata soon afterwards. Meanwhile, father Korunamoy also had to leave Pabna for Bolpur of West Bengal along with the entire family because of the volatile situation centring on the partition of Indian subcontinent in August 1947. He rented out his Pabna house to the district administration and found employment once again as a sanitary inspector at the Bolpur municipality near Shantiniketan.
Suchitra's husband Dibanath could not do well in family business at Kolkata mainly due to his reckless lifestyle. Consequently, Suchitra had to come forward when he was looking for alternative sources of income. At first, she was taken by her husband to an audio studio at the Park Street for audition test as a playback singer. Although she passed the test, the couple chose not to pursue that path. At that very juncture, she was given the offer to play the role of a heroine in a film. Shoved ahead by her husband, she consented after getting permission from her father-in-law.
Although her first film 'Shesh Kothay' (Where is the End) was produced in 1952, it did not see the light of day then. But the next year saw the release of as many as four films starring Suchitra. The first one was 'Sat Number Kayedi' (Number Seven Convict) released on February 7 in 1953. But that did not have much of an impact. Rather the second film, a comedy titled 'Sarey Chuattor' (Seventy-four and a half) proved to be a hit, although she did not have much of a role in it. Instead, the hero Uttam Kumar was praised more for his hilarious role by both the critics and audience. However, that was the beginning of a long chapter of pairing Suchitra with Uttam that would dominate Bangla filmdom for years to come. The film that really caught the attention of cine-goers in Kolkata for the first time was Suchitra's exceptional performance in her fourth film 'Bhagwan Sri Chaitanya' released in December 1953, where she played the role of Bishnupriya. The number of films starred by Suchitra then steeply rose to nine the following year in 1954, followed by six in 1955 and six in 1956, which was quite extraordinary for a debutant actress. It also showed that the Bangla filmdom was desperately striving to survive by hanging on to a captivating lady with beautiful eyes and mesmerising smile as a heroine. She was ably joined by Uttam Kumar as the hero, and the duo played a crucial role in reviving the post-New-Theatres Bangla filmdom during the 1950s. It also brought back peace, comfort and solvency in Suchitra's own family.
Renowned directors of the era starting from Debaki Basu to Sukumar Dasgupta, Nirmal Dey, Neeren Lahiri, Ajoy Kar and Asit Sen vigorously sought Suchitra in their ventures during that period. It was an amazing tale of a housewife becoming a star overnight. Although it took nine years for Suchitra to become Reena Brown of 'Saptapadi' from Ramala of 'Sarey Chuattor', she soon became conscious about the need for building a separate image as a heroine, especially after the release of Asit Sen's 'Dwip Jeley Jai' in 1959. She started leaning towards doing films with other heroes beyond Uttam Kumar to prove that heroines were also capable of setting the box office alight. She therefore chose Soumitra Chattopadhyay, Bikash Ray, Basanta Chowdhury and Dilip Mukhopadhyay quite consciously in many of her films. Two outstanding films 'Sat Pakey Bandha' and 'Uttar Phalguni' were produced through this approach, the former bringing her the best actress laurel at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1963. Soumitra was also the hero of her last film 'Pronay Pasha' released in 1978. Apart from Bangla films, Suchitra also starred in some Hindi films like 'Debdas' (with Dilip Kumar as the hero), 'Bombay Ka Babu' (with Dev Anand), 'Mamata' (with Ashoke Kumar/Dharmendra) and 'Andhi' (with Sanjeev Kumar). She acted in around 60 films during her 25-year-long cinema career from 1953 to 1978. Of these, three were blockbusters, 19 were super-duper-hits and 13 were super-hits.
Meanwhile, her husband Dibanath had passed away in the USA in 1969 after passing through many years of troubled marriage and then an estranged life for long. Following the release of 'Pronoy Pasha' in 1978, Suchitra decided all of a sudden that she would leave the silver-screen for good. After that, she also withdrew herself completely from public view. Why she chose such a course still remains a mystery. Something must have happened that made her take such an unusual 'Greta Garbo'-like decision. The Swedish-American Hollywood film-actress Greta Garbo's famous words were "I want to be left alone" when she suddenly removed herself from the silver-screen back in 1941 while still hugely popular with the audience. It was heard that Suchitra's devotion for the great sage Sri Ramakrishna and Srima Sarada Devi brought new meaning to her life. She was initiated to the path by Swami Abhoyananda (Bharat Moharaj) of Ramakrishna Mission and he advised her to renounce everything. Probably after obtaining that nectar of spiritualism, she bid adieu to her life as a film-star. It should be noted that she remained a lifelong devotee at the Belur Moth Ashram of Ramakrishna Mission in Kolkata even during her years of self-exile from society.
There is another theory, which recalls that her films were not getting much success towards the end of 1970s. The last film 'Pronoy Pasha' was a flop. Meanwhile, the grace and beauty of the heroine was also on the wane because of age-factor. She therefore decided to call it a day. But she wanted that her image as a captivating romantic heroine in the public mind should live on undiminished forever. She did not come to public view since 1979, and only a few people, mostly closest kin, could see her physically after that. In this way, she created an aura of mystery around herself that lasted till her death. Her fans could only conjecture about their beloved heroine and draw her imaginary portraits in their minds for long 35 years. Could that desire for living on in the dreams of her admirers like a Platonic beauty be the motive for leading such a reclusive life behind curtains for three and a half decades? The answer is not yet known conclusively. Maybe, her only daughter and accomplished actress Munmun Sen, son-in-law Bharat Deb Barman (hailing from the royal family of Tripura) and the granddaughters Ria and Raima Sen (both actresses, addressed grandma as 'Amma') could shed more light on it.
But it can never be denied that Suchitra Sen had lifted herself to an unattainable height of romanticism in the minds of the Bangali cine-goers. It is doubtful whether the Bangalis would ever find another heroine of such exceptional talent. She arrived on the silver-screen like a meteor, and her departure also left the ambience of a receding heavenly body. Just as she had carved a place of prestige for herself through her own untiring efforts, similarly she herself chose the path of renunciation voluntarily by completely withdrawing from society. But she lived on until she died in Kolkata on January 17 in 2014.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly and retired Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Public Administration. Email: [email protected]