For close to two decades from the mid-1950s, Suchitra Sen mesmerized the cinema-going public in Bengal. Her onscreen pairing with Uttam Kumar spelt the kind of magic that
has had no equal in Indian cinema, with over thirty blockbusters that continue to enthral film lovers. Independently of Uttam Kumar, her performances in films like Saat Paake
Bandha, Deep Jele Jai and Uttar Phalguni have few parallels. Towards the end of her career, she also wooed a pan-Indian audience with box-office hits like Mamta and Aandhi. By
the time she suddenly called it quits, she was a legend. Then, for over thirty years, she withdrew from the pubic gaze completely; her steadfast refusal to re-emerge into the
limelight, meet people or grant interviews added an element of mystique to her person.
In this nuanced biography, award-winning author and critic Shoma A. Chatterji unveils the many dimensions of the Suchitra Sen persona: as a legendary romantic star; her slow;
steady metamorphosis into a powerful artist; her working-woman roles at a time when women were seen as mere appendages to the narrative; and her wilful social seclusion which
spawned many a conspiracy theory. Tackling issues that have never been addressed before, this is a fascinating portrait of an icon of Indian cinema.
Shoma A. Chatterji, film critic, journalist and author, won the National Award (1991) for Best Film Critic and the Best Film critic Award from the Bengal Film Journalists’
Association (1998). Her book Parama and other Outsiders: The Cinema of Aparna Sen, won the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema in 2003. She won a research
fellowship from the National Film Archive, Pune, in 2003—2004, and a senior research fellowship from PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust), Delhi. She won the second
prize in the Sahitya Akademi’s Golden Short Story Translation Contest in 2007. She is has done he PhD in History. She was Senior Research Fellow of ICSSR for post-doctoral
research on working women in Bengali cinema. She writes extensively on cinema and gender issues. She also covers media, human rights, development, child rights and
contemporary issues in several print and electronic media publications across India. She has been on the panel of film juries at international film festivals and has presented papers
on television and cinema at Thessaloniki, Greece, Mennheim, Stuttgart and University of Heidelberg, Germany; School of Sound, London; and Asian Film Centre, Colombo, Sri
Lanka. Besides contributing to many edited compilations on Indian cinema, she has singly authored twenty published titles on cinema, gender issues, short fiction and urban
Biography or Analysis?
Is it possible to write the life story of a person the writer has never met in flesh-and –blood, and spoken to over the telephone only twice? How honest is it to indulge in this
second-hand biography? Is a biography a chronological sequence of events described with elaborate ornamentation based on research, hearsay, books and magazines? Or does it
delve deeper into the psycho-socio-professional analysis of the person being written about? Arguments such as these are rendered null and void when one is writing a book on an
enigmatic screen person like Suchitra Sen.
This book emerge from the writer’s passion for cinema in general, and the star-person of a legendary actress in particular. Also, though there are many books in Bengali on this
iconic actress, there is almost no comparable study in English for a larger reading audience that might be interested in knowing and learning more about this star-actress. The
attempt is to present and portray Suchitra Sen from the standpoint of an avid viewer of films, a film critic and an author. As a critic experienced in analysing various features and
parameters that relate to feminist-film criticism relevant to Indian cinema, the challenge is to find out whether the film portrayals of Suchitra Sen, with and without the solid support
of Uttam Kumar, lend themselves into a deconstructionist, feminist reading. Or whether they are an exploration into one of the most successful and celebrated stars in the history of
Bengali cinema. But this will form only a part of this study.
The study has tried to explore how, in a majority of her films, she played the perfect foil to the hero and his romantic interest, which is one of the reasons for her charismatic appeal
for viewers of either sex, all ages and from across borders of social and financial status. There are some films where one can read between the lines to find out if there were any
discrepancies in films that could offer a feminist reading that would reflect not only on Sen’s versatility but also her screen image. This necessitated the urge to read some films
against the grain, so to say, which revealed some interesting results. In other words, from a different perspective, films featuring Suchitra Sen, with or without Uttam Kumar, read in
retrospect, reveal quite often that the character(s) given to her is (are) mainly traced back to her beauty and her screen charisma. But beneath that surface of beauty, grace and
femininity, those characters were no less significant within the script and the film than that of the hero, be it Uttam Kumar or any other actor.
These questions do not arise when one is writing a biography of a historical persona like Adolf Hitler or Mahatma Gandhi, or a painter like Picasso, or a poet like Sunil
Gangopadhyay because they lived a single life spanning several dimensions minus an illusory and parallel presence created on screen. Besides, sometimes, an author trying to write
about the life and works of a legendary actress who remained in the news much after she became a social and professional recluse could fall prey to what might be termed
‘celebrity voyeurism’. This needs to be avoided, and is difficult in the case of a matinee idol like Suchitra Sen, whose self-willed social seclusion, which began in 1978 and
continued till her demise in January 2014, led to much conjecture about its hows and whys.
A detailed work on her life and films could almost naturally become embedded with what might be termed ‘celebrity voyeurism’ though there is no design, covert or overt, on the
part of the writer to make the work an example of the same. It is the ‘reading’ of the text that might be interpreted so. In order to steer clear of this debate, the author has not
probed into the minute details of her personal life that remained as private and intimate as Mrs Sen could have possibly kept it. This is also because the subject’s self-willed privacy
needs to be treated with the respect and dignity it deserves.
The Duality of Existence
When one is trying to explore the life of a phenomenal screen persona and icon, one is constantly attacked by questions triggered because of that very persona. Is one writing
about the persona one has been used to watching on screen—shedding tears when sad, laughing when happy, subtly romantic when in love and angry when betrayed? Or is one
writing about the real flesh-and-blood person hiding behind the screen and the camera-captured image of a woman who was born, grew up, got married, appeared in films, became
a mother and grandmother, and then passed away? Who is this woman behind the tears and the laughter, the make-up and the flowers in her hair, and the costume? Who remains
hidden behind the character she is portraying on screen, emoting responses as diverse as laughter and tears? How does one break through these layers of the screen image built
slowly and steadily, brick by brick, if one has never had the opportunity of seeing the real woman behind that image?
Suchitra Sen’s story is one of a long series of impersonations created first for the screen, and then for the audience. It is a dual life, one lived off screen and the other on screen. If
she was Roma at home to her daughter Moonmoon, whom she brought up almost single-handedly, she become Radha on screen, in Deep Jele Jai, playing the dedicated nurse
brainwashed to masquerade as a lover to cure a patient. If she was the wife of her husband at home, as if by the touch of an invisible magic wand held by a director who knew his
job, she turned into Roma, the doctor, who, in Harano Sur(1957), falls in love and impulsively marries her amnesiac patient who forgets that she exists when he regains his original
Sen lived a high-profile life of glamour, within the flashbulbs of photographers, defined by the headlines of the print media, put up on huge hoardings at every street corner and
featured in gossip columns of every imaginable glossy magazine. She was chased by the paparazzi even after she disappeared from public space. No one is quite sure about where
the screen persona ends and the real person begins because the blurring between the screen image and the real woman is so overlapping and vague that at times the two appear to
merge into one and then suddenly move in different directions just when you feel you have enough grip on both personalities to create a cohesive whole.
In an article, Maarten Reesink raises questions on what makes some people so attractive for mass audiences. Two arguments are forwarded. The first is the concept of authenticity.
A star has to convince the audience, in one way or another, of being ‘real’, to show something interesting that is inherently his or her own in the public appearances. In other
words, there are two sides that need to be balanced delicately. One is Suchitra Sen, the star as the ‘image’ created, sustained and perceived by the media, by publicity strategists
and by the audience alongside the characters she has portrayed in her films. The other is the real woman Suchitra Sen whose real name is Roma, the private individual, wife,
mother, et al.
The star ‘image’ is surrounded by an aura otherwise called charisma, the ‘X’ factor that a person has in him or her to make it as a star. What is ‘charisma’? Charisma is not as
enigmatic as most artists and film-makers have made it out to be. Richard Dyer has put forth the argument that charisma stands for very concrete norms and values as well as the
tensions in a society at a certain point in time that a specific person seems to embody. Dyer offers Marilyn Monroe as an example and states, ‘Her image was to be situated in the
flux of idea about morality and sexuality that characterized the Fifties in America. Thus, she seemed o “be” the very tensions that ran through the ideological life of Fifties’
Does this argument stand the test of time, culture, geography and history when Suchitra Sen is placed at the centre? Yes, she does, by virtue of her durability as a star, much later
as an actress in her own right. Also, if one took the entire range of her films into consideration and then broke it up into genres, she defines a microcosm of the ‘ideal’ woman men
would be ready to swoon over, fall in love with and marry, while woman would love to identify with and /or idolize her as the ideal woman. Moreover, the nostalgia she sustained
through her films continued during her lifetime as well as after her death despite her voluntary withdrawal from films and from public life. Bengali television satellite channels
virtually run a race to telecast films featuring her in the lead role, with or without Uttam Kumar by her side. One has no idea about the TRPs of these telecasts, but the proof of
repetition and sponsorship stand testimony to the timelessness of her charisma and hold over a large section of viewers.
One must admit, however, that the trigger for choosing to write an analysis of the works of a particular cinema icon over others comes from personal feelings, teenage nostalgia,
expectations and reactions that are rooted in the subjective response of the writer. But that is just the beginning of the story. This needs to be followed by an intelligent critique of
the personality’s contribution to Indian cinema in general, and to Bengali cinema in particular. One needs to try one’s best to sustain a balance between the subjective response of a
fond critic and the objective analysis of a writer who desires to place the person’s work and contribution in perspective. In other words, one needs to reflect upon feelings of
nostalgia, of wonder and awe about what endeared the persona of Suchitra Sen to the writer in the first place, followed by an exploration of how these relate to more objective
factors concerning the star-actress in question.
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