Bengalis may well be irrepressible hero-worshippers, but there is reason in their calling Suchitra Sen ‘Bengal’s Garbo’. Like Garbo did to MGM, Sen gave her provincial film industry a ‘star’ who guaranteed security of investment for two decades, the ’50s and the ’60s. And, much like Garbo, Suchitra Sen was reclusive. At least Greta Garbo did appear in public, twenty years after hanging up her boots with Two-Faced Woman, when she accepted the invitation of the Kennedys to the White House and spent a night in Washington DC. But nobody in Calcutta remembers seeing Suchitra after her legendary co-star Uttam Kumar’s death in 1980. Garbo refused interviews and award ceremonies. So did Suchitra; she even turned down the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2005 as it required her to be present at the ceremony. Like Garbo’s biographies, all of which are a yarn spun from outside a heavy door firmly shut on its face, Suchitrar Katha, a purported biography of the Bengali screen idol, is some chitchat strung together to make a book that could sell only on the strength of the cover picture. Nothing else.
It is no fault of the author, though. I have direct experience of how stubbornly elusive the lady could be. In the 1980s, I was sent to Calcutta by India Today, where I worked, to do a profile of Suchitra Sen. I approached her daughter Moon Moon Sen, whom I knew socially. Moon Moon promised to try but gave no assurance. I tried through other sources, like film producers and actors, but I knew that the only option before me was Moon Moon’s power to plead with her mother. Three days later, as I met her, she looked genuinely apologetic. Her mom wouldn’t meet. Driven to desperation, I checked with Moon Moon if I could take a chance and go to her Ballygunge Circular Road residence unannounced, and try to talk until she called the police or something similar. Moon Moon smiled at the suggestion, saying I could not meet her in any circumstance, and the standard reply of her staff would be that she is in the puja room. “Did she really lock herself up there all day long,” I asked her. “I have no idea myself,” Moon Moon said, “except that my mom is always caring about the deities, with an electric fan always whirling, lest the gods sweat in the heat.”
Of course, the story was not done, as I could not prolong my outstation stay. I did not expect my employer to be as charitable as Gay Talese’s, when he spent a month in Hollywood waiting to interview Frank Sinatra for Esquire magazine, and after the star played hookey all the while, wrote the iconic article, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. To be fair, if I stayed on with the story, I doubt if I could produce anything more worthwhile than Suchitrar Katha. Sinatra’s refusal to meet Talese not only gave him time but made him dogged in his determination to talk around and dig up as much as possible about the great star, who was reportedly connected to the New York mafiosi. Suchitra Sen’s life was probably not as lively as her films.
The 64 films in which she acted are arguably drab by today’s standards. And that includes her 30 ‘romedies’ with Uttam Kumar, and such mediocre Bollywood films like Mamta (1966) and Aandhi (1974), remembered by film historians rather than enthusiasts. The fact is, with new technology (70 mm film, Dolby sound), mushrooming of theatres and new audiences, cinema was changing irreversibly in the ’70s. Exit Rajesh Khanna, enter Amitabh Bachchan. A shrewd and canny woman, Suchitra understood the transition and found seclusion as the best way to be remembered as a diva forever in full bloom.
In Billy Wilder’s much acclaimed Sunset Boulevard (1951), Gloria Swanson, as the reclusive fictional silent age actor, Norma Desmond, said, “I am big. It is film that has become small”. Garbo was given the role first but she turned it down, maybe with her famous line, rendered in her native Swedish accent, “I vil be alone”. Suchitra Sen’s determination to be alone won till the end, so much so that she died almost behind a veil, and was taken to the crematorium in a tightly closed coffin.
Suchitra Sen, the Greta Garbo of Bengali cinema, may have gone into hibernation for 35 years, but she was never forgotten (Terms of Endearment, Feb 03).
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Let the coarse light of day not fall upon such a celestial body.
Aandhi - a mediocre film??? Sumit Mitra, you are joking, right? Or is this just another example of misplaced Bong snobbery? Would you care to elucidate?
My apologies to the Bhadralok at large...I have every bit of respect & admiration for your cultural & literary sensibilities. But Mr mitra seems to be really pushing it in this case.
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