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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.