Suchitra Sen The Legend and the Engima


Author : Shoma A. Chatterji
Publisher : Harper Collins
Price : Rs. 350

Shoma A. Chatterji’s recent book on Suchitra Sen, who is considered a legend in Bengali cinema, informs and entertains. It also analyses certain aspects of gender identity, and the cinematic times. When conceptualising the book, the author admits that she stayed away from the gossip and controversies that often plague stars, and Suchitra Sen had her fair share of these. Her long and fruitful career notwithstanding, an unhappy marriage and later, self-exile and total withdrawal from public life for nearly three decades, added grist to the rumour mills. As part of the lead pair of Bengali popular cinema for nearly two decades, the other half being Uttam Kumar, the book brings into focus serious issues, which catapult this book from mere light reading to a welcome addition to our book shelves.

Old is always viewed as gold. In Bengal, life was unhurried in the fifties and sixties and this laid-back genteel life was well reflected in the films during those twenty odd years over the fifties to the mid-seventies. During this time, family stories were penned by well-known writers so much so that a film also came to be referred as boi or book. Out of this scenario emerged two stars, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, who because of their onscreen chemistry, became the leading pair of Bengali cinema during this period.

However, this exclusive book seeks to rectify the imbalance of a romantic jodi, always tilted in favour of the hero in India. It is not that there are books galore on Uttam Kumar, but the space he occupies in the public imagination is far greater by just being the mahanayak or super star who died at fifty-three.

Shoma Chatterji examines a number of related gender issues in two vital chapters ‘From star to actress: the metamorphosis,’ and ‘Working women, Bengali cinema and Suchitra Sen’ that deeply researches the “identity” of a celluloid actress trapped within an image.

What makes the book entertaining are the parallels drawn with actresses and films from Bollywood to reinforce her observations that strong characterisation of women do work, if given a chance.

Would Suchitra Sen’s acting career have been more enriched if she acted in films directed by better known directors such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak or Mrinal Sen? After all, actresses Supriya Choudhury and Madhabi Mukherjee straddled both the popular and “arty” (for want of a better term), with ease. Ray, known to extract best performances, cast Uttam Kumar in a couple of his films, Nayak and Chiriakhana. Suchitra Sen, on the other hand, became the face of a certain kind of cinema and a diva to boot even when she defined feminism, grace and individuality. Within a limited space she gave her very best, in a very typical manner, unique to her and her alone. This was also reflected in two of her well-known Hindi films: Devdas directed by Bimal Roy in 1955, and Aandhi directed by Gulzar in 1975.

Suchitra Sen leaves behind a great number of films; some good, others indifferent. She was paired with other actors besides Uttam Kumar. In addition to facts and references to other published materials on the actress, Shoma Chatterji evaluates her “role” in comparison with several talented actresses of her times.

In trying to strike the right balance between a fan’s eulogies which the author collectively embodies, and a search for that “cultural matrix and meaning and signification”, the book initiates us into a different orientation as a reader. So used are we to reading trivia about film stars that it takes time to orient ourselves to a serious assessment of their contributions. Though a racy and gossipy book would have, no doubt, flown off the shelves faster, this is an author’s tribute to the enigmatic actress’ zealously guarded privacy.

The book will help those not too familiar with Bengali cinema discover a new world of films like Deep jwele jai (remade into Khamoshi in Hindi), Saptapadi, Uttar Phalguni, Saat Pake Bandha – a comprehensive list of her films is provided at the end. For a certain perspective, the reviewer concludes that while another Bengali actress Aparna Sen in a commercial Bengali film always gave the impression of ‘oh-god-what-am-I-doing-here?’ Suchitra Sen always portrayed a very rooted ‘I-truly-belong-here’ attitude, gelling with an era gone by.

Manjira Majumdar

Having worked as a full-time journalist, Manjira Majumdar today is an independent journalist combining writing with part-time college teaching and media advocacy.