Monday, August 28, 2006

A Phalke for Suchitra Sen?

What Union information & broadcasting minister Priyaranjan Das Munshi has proposed, fellow Bengali Mrinal Sen seems set to dispose. Das Munshi wants the coveted Dadasaheb Phalke Award to go to the iconic actress Suchitra Sen this year, but Mrinal Sen has refused to play ball. Strictly, as he puts it, on grounds of principle. For it is he and other panel members who'll consider names and make a final recommendation to the ministry. "We haven't discussed Suchitra Sen's name at all. In fact, we're yet to discuss names," an angry Sen told Outlook earlier this week.

But that wasn't all; he threatened to resign from the Phalke award committee if the minister or the ministry were to suggest Suchitra Sen's name now. "I will resign and so will the other three members of this panel (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, A. Nageshwar Rao and Yash Chopra). What's the use of having us if the minister decides the awardees? If they want us to consider someone for the award, they should let us know in private instead of making suggestions through the media. We've taken strong exception to this," Sen added.

But even without Mrinal Sen, Das Munshi's wish could be difficult to fulfil. For it is unlikely that Suchitra Sen would interrupt her nearly three-decade-long Garboesque disappearance from the public eye to come out and accept the award. Still, sources in Das Munshi's camp say he has already spoken to Suchitra's daughter Moon Moon and asked her to persuade the mother to accept the award in person.

Now the question is, why is Das Munshi so set on getting the reclusive Suchitra Sen to accept the award in person? Many say the minister is trying for a public relations coup—getting the legendary star to reappear in public—that would endear him to nostalgic Bengalis. At the least, it would allow him to bask in reflected glory for a long time to come. For Suchitra Sen is still a phenomenon that defies description. She may be 76, but countless Bengalis, right from contemporaries to GenNext teens, swoon at the very mention of her name. For them, Suchitra is what she was in, say, Saptapadi—a woman of hypnotic beauty, with chiselled features and a dramatic flair, a beguiling mixture of strength and vulnerability, innocence and wisdom; and the epitome of romantic appeal, especially paired with Uttam Kumar, that eternal hero of Bengali cinema. Her expressive eyes and luminous smile have cast a permanent spell on all Bengalis. "You look a bit like Suchitra," is still the best compliment you can pay a Bengali woman. And as she sang in that famous movie, "Ei path jodi na shesh hoi (What if this journey doesn't end?)," the Bengalis' affair with her seems set to go on forever.

Says Gopal Krishna Ray, once a close companion of the actress, "She's truly the Greta Garbo of India. She stepped off the stage when her fame and beauty was at its peak because she wanted people to remember her as she was then. And she has succeeded in doing so. That's the reason behind the awe and esteem people hold her in today." Ray, incidentally, has written three books on Suchitra. Veteran journalist Amitabha Chaudhuri, a close friend till he wrote a book on her, recalls that Suchitra was always enigmatic, careful to keep a distance from most people. "She was temperamental and moody. At the same time, she could be very affectionate and caring. She was also an intensely religious person. She had some odd habits, like keeping all her shoes and sandals in her car. She would step out of the house in her bathroom slippers and then slip into one of these when she got out of the car," he recalls.

Garbo too had such eccentricities. In fact, there are other eerie resemblances between the two. Garbo's father was a latrine-cleaner, Suchitra's father was a sanitary inspector.Both stars had disastrous marriages, both their husbands supported them in the early stages of their film careers, and both husbands died in foreign lands.

Men played an important role in Suchitra Sen's life, both on and off screen. Little more can be said about the legendary Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen on-screen pairing. They made 30 films together and as film director Buddhadeb Dasgupta puts it, "The synergy between the two made them a pair that remains unparalleled in Indian cinema. They were just perfect for each other".

A wandering monk had awakened her spiritual interests when she was a child. Later, in the early 1970s, she got close to a senior Ramakrishna Mission monk, Bharat Maharaj. Many believe it was Bharat (who, incidentally, was also close to the Nehru-Gandhi family) who influenced her decision to retire from the tinsel world in 1978.

Her husband, Dibanath Sen, was a marine engineer from an illustrious landed family, but given to drinking and gambling. He was the one who initially helped her get film roles, although her father-in-law Adinath Sen was also a source of encouragement. Still, it seems no one could ever get really close to her. "She would be warm and bubbly one moment, and suddenly turn cold and aloof the next," recalls Ray.

Born Rama Devi, in 1930 at Pabna (now in Bangladesh), Suchitra acted in a dozen-odd Bengali films before her first first Hindi film, Devdas in 1955, with Bimal Roy (who was also related to her in-laws). She acted in 60 films (53 of them Bengali, though she never worked with Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak). Her seven Hindi films also include memorable roles in Bambai ka Babu, Mamta and the phenomenal Gulzar film, Aandhi, in which her character was closely modelled on Indira Gandhi. Her last film, Pranay Pasha (with Soumitra Chatterjee in 1978) was a flop, and she went into retirement immediately after that.

In contrast to her on-screen sophistication and elan, in real life she is said to be a person with very spartan habits (a la Garbo)—she eats frugal meals, sleeps on a narrow bed with a hard mattress, wears simple cotton sarees and spends her time reading, listening to music and in religious pursuits. Daughter Moon Moon's family stays in the next apartment, but no one, not even her granddaughters, the glamorous Riya and Raima, have unrestricted access to her. She seldom also steps out of her apartment.

The Suchitra Sen mystique will remain intact, unless Priyaranjan Das Munshi has his way.

Jaideep Mazumdar (The Outlook, August 28 2006)

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