She is said to have declined the Dadasaheb Phalke in 2005
Whisper the name Suchitra Sen to cine-goers across the country and the mind’s eye goes back to Aandhi, Gulzar’s 1975 masterpiece that has transcended the barriers of time and space. When the film released, there was talk that it was based on the life of Indira Gandhi.
The film’s posters and advertisements made veiled references to the effect. A poster in South India went a step further, declaring, “See your Prime Minister on screen.” In Delhi, the film was promoted with only the face of Suchitra Sen cast in the lead role of Aarti, an ambitious political leader. The film was said to be “the story of a great political leader in post-Independence India.”
Though Gulzar denied the allegation, Sen’s sensitive portrayal, complete with her costumes and body language — her hair had a streak of silver, she wore saris like the former Prime Minister and walked briskly, elegantly — compelled the Prime Minister to ask her staff to watch the film and submit a report. The film got the go-ahead and Sen’s lifetime performance graced the cinemas. Cine-goers initially came out of curiosity, and they paid a repeat visit because of Sen’s understated performance, the grace and niceties she lent her role.
However, the film was not destined to complete a silver jubilee without a hiccup. After the film had run for about 20 weeks, it was banned. The decision was said to have been taken following Opposition leaders’ usage of certain scenes during the Gujarat Assembly elections. They showed Sen smoking and drinking. The film was re-released with a disclaimer that it had no biographical elements and Sen shot another scene in which she stood in front of Indira Gandhi’s photograph and called the leader her ideal.
The controversy died soon after and Aandhi went on to notch up a place in the annals of Hindi cinema. Yet Sen almost did not do the film — she had earlier turned down a proposal by Gulzar and the filmmaker was quite hesitant to approach her again before being persuaded by Sohanlal Kanwar, the producer.
In an industry where heroines are used for glamour quotient, Sen was an exception; she was beautiful in an unusual way and managed to draw the viewers’ attention to her character. It was more or less the same with Devdas, Bimal Roy’s 1955 classic in which Sen played Paro and more than matched the subtle charms of Vyjayantimala, cast as Chandramukhi. Though it was her first Hindi film, Sen’s powerful portrayal is said to be the best projection of Devdas’s innocent lover though the film has been remade many times ever since.
For all the success of Devdas and Aandhi, separated by two decades, Sen had a chequered innings in Hindi cinema. She was choosy about the films she did. And, unfortunately, did not always make the right choices in Hindi cinema. In the 20 years between the two films, her most notable film was director Asit Sen’s Mamta which got her a Filmfare nomination. It had the timeless song, “Rahen na rahein hum” which, ironically, is now being used to remember the actress. Again, she more than held her own in front of the formidable duo, Ashok Kumar and Dharmendra. Otherwise, Sen was good in mediocre films like Musafir and Bombai ka Babu.
For her three major swallows in Hindi cinema, she was an all-weather star in Bengali films where her pairing with Uttam Kumar was almost a guarantee of box office success. In a career in which she acted in only seven Hindi and 52 Bengali films, she did 30 films with Uttam Kumar. Beginning with Sare Chuattor in 1953 to Priya Bandhobi in 1975, the two were regarded as Radha-Krishna. Sen usually played a fiery character and Kumar a subdued one in their films together. It was a radical departure from tradition. Kumar was probably the only hero to call her by her real name, Roma. Add to this her memorable films like Vishnupriya, Rina Brown, Bijaya, Agnipariksha and Saat Paake Bandha, and you have an enviable resume. And to think she came to the industry to become a playback singer, not a heroine!
That Sen still did not get the kind of fan following she deserved was partially because she confined herself largely to Bengali cinema. It had largely to do with her reclusive nature. Yet she was among the first Indians to win a Best Actress Award at an international film festival in Moscow.
More concerned with meditation post her film career, she is said to have declined the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2005. Just as she had earlier turned down offers from the legendary Satyajit Ray and the hugely popular Raj Kapoor. This was partly because of her origin. She came from an economically sound background and did not have to do every film offered to run her family.
Indeed, with her eloquent eyes and arresting voice Suchitra Sen was her own star; she worked on her terms. And did it better than most of her contemporaries.