I did not know till I heard it on television on the reminiscences of her biographer that Roma Dasgupta was enrolled as Krishna Dasgupta in school. I also had no idea that during her wedding ceremony, Roma refused to wear the veil. I thought that she did not need to wear the veil because Brahmos are not required to do so. Roma was Hindu but her husband, Dibanath Sen could well have been a Brahmo. Dibanath was Adinath’s son and Adinath was Hemlata and Sukhalata’s brother. Hemlata Sen married Jogeendranath Dasgupta. They were my grandfather’s parents. Dibanath and my grandfather were cross cousins and Roma was therefore a pretty close relative. But that was when she was Roma; after she became Suchitra Sen, the family chose to forget her and why not, because Roma was a relative, not Suchitra Sen. A photo parched and frayed of them as a young couple made me realize that Moon Moon Sen, Suchitra’s only child looked so much like the father Dibanath. Stories in the family around Dibanath were not encouraging; he was supposed to be a sparer, a gambler, a dilettante and so on. The father Adinath was a lawyer and rich; he was a jolly fellow except that my grandfather’s older brothers had issues with him. I think a combination of Dibanath and Adinath, marinated in doses of villainy became the maleficent husband of Suchitra Sen in the film Uttar Phalguni, also remade in Hindi as Mamta. Roma was of course never happy in the marriage and she refused to acknowledge her in laws. She lived all by herself, reclused, hidden away and mysterious if not mystique. Despite the media being all ears, Suchitra’s affairs were never leaked to the press. People were far too afraid of her to step on her toes. Hers were days rather different; icons were icons because they were not seen, they had not turned into celebrities because they would be seen everywhere.
Suchitra Sen’s biographer, Phularenu Kanjilal says that Krishna was always the way she finally emerged on screen. She was haughty, snobbish, moody, peevish, absent minded, self-absorbed, self-confident, wilful, assertive and totally in command of herself. And she was beautiful. She was conscious of her great beauty, totally unapologetic about it and behaved as if she was bestowed upon with such glory because she was worth it and deserved every bit of the natural selection. Krishna may have not been very fair and there is a debate in the house whether she was indeed dark, but she may not have been the powdery white which her sisters were. Hence she was called Kirshna, the dark one, or the darker one. Krishna could walk into the class with her hair open, she always spoke with her stiff upper lip and curled up lower lip, she looked with large eyes, often obliquely. In other words, the style and the mannerisms that eventually made her into the star she is was very much a part of her while in the teens. It seems that one afternoon, Krishna sat reclined on the bench in class and staring blankly at the space before her said that she would like to be remembered long after her death. Given the fact that she was completely mediocre in her studies, music and dance and had no talent to make her stand out such an assertion seemed to her friends as absurd. She had her beauty; but that was not enough. In those days, getting a chance on the silver screen was even more difficult. Her husband’s father’s unmarried sister used to be a top model in Kolkata in those days but then the family was among the glitterati of Kolkata. Roma’s father was a dignified middle class teacher and her excessive beauty was supposed to have found a great destiny into being married into Hemlata Sen’s family. Her beauty was supposed to have played the very role that it was supposed to play and exhausted its full possibilities.
But Roma’s arrogance would have none of this; her marriage meant nothing to her and she ventured to conquer the world, a Bengali middle class, very middle class, saddled into sharing space and resources with as many as eight siblings, just about average in studies from a Bengali medium locality school and a shade darker than her sisters. She had actually nothing to her credit, nothing that could stand as a background. She had only herself, her beauty, more in her own estimation than for the rest, for she was a shade darker in her skin. But her mannerisms, her affectations ever since childhood as her biographer writes perhaps means that she was ostensibly conscious of the fact. And she believed in being entitled because of her endowment and demanded that the world should fall at her feet not because what she could deliver but just because who she was. And from this attitude arose the icon, Suchitra Sen, one that Bengal would possibly never see again. It was Suchitra Sen’s attitude that made her the great star that she was and she swayed an entire culture with her gait and her gaze, her manner of holding back the head, the way of her reserved coquetry.
The stardom of Suchitra Sen did not emanate so much from the roles which she essayed; her stardom emerged from her own off screen personality. Scripts were written to suit her and if she ever acted in Griha Daha or in Debi Choudhurani or Datta, these characters were like her own. She was born to be looked after by a caring boyfriend or a rich father and in Debi Choudhurani when she had neither, the lord of the underworld, Bhabani Pathak raises her to become Empress. But she was not a damsel in distress; she was one who commanded protection, ordered men about to do her stuff. When she lost her pet dog on a journey to a farm house she insisted that her class fellow, Uttam Kumar, the star to spend the entire night in open looking for the dog! She was the only female lead opposite Uttam Kumar who actually could make the hero or heroes of Bengali cinema go down on his knees to appease her. Sociologically this ego is rooted in the long tradition of Bengal and in its modernity; but such discussions do not constitute the scope of this obituary.
Suchitra’s arrogance made her emerge as an interesting person on screen. Though vulnerable at the core, she covered this up with a haughtiness; the same haughtiness that also made her capable of a strange loyalty and self-sacrifice to the extent of self-abnegation and annihilation. . She may want love, but she would prefer to give love rather than to ask for it; the men are supposed to guess her needs through a sincere reading of her life trajectory. She was quick to develop obsessions and eccentricities, to become prejudiced and sometimes too hasty in her judgments and actions. These flaws only added to her glamour and it needed a man like Uttam Kumar to stand as her alter ego, bear the perfection that could be achieved through the elimination of her blemishes. Uttam Kumar absorbed her shortcomings and restored her in settings in which her ego could again recover from hurt and recover the confidence to resume her high handednessIt was in her that the Bengali audience discovered her ego and it was in the comely man, Uttam Kumar that the Bengali knew softness. Together they represented the pair unmatched to this date; it was a pair of ego and arrogance and of protectiveness and nurture. It is unfortunate that Western categories so dominate our discourses but in the Indian culture, harsh haughtiness is often associated with beautiful women and comely surrender with powerful men, the quintessential Durga and Shiva or Kali and Shiva. Suchitra Sen created the Bengali femininity, the feminine force which believes that the world exists to serve them; that they would always need to be paid obeisance to and hence the need for being protected should never be made obvious or acknowledged.
Suchitra’s total withdrawal from the public gaze was also the result of her arrogance; if she is not queen of the silver screen then she better not be seen at all, seems to be her refrain. It was a strange my way or the highway situation; she had always to be taken in her terms and not in any others. She never knew how to bend, she would better be broken than be bowed. Sometimes I thought that this was a rather lack of grace, but she was always the only one in her world and insisted that she would continue as the distant Goddess rather than to walk the earth with fellow mortals. In this cordoning off, even her own were not spared. Moon Moon had a tough time with her, despite the fact that she was the only child and while Suchitra decided that she did not want anyone, she never really stopped to wonder whether there were others who needed her.