Her first death anniversary is almost here and yes, the Garbo analogy is the easiest to draw from. It is the only easily available reference point to understand Suchitra Sen. The fact is that we will never really know what made her withdraw from public life and ended up creating layers of myth, mystery and cinematic lore around her. She had had enough perhaps. She had seen it all and maybe seen through it all. The fame, its tendency to indulge in the falsification and iconification of mortality into something ethereal, timeless even though actors, even as famous as Suchitra Sen, are flesh and blood beings with hollows and aches and fears and limits of endurance.
What makes us think that we only fail artists when we don’t love them enough? Maybe we fail them when we love them too much, expect too much from them and deny them the right to be real, to be detached from what we want them to be.
Like a comic talent who may not be a happy person but is asked to crack jokes at every gathering, or a singer who must sing wherever she goes, those who loved Suchitra Sen expected her to be Suchitra Sen, the legend always. The woman who defined female superstardom on her own terms, who informed her performances with such a sense of power, individuality and intelligence, that you forgot the gender of her characters and were just drawn to their substance, their core.
And that utterly instinctive and elemental chemistry with Uttam Kumar? She never lived it down, did she? Yes, it is nothing short of miraculous, what they created when they faced the camera and each other and answered each gesture with a gesture as if they were completing each other’s sentences and even their silences and pauses. It is a once-in-a-life-time thing, this understanding that makes two actors behave like one unit, but there was more to her.
For Hindi film viewers, she was the definitive Paro and walked the line between total surrender and uncompromised dignity with a grace we never saw again. She had the kind of presence that could never be dismissed as incidental to a plot. She was an equal always even in sketchy roles. Someone whose femininity had an edge that could not be messed around with. And that face. Few heroines in her era and after have had a face that just needs the camera to light up like a lantern full of moonlight. Her eyes saw the world and people and beyond. They were playful and seductive and sad and ‘virakt’ and confessional and reclusive. That was in the end the ultimate quality of her performances and her life. Her ability to engage with all of it and disengage with all of it.
That is what made her performance in Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) so compelling. The need for fulfilment and relationships. The urge to play wife and mother and yet the purposeful, and for want of a better word, masculine stride that takes her right into the heart of dehumanising politics where not one genuine emotion can be shared. The rasas of moh and virakti always flowed together through her work. In Mamta (the remake of Uttar Falguni (1963)), she was both the sacrificial mother and the rebellious daughter. The woman who wants to love quietly and the girl who is told, “In baharon mein akele na phiro.” In Bambai Ka Babu (1960), she is the naughty sister who discovers the man she thinks is her sibling is in fact a stranger on the verge of falling in love with her. Her sunshine disappears and there she is, trying to be moral and human at the same time.
She was a female superstar at a time when women did not exude power. She had the courage of conviction to turn down big directors, including Raj Kapoor and even Satyajit Ray, or so says film lore. And this despite a marriage and motherhood. There was also (in 1963) the landmark moment when she became the first Indian actress to win an international award, the Silver Prize for Best Actress at the Moscow Film Festival for Saptapadi (1961).
In these times, when every sneeze, relationship, tattoo, gesture and reaction of a celebrity is put in the public realm to become dinner conversation and to be taken apart and consumed, maybe fame is a drug for some... any kind of fame. We even have a 70- something superstar who pretends he is not famous but still posts pictures of surging crowds outside his house every Sunday and those who ride the tiger of fame as if it will never shake them off and devour them some day. And then maybe there are a few who want to work and remain anonymous.
Suchitra Sen was amongst the few who went from one extreme to another. From being a monumental icon to an utter and complete recluse to the point of even refusing the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. Do we know one actor today who would do that?
And that is what I find utterly remarkable about her. Her ability to simplify her life. Focus on what mattered to her. To say ‘yes’ to a career as a wife and mother. To say ‘No’ to fame beyond a point. In the end she called the shots in her life. In the end, she painted the sunset of her own choice to walk into.
There is a lesson here for even those who are not famous. In the end, your life is not a sound byte, a popularity contest, a public banner, a story interrupted by asides. Your life is for living. And no one but you must choose how to live it.