How did Roma become Suchitra Sen? She was encouraged by her husband Dibanath to step into films. The story goes that she was initially offered a singing assignment at a recording studio in Park Street. She was introduced as Roma Sen. But that assignment was shelved in favour of the female lead in a film to be directed by Sukumar Dasgupta, a noted film-maker of the time. Dasgupta put Sen through a screen test. The film was Saat Number Koyedi. One of his assistants, Nitish Roy (not to be confused with the Mumbai-based production designer Nitish Roy), rechristened this new actress Suchitra. In 1952, she signed three more films. One was Kajori, directed by Niren Lahiri; then there was Saare Chuattar, directed by Nirmal Dey; and then Bhagawan Sri Sri Krishna Chaitanya, directed by Debaki Bose in which Basanta Choudhury made his debut in the title role. Her hero in Saat Number Koyedi was Samar Roy, while in Saare Chuattar it was Uttam Kumar.

The number of people in the industry who could call her Roma could be counted on one’s fingers. Uttam Kumar was one of them. Among the few others were producer and distributor Asit Choudhury, and Anil Bandopadhyay, the DCP at the time. These three friends were influential in Mrs Sen’s life and career. Till date, everyone in the Bengali film industry refers to her either as ‘Madam’ or ‘Mrs Sen’. From the outset, she had a reserve about her that wrapped her like an aura, automatically vesting her with a dignified distance not usually seen or recognized in film stars those days, particularly in the women.

There was one group that addressed her as ‘sir’. Film-maker Gulzar, who directed Suchitra Sen in Aandhi, leads that group. He continued to address her as ‘sir’ in a military tone of voice until her last days; this had remained a mutual joke between them since the making of Aandhi. ‘Though I was much junior to her in experience and in age when she was working in Aandhi, she insisted on addressing me as “sir”. We went on location with Raakhee and with Meghna, who was then a toddler. She became friends with Raakhee but continued to call me “sir”. Then, one day, I warned her that if she did not stop calling me “sir”, my entire unit would address her not as “madam” but as “sir”. This form of address sustained,’ reminisces Gulzar.

Childhood, Marriage and Some Sweet Memories

Suchitra Sen was born in Pabna, originally in the northern parts of undivided Bengal, and now in Bangladesh, on 6 April. The year of her birth is somewhat clouded because some sources trace it back to 1931 while others say the year was 1934. This is a part of the mystique that adds to the enigma called Suchitra Sen. She was the fifth among three brothers and five sisters. Her father’s name was Karunamoy Dasgupta, and her mother’s name was Indira. Her nickname was Krishna. She grew up in distant Pabna, miles away from Bolpur, in Birbhum district, presently in West Bengal. Her childhood is shrouded in mystery; some say she studied in Santiniketan. During her time, daughters of middle-class Bengali families did not go to boarding school. But then, her maternal uncle B.N. Sen lived in Bolpur with his family, and she would often come to stay with them. For some time during her early childhood, she lived with her maternal uncle’s family in Patna. When she was admitted to Pabna Girls High School, her father entered her name as ‘Roma’ in the admission form. She was noted for her beauty right from her childhood. It was perhaps her beauty that heralded an early marriage, in 1947, to Dibanath Sen, son of an extended joint family that migrated to Kolkata. Suchitra is perhaps the first Indian actress in Bengal to have made her film debut after marriage and motherhood.

Dibanath is said to have noticed his wife’s artistic potential as soon as they were married. Being culturally inclined, he wished his wife to be a part of the cultural world. His father Adinath Sen’s first wife was Bimal Roy’s sister. Though the sister passed away quite early and Adinath married again, the family continued to keep links with Bimal Roy and the children continued to address him as ‘Mama’. This link came in handy when Dibanath wished to initiate his wife into films. This led to the recording studio event and finally to Saat Number Koyedi. Before shooting was to begin, a big hurdle had to be crossed. Who would talk to Adinath Sen and ask for permission to permit his daughter-in-law to act in films? Dibanath did not have the guts to approach his father, so he pushed his wife to do so. Roma took courage, approached her father-in-law, and told him everything. ‘If you have the talent, I have no right to destroy it. So, if you wish, I will not stop you from fulfilling your dream.’

Much later in her career, when she was the most sought-after star‑actress in Bengal, Suchitra Sen’s marriage ran into stormy weather till the couple finally decided to part, with Suchitra taking the responsibility of daughter Moon Moon. A few years after the separation—one is not sure if they had divorced—Dibanath Sen passed away in the US where he was working for a merchant shipping company. Moon Moon is said to have woken up from a nightmare the day before. On the morning of 28 November 1969, a long-distance telephone call informed Suchitra Sen of the untimely and tragic death of her husband in an accident. She insisted on having his body flown down to Kolkata to allow Moon Moon to have a final glimpse of her father whom she loved very much. Producers and directors who were close to her and had worked with her during this phase say that she purged her inner pain by giving of herself to her work completely, and this brought out the best of her talents. No one ever heard Suchitra pour out her heart about her personal problems while she was working. A slice of reality was revealed in the way she portrayed the role of Archana in Saat Paake Bandha. This was the time when the trouble in her married life had reached a peak.

A Story of Missed Chances and Lost Opportunities

The Suchitra Sen story remains incomplete without mentioning the gaps in her career. Having redefined the meaning of mainstream cinema for the mass audience, Sen never got the chance to work with the three pillars of parallel cinema in Bengal, namely, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Her image was so larger-than- life, that, somehow, a Suchitra Sen without glamour could never be imagined till Gulzar’s Aandhi appeared on the national scene. Satyajit Ray did approach her for the title role in Bankim Chandra’s historical fiction Debi Choudhurani. She initially agreed, but later backed out of the project. ‘He had asked for dates at a stretch without a break. I could not possibly agree because this would have placed all my other producers in trouble whose films I had either already signed for, or whose films were under production. I could not agree to the exclusivity clause which producer R.D. Bansal later put into the contract,’ she is reported to have said to journalist Amitabh Choudhuri, personal friend of Suchitra Sen. She later did the same film in the title role directed by Dinen Gupta, in 1974, opposite Ranjit Mullick, but neither the film nor her performance has endured in public memory.

Sen never ever acted in a film based on a Tagore classic. Actresses not as talented and experienced as she was have had the opportunity of enacting a character from a Tagore story. Suchitra Sen is not one of them. She was once chosen to act in the female lead, Damini, in a celluloid version of Tagore’s famous classic Choturango, to be directed by painter‑director Purnendu Pattrea. She had agreed to work in the film because noted writer Premendra Mitra had personally requested her to take on the project. Besides, for her, to bring a Tagore character alive on screen was a dream come true. But the suicide of Hemen Ganguly, the producer of the film, put paid to all hopes and the film was shelved for good. She was also supposed to portray the famous theatre actress Binodini opposite Rajesh Khanna. This too did not happen. She had agreed to do one of the two important female roles in a film adapted from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Krishnokanter Will. The film did not even begin shooting and was subsequently shelved.

Excerpted with permission from Suchitra Sen The Legend and the Enigma, Shoma A Chatterji, Harper Collins India.