Rahe na rahe hum, Maheka karenge
Banke kali, banke saba, bagh-e-wafaa mein.
One of the most melodious songs of Hindi cinema from the film Mamta (1966) still holds true for the legendary actress of Bengali cinema Suchitra Sen on whom it was picturised, even after she lived a reclusive life for more than three decades. Sen passed away on January 17 at the age of 82.
Despite being one of the most popular and top rated actresses of Bengali cinema, she left an indelible mark on Hindi cinema as well, with her performance inBimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) with Dilip Kumar,Asit Sen’s Mamta with Dharmendra and Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) with Sanjeev Kumar. She was also seen with Dev Anand in Raj Khosla’s Bambai Ka Babu (1960) and in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s directorial debut Musafir (1957), which was scripted by Ritwik Ghatak. However, she gradually drifted away from the glamour of silver screen and never made any public appearance after 1978.
Her renunciation was so intense, that she even opted not to accept the prestigious Dada Saheb Phalke award in 2005 and remained in exile. The critics often attribute the exile of Suchitra Sen, who was also called the ‘Greta Garbo of Indian cinema’, to her aging charm and physical beauty, but the fact is that it was her quest for spiritualism and surrender to Sri Ramakrishna and Ma Sarada Devi of Ramakrishna Mission that led her to renounce the world.
Her second innings as a spiritual disciple began after getting into the Ramakrishna Order and she drew inspiration from Swami Abhayananda (Bharat Maharaj) of Ramakrishna Mission and Math. He was a direct disciple of the ‘Holy Mother’ Ma Sarada Devi. It is said that once when she was quite upset and visited Bharat Maharaj, the latter advised her to “abstain from greed of any kind”. And that was her motivation to give up worldly pleasures and remain within herself for so long, away from the public eye.
In 1973, Sen was formally initiated by the then president of the Math, Swami Vireshwar-anand.
Instead of trying to know about the tinsel world, she used to spend her time reading Bhagvad Gita, Ramakrishna Kathamrita, literature on Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Order and other spiritual books.
According to Ramakrishna Mission sources, whenever any new book on Sri Ramakrishna, Swamiji or Ma Sarada Devi got published, a copy was sent to her. Instead of visiting Durga Pujapandals in Kolkata, Sen used to call a specific monk at Belur Math office herself requesting to offer a special puja on the occasion, by sending pranami (money) for the purpose. The practice continued till her last breath.
Her spiritual involvement got intensified since 1978, after her last Bengali filmPranay Pashafailed to make an impact at the box-office. Instead of harping on the causes of failure, she preferred to choose a reclusive life. The legend of Bengali cinema gradually became an enigma to her fans, who thereafter could hardly get a glimpse of her in public. Probably, the last notable public appearance was upon the death of another Bengali cinema legend and her co-star, Uttam Kumar in 1980, with whom she had shared an extraordinary on-screen chemistry and delivered stupendous hits year after year.
According to the Ramakrishna Mission sources, Sen had once visited the Belur Math at midnightand remained seated praying in front of the temple of Ma Sarada till the break of dawn. She left early in the morning before anyone could know about the visit of the glam queen.
The monks who knew Suchitra Sen said she never uttered a single word about her professional life in any of her meetings with them and restricted herself to spiritual discussions only.
“My grandmother spends her time in spiritual quest and she never wants to make things public. It’s absolutely a private affair for her and she shuns any kind of show-off,” Bollywood actress and grand-daughter Riya Sen had told this correspondent a few years back.
“To both my elder sister Raima and me, our grandmother is an icon and we are always in awe of her larger-than-life personality. There is so much to learn from her and we haven’t got an iota of it yet,” Riya Sen had said.
Daughter of school headmaster and wife of a wealthy entrepreneur, Suchitra Sen commanded awe and respect for her ethereal charm and gravitas, which gradually turned into a mystique, once she pulled herself out of cinema. Her Bengali films Deep Jwele Jai and Saat Paanke Bandha were re-made in Hindi as Khamoshi and Kora Kaagaz. Though unlike many of her peers she never figured in any of Satyajit Ray’s film, Sen carved an unparalleled niche for herself – the space that till today couldn’t be filled.
She remained private even in death. The family made sure that her wish was honoured and she remained undisclosed to public view.
Suchitra Sen’s last wish was to enact the role of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s wife Ma Sarada Devi, which remained unfulfilled and instead she decided to get herself submerged in the devotion of Holy Mother till her last breath.
(The writer is a Delhi-based journalist, who writes on various national issues and specialises on Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh)