Gulzar and Suchitra Sen remained ‘sir’ to each other on the sets of ‘Aandhi’ and afterwards
[From the chapter 'The Stellar Cast']
Suchitra Sen (1931–2014)
‘Suchitra Sen was an era’ is the opening sentence of Shoma A. Chatterji’s book, Suchitra Sen: quoting the journalist Ranjan Bandyopadhyay. A lot is established by this single line.
Suchitra Sen ruled Bengali cinema for decades and gave powerful performances in Deep Jwele Jaai (1959) and Uttar Falguni (1963) among many others. Beginning her career with Shesh Kothay (1952), she continued to give powerful peformances, one after the other, till the year 1978 when she quit cinema after Pronoy Pasha (1978). In Hindustani cinema, she is remembered for Devdas (1955), Bombai ka Babu (1960), Mamta (1966) and, of course, Aandhi. Although she acted in very few Hindi films, her ethereal beauty, screen presence and emotive powers led to her popularity among viewers, and she was considered at par with actresses who starred in many more films than her.
Sen’s personal photographer, Dhiren Deb, claimed that he had never ‘met a woman more decent, warmer, more beautiful, more complete and ideal’ than her. Chatterji writes that Suchitra’s choice of roles indicated she was a woman with a mind of her own at a time when most actresses were happy doing whatever they were offered. Often, she played the role of a working woman, a rare phenomenon in those days.
Maitreyee B. Chowdhury, in the book Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, writes, ‘Suchitra Sen evokes the image of a woman of incredible beauty and grace, with large haunting eyes. Yet she remains an enigma.’22 She adds, ‘The way she dressed, her makeup, her way of talking, everything bespoke of a woman in command of herself and accustomed to attention.’23
Maybe this was the reason why Gulzar chose Suchitra Sen to play the role of Aarti Devi. The director himself says that he had always wanted to cast Suchitra Sen in a film, but decided to approach her only once he had written a role which suited her talent.24 The persona of Aarti Devi’s character was a good fit for Suchitra Sen’s personality. Chatterji quotes an interesting anecdote between Gulzar and Suchitra Sen, highlighting the equation between the two – in that, both of them would address each other as ‘Sir’. Although he was younger to Sen, in both ‘age and experience’, Gulzar says that she insisted in addressing him as ‘Sir’, much against the requests of Gulzar. So, he too started addressing her as ‘Sir’. The two of them continued using this salutation with each other even after the film was wrapped up.25 Chatterjee also quotes Gulzar and his remembering Sen as an ‘extremely warm and a sensitive person’.26
Suchitra Sen as Aarti Devi
Suchitra Sen’s entry as Aarti Devi sets the tone for how the audience perceives her character. Enigmatic and energetic, she climbs down the stairs with great aplomb. File in hand, a crisp cotton sari neatly tucked at her waist, dark glasses over her eyes and all this against a compelling background score make quite an impression in announcing the arrival of the film’s protagonist.
To appreciate how she successfully switches her personality from an authoritative politician to a woman who meets her estranged love, credit must be go to Gulzar and Suchitra Sen. During the film, Sen portrays three different and very distinct traits of Aarti’s personality. In one, she plays a young, free spirited woman who dares to fall in love, stands her ground in front of an opposing father, gets married, and eventually has a falling out with her husband. In the second, she plays a politician who has the strength to lead a country. All her moves are packed with positivity and energy. And in the third, she meets her estranged husband after a gap of nine years; the way she mellows down, the ache of heartbreak melts through her eyes. It is incredible for a character to go through so many transformations during a single film.
The portion of the film which is about the newly married life of the couple, depicts Aarti as a very carefree person. The relationship between the husband and wife is described using wit and humour, and at one point, JK acknowledges this when, laughing, he tells his colleague: ‘You know, my wife has a classic sense of humour. Main baap banne wala hoon … yehi baat mujhe subah ghar pe bata sakti thi. Telegram bheja hai usne…’ (You know, my wife has a classic sense of humour. I am going to be a father … she could have told me this in the morning, at home … but she has telegrammed this news to me.)
JK also comments on his wife’s strength: ‘You don’t know the strength of my wife. Woh mahinon ka kaam dinon mein karti hai (She finishes the tasks that’s generally done in months, in days). She will just do it like that’ (he clicks his fingers). This again reflects the fact that JK knows very well the strength of his wife. He is fully aware of her strong temperament and her will to get things done, those which she wishes to accomplish.
Another feature of Aarti’s character that comes through is that she has great respect for the common man and holds idealistic views of how to run the government. At one point, when she suspects Lallu Laal playing up some game, she tells him: ‘Jhoot bol kar sachchayee kabhi nahin jeeti jaa sakti’ (Truth cannot be won with lies).
Towards the end of the film, when Aarti leaves the hotel in anger, JK remarks about her: ‘She hasn’t changed a single bit. Wohi mizaaj, wohi ghussa, wohi impulsive nature’ (She hasn’t changed a single bit. The same temperament, the same anger, the same impulsive nature).
To sum up on what the filmmaker himself had to say about his protagonist, Maitreyee B. Chowdhury quotes Gulzar and says that very few actresses could have lent the dignity that Suchitra did to the character of Aarti.
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