A week before Uttam Kumar died on July 24, 1980, he had wanted to meet Suchitra Sen. “He called her after watching ‘Alo Aamaar Alo’ on TV, but ‘Kakima’ (Suchitra) said ‘I’m busy now, I’ll see you later’. She later told me, ‘Utu called, wanted to see me’. In a week’s time, Uttam Kumar passed away.” A secret on the Bengali celluloid’s first couple has just been let out.
Talking to Ramlal Nandi (61), whom Suchitra had treated like her own son, she hardly appeared the enigma everyone wanted to fathom. “I started visiting her from 1972. One day in 1978, she said ‘aar studio-te jabo na (won’t go to the studio any more)’. At that time, I was too immature to understand the significance of the statement. Today, I realize that almost half a lifetime has been spent in seclusion that is unheard of,” Nandi said.
Nandi’s Suchitra connection is through his uncle Asit Chowdhury, whose production company Chhayabani produced many of the runaway hits like ‘Saptapadi’ that gave the duo their biggest success in 1961 and gave them the stardom that no other Bengali actors can match.
Giant stills from the superhits like Asit Sen-directed ‘Uttar Falguni’ and ‘Mamta’ hang from the walls of New Theatres Studio, now a part of Chhayabani. Nandi’s uncle had planned a Hindi remake of ‘Saptapadi’. “Saat Kadam, where Amitabh and Rekha were supposed to act, was called off when Amit ji came out of the private screening of ‘Saptapadi’ at Park Hotel to tell my uncle with folded hands: ‘Yeh mujhse nahin hoga’,” Nandi recalled. Another failed project: ‘Nati Binodini’, starring Suchitra and Rajesh Khanna. Was she disappointed that ‘Saat Kadam’ didn’t take off? Nandi only shrugs.
Uttam Kumar was a stakeholder of Chhayabani-New Theatres before his death. Nandi falls silent off and on, fearing he would reveal too much about India’s own answer to Greta Garbo. And he only smiles if you ask him why Uttam-Suchitra acted in 20 films in 1950s and only eight through the Sixties and Seventies.
Nandi last met Suchitra in 1988, when he took her to Woodlands to see his uncle who died days later, on January 14. “She was a very private person. During those days she lived in the two-storied bungalow where I was among the few allowed in. Later, we would speak over the phone.”
The last time Nandi called her was in 2006, to wish her ‘Shubho Bijoya’. She received calls on 475000, between 9 and 10 am. Still ringing in Nandi’s ears are her words about the documentary he made in 1996. “She was happy that I was doing it. ‘Tui kor,’ (do it) she told me,” said Nandi.
Suchitra shared a rare bonding with Asit Chowdhury who took her to her diksha-guru Bharat Maharaj, president of the Ramakrishna Mission. “But it was ‘Kakima’ who took me to him for my diksha,” said Nandi, who used to handle her income tax returns. He even remembers can reel off her bank account number in UBI’s Rashbehari Branch.
Chhayabani still earns handsome royalty from the screening of Suchitra Sen classics like ‘Saptapadi’, ‘Grihadaha’, ‘Harano Sur’, ‘Alo Amar Alo’, ‘Uttar Falguni’ and ‘Mamta’. Nandi vividly recalls the party his uncle had hosted in her honour after the Moscow award. “She had torn Soumitra Chatterjee’s shirt, in a redo of the scene in ‘Saat Paake Bandha’.”
He has successfully passed on the Suchitra legacy to his son, Sougata (31) who’d played in her lap.
“My memories of her are rather sketchy but her screen presence haunts me all the time. I wish we could reproduce ‘Saptapadi’ or her other hits. They’ll run to packed plexes,” Sougata said.