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Blast From The Past

Can Sushmita Sen regain her universe with her new, ambitious comeback film?

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Sushmita Sen’s journey has been a tumultuous tale of zoom-boom-doom. In early 1994, the Bong Beauty had the universe at her feet, Literally! Winning the coveted Miss Universe crown — the first Indian to achieve this glorious feat — she instantly set off two rockets. One, zooming her into another space, re-defining national pride. Two, putting her instantly into direct competition with a certain Aishwarya Rai, who went on to win the Miss World beauty contest and title. Today, two decades on, there can be no question about who’s gone where in star-rating, industry reckoning, but most importantly in public response. Rai has clearly zoomed worlds ahead, across every domain, both personal and professional,while Sen seems to be floundering in her shrinking and obscure universe.

Explains a Sen-watcher with great insight. “She is an amazing, fascinating study in self-destruct. She took off like a meteor, post 1994, the pride and joy of the nation. Her celebrated photograph of shock, surprise, ecstasy, became a template for all subsequent made-in-India winners to copy. Feminine, articulate, intelligent, smart and witty, Sushmita Sen overnight became a veritable role-model for zillions of young girls to follow. She symbolized the 1990s version of beauty with brains and at least in those early years totally eclipsed Rai across every considered criteria.”

Sure, Rai was more beautiful, but Sen’s dazzling personality — intelligent and articulate — was considered way more appealing to the thinking female. Flamboyant and irreverent, the Bong beauty really socked one and all to rock the universe.

On cue, movies zoomed in and the delectable and divine Miss Universe chose — guess which project to debut in? — Rakshakan, a Tamil movie. Mercifully, before it could see the light of day, maverick director Vikram Bhatt — a Mahesh Bhatt clone in those days — swooped in and persuaded her to star in his film … and his life. Dastak was neither here nor there and clearly a wrong film as launch pad. Ever since, with a few exceptions, Sen has demonstrated an uncanny knack of backing the wrong horse, both in movies and men.

Consider the evidence. With the sole exception of Biwi No. 1, Main Hoon Na and Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya, not one of her films struck gold. Quickly translated, it means that in 20 years, Sushmita had just three hits — and that too in ensemble, not solo, starrers. What happened? Bad luck? Bad choices? Ego problems? Delusions of grandeur? Pyar ka side effects?

Insiders believe it’s a little of everything. To begin with, she was not from the industry and despite a glam title, which she had to relinquish after a year, Bollywood was a very different ball game. One had to play by the rules in this tricky terrain if one wanted to survive, but Sen was too free-spirited, spunky and individualist to conform or play the hypocritical and diplomatic Bollywood game as ordained by the powers-that-be. There was no doublespeak. What you saw was what you got. This unnerved the industry and most couldn’t understand or tackle it.

Then there was the Sen persona. Observed Film Critic Akash Tripathi: “She intimidated both heroes and filmmakers with the sheer force of her personality. When she entered a party or a gathering, conversation stopped. She was a natural show-stealer. Tall, crazily attractive, terrifically poised, intelligent, articulate, witty and completely comfortable with men of all shapes, sizes and status, including the great Khans, Sharukh and Salman, this package was a whole new challenge to the ghisa-pita and tradition-bound Bollywood-walas of that time. ‘Yeh item ko le kar kya kare, kaise fit karwafe, kaha fit karwaiye, kaun hero ke saath?’ (what do with this item, how to fit her, where to fit her, with which hero) was the million dollar question!”

Tripathi is spot-on. Unlike Rai, who could and played the docile bharatiya naari and dug her teeth into stereotypical, conventional heroine roles, Sen refused that route with honesty and conviction, because, for Chrissake, no hero in his right mind would dare treat her like crap, right? With her height, open, spirited body-language and spontaneous warmth, she would always be the perfect other woman; individualist, seductive, intelligent companion; a courageous rebel fighting for a cause with passion and fire … not Devdas’s wimpy Paro or the sweet, domesticated wife and mother hot and heavy on her dumb pati parmeshwar.

Unfortunately, Bollywood of the 1990s, and even later, despite the posturing and big talk on making women-oriented/driven/specific films, seldom went that path and invariably compromised to play safe with the audiences. The big banners had their own camp favorites and Sen, being Sen, wasn’t in any of them.

Another problem was her innate, intrinsic sophistication that blocked her path to do roles of a typical, bharatiya nature. Sen, first and last, epitomized the new Indian woman — fun, frank, fearless — and this has been her definitive image to audiences and the movie-going public. Tragically, no one has really bothered to explore this space and exploit her potential to the full. It requires a sophisticated filmmaker, with a preferred western sensibility, to chart a powerful narrative about a gorgeous, strong yet sensitive female. Can this ever happen? Is the loss entirely ours? Isn’t she too gorgeous and striking as a personality to write off?

Bollywood observers believe, however, that the diva herself has also a large part to play for her present state. They point to her complete and flamboyant dismissal and disregard for cultivating the right people in the industry and maintaining a good relationship with them — the first commandment of survival in this jungle. Being warm and friendly is not the same as being smart and savvy. Next up, her flashing attitude and vetoing a slew of big banner projects that came her way immediately after her scintillating star-turn as the seductive school-teacher in the Shahrukh Khan-Farah Khan smash hit, Main Hoon Na. The reason ascribed was over-confidence in her talent and market-pull to carry two small heroine-driven projects, solely on her new-found star-status.

Unfortunately, both Tanuja Chandra’s Zindagi Rocks and Kalpana Lajmi’s Chingaari had to be peeled off the ceiling, which alas, coincided with her fate in the industry also being sealed. None of her subsequent films (except the experimental and interesting Meghna Gulzar directed Filhaal) Zor, Sirf Tum or Paisa Vasool created wonders for her brand equity either in the Bollywood market, pulling her further down to the bottom of the barrel at super speed. In a competitive space, with young, eager, hot, talented females baying at the heels every second, this was a death blow! Her heart too was guilty in playing its part in her zooming down. Her various romances and affairs, always doomed, seemed to also have taken a toll on her sense of purpose, perspective, focus and direction.

Everything combined, the gorgeous, dazzling and lively Sushmita Sen, who should have been right on top of the game is slowly moving away from the radar into limbo-land. With her ambitious Rani Laxmibai and Karma, Konfessions and Holi still in deep freeze, the still lovely lady seems to while her time mentoring fashion models and appearing in real estate ads.

She was once quoted as saying, “In life there are no right or wrong choices, just different ones.” True, but has being different worked for this vivacious woman with an infectious lust for life? It’s never too late to re-invent. Tomorrow is another day and who knows, with her still-glam personality and loyal fan following, Sushmita Sen may once again have the universe at her feet?

Has this time, finally arrived in the shape of talented, savvy, successful, young, new-age Bengali director Srijit Mukherjee? One of the Tollygunges most sought after directors, with a clutch of super-hits, even National Awards, Mukherjee represents a new breed of filmmakers who fearlessly follow their heart and passionately go the distance, invariably taking their vast, loyal audiences with them.

From his debut film Autograph (which was an audacious tribute to Ray’s classic Nayak) to his last national Award winning Jateshwar, he has consistently scored a bulls-eye, adroitly blending his version of logic with magic to win friends and influence people. Unlike Chandra and Lajmi, he is way more prolific, street-smart, solid in his reputation as a creative maverick fully into every single department of movie making without turning a blind eye to market forces.

Mukherjee confessed that Sen’s persona always fascinated him and the author-backed script of Nirbaak totally journeyed into this terrain of mystery and mystique. “I didn’t know her personally. I got her secretary’s email and mailed her the script. Sushmita read it, loved it, called me to request me to send her DVDs of all my films pronto. I did that. Shortly after she again called to say that, in principle, she was dead keen to do the film but needed to meet for a narration and interpretation of my vision of the film and her role, to see whether there was a meeting of the minds. I flew down to meet her and within fifteen minutes into discussion knew that everything was in place. We clicked instantly, big time.”

Mukherjee is fully aware that Sen may not be the greatest exponent of Bengali language and enunciation. But that’s hardly the problem, Mukherjee says, “because her role in all the four stories has minimum dialogue. The emphasis will be on her persona, mystique and aura that she exudes and is a part of her awesome personality.”

Question is: will the savvy director (reputed to inspire super performances from his artists) be able to resurrect Sen’s dead film career? Will the still gorgeous Sen be able to bring back the spark and sizzle, which was once part of her DNA? Will their combo arouse their required curiosity and generate the desired interest in public? Finally, will it mark a return of ex-Miss Universe to the big screen with a bang?

Read the answer when Nirbaak debuts.   

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Bollywood | Arts & Entertainment | August 2014

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