Bollywood and Hindi cinema are not where you would naturally place the daughter of a Nobel Laureate economist (Amartya Sen) and a Padma Shri-winning Bengali writer (Nabanita Dev Sen). But then Nandana Sen is hardly one to conform to stereotype.
A student of literature at Harvard University, she went on to study film production and acting before making her acting debut in Goutam Ghose’s Gudia (1997). Bollywood followed in 2005, with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black. In June last year, she married John Makinson, CEO of Penguin Publishing, and now lives largely in New York.
Her much-delayed film Rang Rasiya, about freedom of expression and the love story between artist Raja Ravi Varma and his muse Sugandha, finally about to release, brings the New York-based writer, actor and activist back home to India.
What is keeping you busy these days?
Cinema, child rights, and writing – as before. The only difference is that now I’m juggling three vocations, as well as three continents. Shuttling between shifting time zones can keep you mad busy!
Where is home these days?
I’m mostly in New York and London, cities I’ve lived in as a child; cities I love. But I come back to India as often as I can, for family, and for my work with the child-protection organisations I represent as ambassador, whose work is simply amazing.
What do you miss most about living in India?
My mother, the monsoons and mustard oil.
What do you look forward to on your visits back?
Playing with my niece, riding my bike in Santiniketan and OD-ing on puchkas (Bengali pani puris).
What attracted you to the part of Sugandha? What kind of preparation did you do?
The fact that she is utterly fearless, yet palpably fragile is what attracted my attention. Sugandha has the wide-eyed wonder and innocence of a child, but also a woman’s passion, determination, and unconditional love. Her journey mirrors that of the archetypal Indian women she embodied – Sita, Draupadi, Shakuntala.
Transforming myself into Sugandha was a complex but wonderful process. From re-acquainting myself with the mythological heroines Sugandha re-enacted, to poring over Ravi Varma’s art to invent Sugandha’s body language, to researching the lives of 19th century Devdasis, to wearing Nauvari (nine yard) saris everywhere (to watch Spiderman as well as to Siddhivinayak temple), I loved every aspect of becoming her.
You have some strong feelings about nudity. Have your feelings changed after Rang Rasiya, which celebrates a woman’s body?
Nudity is a complex issue that needs careful consideration and responsible treatment by all artists – actors, painters, filmmakers. It was not an easy decision for me. I discussed it at length with my very supportive family, and Ketan (Mehta, director) was extremely sensitive to all my concerns.
Picture perfect: Sen was taken in by her character's fragile yet fearless character.
Indian films often commodify female bodies in a way I’d never consent to, as it would turn me into an object and strip away my humanity. I believe absolutely in everyone’s right to express themselves freely, and I applaud that our dominant culture embraces the hyper-sexualised movements and minimal clothing that characterise item numbers, which are sexy and usually fun.
But there is certainly a duplicity here, as the same culture refuses to accept the innate dignity of the human form. Our double standards are more harmful and confusing than any unpretentious expression of our physicality.
Are you doing any other Hindi or Indian films?
Yes, one in Hindi and one in Bengali, and I’d love to do more. The Hindi film industry has evolved a great deal in just a few years – filmmakers are more open to taking risks, and unconventional stories, when told well, are now commercially viable.
I’m drawn to stories that make us more aware of the world we live in – which is why most of my films have had a strong social or political consciousness, be it Black, The War Within, The World Unseen or Rang Rasiya.
Are you working on any film scripts presently?
I’ve completed one, and am in the process of writing another. And I’m collaborating with writer-director Richard Curtis on developing a series of short scripts for a project he is spearheading for Action 2015.
Can you tell us about the children’s book you are writing?
Yes, it’s called Kangaroo Kiss and it’s inspired by my bouncy niece, Hiya. I am finishing another one called Mambi and the Forest Fire.
Any children’s books you’d recommend?
Abol Tabol, by Sukumar Ray.
Lottie and Lisa (the source of The Parent Trap), by Erich Kastner.
Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle.
From HT Brunch,November 2
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