Everyone in Sushmita Sen’s office refers to her as Ms Sen. So as I wait for Ms Sen (I am a few minutes early for my 2.30 pm appointment), I study the bookshelf in front of me. It’s full of thick, neatly labelled files: ‘RLB – British Dialogue Writers,’ ‘RLB – Location Breakdown,’ ‘RLB – Jewellery’ etc. What is RLB, I wonder.
Then the penny drops – Rani Lakshmi Bai, of course, Sushmita Sen’s ambitious film on the 19th century warrior queen, about which we’ve heard so much for so long. But the project is still at the preparatory stage – forget shooting, even the cast hasn’t been finalised as yet.
Naturally, there is a great deal of speculation around RLB – the film press has been wondering if it will ever get made. Just as film journalists have been wondering – in general – about Sushmita Sen. And having read what has been written about her, all of us (including those who claim never to read film magazines or watch Hindi films; Sushmita’s constituency goes beyond Bollywood junkies), are also wondering about: Where has she been all this while? (Yes, we saw her in the TV show Ek Khiladi Ek Hasina; but before that?)
Is she really that inaccessible, locked up in an ivory tower? Are stories about her strange behaviour true? Has she actually gone through dozens of boyfriends? Has she put on lots of weight?
The last question is answered immediately as, exactly at 2.30 pm, Sushmita strolls in, looking stunning – and slim. She sticks out her hand, smiles and says, "Hi, I’m Sushmita." Not that I would have mistaken her for Lalita Pawar. However. Let’s start with the film magazine-fuelled curiosity. First the matter of weight. "Yes, my weight became a national issue, didn’t it?" laughs Sushmita. She had put on some weight, she confesses, but she’s been watching her diet and working out with a personal trainer, and the results are there for all to see (not fat at all).
Now for the interesting part vis-à-vis the weight issue. Sushmita explains that since she’s on the ‘other’ side of 30 (read 30 plus), she doesn’t want to look the way she did when she was on ‘that’ side of 30 (read 30 minus). "I’m not as skinny as I was," she says. "I’m more filled out. And I like it like this. It’s not about being a size zero. I don’t want an undernourished look. I want to be toned but voluptuous."
I’m sure male readers will approve. Famished-looking beanpoles are not sexy.
Next, the many, many love affairs and relationships. “Hundreds and thousands of men?” Sushmita laughs again. “If only!” But this bit of the interview is difficult because she quickly retreats into waffle. “I have constantly been in love, whether I’ve been in a relationship or not,” she says. Er?
Sushmita tries to explain. “See, most people think like this — you fall in love with someone, you get into a relationship with this someone and then you marry this someone. Right?” Right.
“But sometimes, even if you’re in love, there doesn’t have to be a relationship. You can love someone and not want to do anything about it.”
What we really want to know of course are the names of all the boyfriends Sushmita has ever had and details of why she broke up with them. But of course we’ll have to be content with this: “I don’t impulsively jump into relationships any more, nor do I impulsively end them now. I’ve realized that in a relationship you grow in relation to the other person. If you grow in a different direction, then that relationship was not meant to go beyond.”
The next two queries are inter-related. If the film press is to be believed, then Sushmita has – for quite a while now – retreated into a shell. She’s inaccessible, she doesn’t meet anyone, she’s becoming, well, strange.<b2>
Sushmita doesn’t duck this one. “I’m aware that a lot of people believe I have horrible PR,” she admits. “But I’m not inaccessible. Yes, you can’t call me on my mobile phone. But I have an office and anyone can contact me through my office. I agree I’m slightly more difficult to contact than most other people, but I don’t mind that.”
According to Sushmita, often journalists (“very nice people”) come to interview her but when the stories come out, she’s shocked. Quotes are taken out of context, quotes from some other interview are incorporated and the end result has no resemblance to what transpired between her and the journalist. Sushmita decides not to speak to that publication again. (Over time, she forgets that she’s not supposed to speak to so-and-so journalist. Her staff has to remind her).
Sushmita says that it’s these publications – in particular a Mumbai tabloid – that have spread stories about her strange behaviour.
Like the rumours about how she suddenly sacked almost her entire staff one day? “That’s not a rumour,” replies Sushmita calmly. “I sacked four people from my staff, people who had been with me for a long time. I sacked them because they brought prostitutes to the house. I have a little girl – my daughter Renee – in the house. I can’t tolerate behaviour like this. They should be grateful I didn’t kill them. Now I’m very careful. I keep telling my friends to get their domestic staff registered with the police.”
The last question – where has she been all this while? – deserves a more detailed answer.
Sushmita won the Miss Universe contest in 1994 and did her first film (
) in 1996. But in all these years, she’s barely done 26-odd films. “I’ve never been a very busy actress,” she says (actually she uses the word ‘actor’ but the Brunch style sheet uses the word only for men, so we’ll let that pass). More tellingly, as she herself admits without hesitation, only about five per cent of her films have done well commercially, and 95 per cent have bombed. “I should’ve been finished by now,” she says. “But I didn’t allow myself to be burnt out.”
Sushmita’s logic is as follows. If she had done, say, five or six films in a year, each film would have come with its own set of publicity/promotional interviews/appearances etc. “You get screen age,” says Sushmita. “People have watched you and watched you till they don’t want to watch you any more. Instead, now people say things like ‘she hasn’t got her due,’ or ‘why don’t we see more of her?’ about me. I’m very happy with that.”
Like all actresses, Sushmita too says she’s never believed in being No. 1. She even stands by her flops. I try counting them. When I finish, she tells me, almost gleefully, “You left out
Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag
!” Oh, that one. Why did she do it? “When the film was offered to me, I jumped at it. We all did. After all, it was the remake of a legendary film,” she explains. “Ramu was making it, he’s not a bad director. But he was just not in his element. When I dubbed for the film, I realized we were in trouble. But I’m not apologetic about it.”
Though Sushmita insists that she has no regrets over the way her career has gone, the truth is that today she has taken a professional decision which is at variance with her past strategy. Earlier, she never bothered about the banner, director, or scale of the project. “Show me the script, is all I asked,” she says. That’s what led to ‘heroine-oriented’ films like
. While roles in such movies may have sounded substantial and challenging, the films tanked. “People created small markets for my films,” says Sushmita, “but then the films started bombing. I wish I could have shown people the films I had actually agreed to on paper, because they never turned out that way. Today, it’s show me the banner, director, co-star, set-up. Then show me the script.”<b3>
Sushmita is starting her own production house – perhaps to give herself the kind of projects she really wants to work in. “I am going to produce small films,” she says. “but I will act only in the big commercial projects my company undertakes.”
Her dream project of course is RLB. The fascination with Rani Lakshmi Bai began when a publication ran a poll asking readers who could best play the role of Rani Lakshmi Bai on screen. Sushmita won the poll by a big majority. Intrigued, she decided to read up a little on the queen. The first sentence she read was: “She was born on the 19th November…” It was almost like a sign – 19th November is also Sushmita’s birthday. “I didn’t choose the film, the film chose me,” she says.
First Sushmita just wanted to play Rani Lakshmi bai. To make sure that there was no compromise when it came to producing a historical saga with its burden of research, sets, costumes etc, she decided to produce the film as well. But as she got more and more seduced by her subject, she actually began to see the film in her mind. That’s when she decided to direct it too.
But Sushmita is aware that expensive film like this (estimated budget: 80 crore) can’t ride on her shoulders alone. “I must have certain actors on board as part of the film. There are at least six really important roles for which I’ve already marked out top actors. But they’re not available now. I’ll wait for them because they are crucial to the project.” (Who are these actors? Sushmita won’t tell, not till “they’ve signed on the dotted line.”)
While she’s waiting for dates, she’s working on the storyboard of the film. “We’re making the entire film on paper, frame by frame, in colour,” she says. “We want to release it in 2010.”
None of this means that Sushmita lives, breathes, eats cinema. “I don’t,” she says. “I have a life beyond films. When I started out, I was really young. I had no Godfather except God! My acting career began as a pleasant accident. Whenever my shooting got cancelled, I would get on a flight and go off to New York. I didn’t want to waste a minute doing something I didn’t want to do.”
Her life still doesn’t revolve around films, but for many years, there’s been a different focus to her days: her adopted daughter Renee. Now Sushmita has to get away from work – not to rush to New York but to rush to her daughter. “I tell my directors that look, I have to leave at such-and-such time. And I just go at that time. Renee has brought a lot of discipline in my life.” <b4>
Ask her about her relationship with her daughter and Sushmita smiles fondly. “She’s not just my heartbeat. She’s my everything,” she says. “I’m responsible for her. When she was six months old, she was like a little doll. Suddenly she called me ‘Ma’ one day and it was like a doll speaking. There was such a sense of euphoria. I decided long ago that I would never be the kind of mother who tells her child that ‘I couldn’t do this or I couldn’t do that because of you.’ Today if I want to take a break I call my mother and say, ‘Is it your turn or is it baba’s turn to come and stay with Renee?’ They’re only too happy to come down to Mumbai and be with her. And I tell Renee that I’m taking a break. She has never tied me down.”
Perhaps because her film career has been so erratic, because she doesn’t come across as an overly ambitious actress single-mindedly pursuing success, perhaps because she adopted a little girl, perhaps because of all these things and then something else, there is an aura around Sushmita. When you see her on screen (or off screen), the first impression is one of warmth and intelligence. She never looks plastic. In her recent TV outing as a judge in Ek Khiladi Ek Hasina, she may not have looked perfect – she looked (by Bollywood standards) out of shape — but strangely that made her all the more real, the kind of person you’d be happy to meet and have a conversation with (as long as you don’t ask her about her love life!).
“Yes, people seem more interested in me than in my films,” smiles Sushmita. “And I do believe that as a person I am more important than whatever accolades I’ve got for my work. A person can study and train and become an astronaut. But who you are as a human being – that requires constant practice.”
She’s still working at it – but she seems to be getting there.