Sushmita Sen: My daughter said ‘You are a good actress’, that’s the first medal I have ever earned – Exclusive! – Times of India

Over the years, Sushmita Sen’s image has become synonymous with phrases like strength of a woman, independent mother and an actress of repute. She’s never been one to follow diktats and she has vociferously refused to be pegged under the norms of society and the film industry’s machinations. That’s why even today, people recall her performances in ‘Biwi No.1’, ‘Filhaal’ and even the unforgettable number Dilbar from ‘Sirf Tum’. Not to mention the impact she’s created on OTT with her comeback in Ram Madhvani’s ‘Aarya’, last year. ETimes got a chance to have a brief but intense chat with the former Miss Universe and quite naturally the conversation veered into familiar topics like gender equality, motherhood and strong roles.

Whether it was in ‘Filhaal’ or her latest ‘Aarya’, Sushmita’s characters have always shown a strong survival instinct and that’s a theme that she feels isn’t really exclusive to women in general. She says, “I don’t think that tales of survival are necessarily gender centric, but I do feel like women have a very strong survival instinct and I am no exception to that. I would prefer not to be in a situation where you have to think about survival. But I have been there, done that and I firmly believe that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. I feel I am living proof of the fact that the more you can endure the more capacity you gain to survive. The stronger your conviction gets that anything is possible.”

We point to the growing popularity of the opinion that women have more strength and character both physically and emotionally and Sushmita guffaws. “You said it, not me!” she quips. But once the candour settles, she agrees and adds, “As much as I appreciate that compliment to all womankind, I kind of believe that strength is present in everybody, every human. What makes women, women is the many different complications and the immense amount of tolerance that a woman has to go through on a physical, emotional, social level. From the time that she’s born, she has a reservoir of strength.”

Sushmita is quick to point out that though women may seem vulnerable on the surface, there’s a deeper layer that’s not very apparent. She explains, “You see, strength isn’t always portrayed outwards. Strength is what sustains you. Ek insaan thak har ke quit kar jata hai, aur ek insaan hai jo ek ke baad ek storms face kar jata hai aur job woh storms chale jate hain, toh woh insaan uthke khada ho jata hai (One person can quit after a single experience, but another could brave storm after storm and then rise on their feet once the dust has settled). That’s what a woman does. The credit for that goes to the fact that women have a very deep reservoir of tolerance. We don’t quit easy, we can take a lot, endure a lot.” As soon as she says that, she also makes amends and acknowledges the fact that the very tolerant nature of women adds to the perception that they could be weak. She says, “Sometimes I think that’s a bad thing, too. Because if you didn’t endure so much, you could be so much more. That’s what we keep talking about right? Gender equality, where you voice your opinion, your concerns and your pain. But then, everything has a plus and a minus. So yeah it’s the tolerance and reservoir of depth that makes women so strong.”

On the subject of the strength of women, we ask Sushmita if she would ever accept a role that does not represent a woman as a strong person. Taking cognisance of flawed female characters she says, “It should be an author backed character. I ain’t playing a side kick, that’s not happening.” Again, her self-aware nature kicks in as she offers an explanation for her thoughts. She says, “Putting in work into a character, any character, is my job as an actor. It’s easy for someone to watch me play a strong woman on screen and say, ‘haan see that’s Sush, that’s Aarya and I see it!’. But to play someone who is a lot more submissive, now that’s my job and I would need a fantastic director to be able to pull that out of me. I would need a great team, because you can’t do that in isolation. But the question remains, can I do it? Of course, I can do it. I better be able to do it. But I will need it to be author backed.”

Again, we offer a counter and add that a lot of actresses have portrayed characters that may not be strong women per se, but the characters have become strong and memorable through performances. Sushmita acknowledges that she’s been offered such characters all through her career. She says, “Many years ago, in ‘Biwi No. 1’, nobody wanted to play Rupali and it wasn’t the author backed role and yet it was the one that stood out from that movie and story. So yes, I have experienced that many times, including the movie ‘Filhaal’. It’s a beautiful film, ahead of its times, but yeah these things depend on the maker, too. It also depends on what juncture you are in your life and career. When I was 21-22, I was great at taking risks and saying, ‘We’ll see what happens with that risky role.’ But, as I’ve gotten older and I do less work, I can’t be doing that anymore.”

She points out that it’s not so much about wisdom as it is about practicality. Sushmita explains, “I want to invest six months of my life doing something that I can make count. So when I know that is happening, I take exactly 5 seconds to say ‘yes’ to a role. I now have a parameter, how I choose that and say yes. Not just because it’s author-backed, it depends on the team, the subject, essentially the people behind it.” She also points to the fact that her work should excite her. She says, “We have to factor in that I am going to be jumping out of bed, everyday, of the six months saying ‘Mujhe ye karna hai. I wanna do this.’ I think at 46, this is where I am at and I need to be able to do that.”

We ask Sushmita if her daughters Renee and Alisah have seen her comeback on OTT and what they think of their mother’s efforts. She reveals, “Renee had already seen me do films when she was a baby. She was on sets and I was still working. So for her, it was like, ‘Yes! Finally you are doing something that you should have been doing all this time’. With Alisah on the other hand, I was not filming since she was born. I wanted to be a hands-on mum and be with her through the formative years, that was very important for me. Ye badi hote hote, Alisah ji, mujhe kehti thi, ‘Log aapke saath tasveerein kyun khichvate hain?’ (Why do people click photos with you?) I used to reply, ‘Arre, main actress hoon, I’ve been a Miss Universe (I am an actress I’ve been a Miss Universe)’. And then she would quip, ‘Miss Universe toh bahut purani baat hai aur acting toh aap karte nahi ho. Toh phir kyun photo khichvate hain log aapke saath? (Miss Universe is old news, you don’t act anymore, so why do people still want to click photos with you?)’.” The quick wit from her 11-year-old daughter stumped Sushmita. She says, “I was speechless. Here I am trying to be with my baby, spend time with her and be a dedicated mum, but she thinks mumma kucch karti hi nahi hai (mummy doesn’t do anything). So when she watched Aarya Season 1, she turned around and said, I think you are a very good actress. Honestly, that was the first medal I received, because after 10 years of hiatus, going away and trying to be a hands-on mum, I came back to an art form believing that with the right team and right mehnat (effort) I could make a comeback.”

Sushmita says that the knack of performing is permanent. She adds, “Acting is like driving, you never forget how it’s done. But God’s been very kind and my kids are now super proud, as are their friends, because they’re showing off big time. ‘My mom is Aarya!’, they say. So I think it’s worked out well for me.”

We ask her about the upcoming Season 2 of Aarya and she says that the show is about progress in both story and character. She explains, “There’s a progression of a character who thought that she was taken from an impossible position and put in a position where she didn’t have a choice. Then she wanted to keep running, running and running to protect her children. In the new season, in a nutshell, she’ll realise two things. One – she has to protect herself, because if she doesn’t survive this her children will be in big trouble as it is. So her focus needs to shift to protecting herself for the sake of everyone. Second – woh bhagna band karedgi.” Employing another analogy she says, “Sher ki vaise bhi aadat nahi hoti hai bhagne ki, agar woh ruk jaye (A lion doesn’t run away. If it stops) and decides to face the adversary then you have a whole new season.”


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