News Find/Feedback/Site Index
July 4, 2000

Good Samaritans
News Archives
The Arts

E-Mail this report to a friend

A star on the horizon

Calling her the daughter of renowned economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and noted Bengali litterateur and winner of this year's Sahitya Akademi Award Nabanita Deb Sen would be to undermine her as an individual. Surely, Nandana Sen deserves better.

Educated at Harvard in literature, followed by theatre studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London, Sen has also studied at the Lee Strasbourg Theatre Institute and done cinema studies at the USC School of Cinema Television, California.

With her recent critically acclaimed performance in Seducing Maarya, a self-scripted 15-minute film, in Forever, by New York-based Srinivas Krishna, and a full-length feature by a film-maker of Chinese-Malaysian descent behind her, she is making her presence felt in international cinema.

Here, in an interview with Aparajita Saha, Sen discusses, among other things, family, philosophy and films. Excerpts:

Tell us something about your growing years.

I spent the first couple of years of my childhood in England. Then we came to Calcutta and I grew up with my grandmother, mother and sister. It was an all-female family and that was wonderful in many ways -- we really believed we could do absolutely anything we wanted! When I was still very young I went to America and started college in Harvard. So I grew up in all three places, but the most critical years of my life, the most formative ones, were spent in Calcutta.

First Calcutta, and now New York. How has the transition been?

I've been very lucky, I've had a great life when I was living in Calcutta. I have learnt much from the city in terms of everything I've done, be it writing, acting or film-making. Much of my artistic inspiration can be attributed to Calcutta. At the same time, I tremendously enjoyed America as well. Studying literature at Harvard was a great experience. It was amazing to have professors whose writing I had admired for long. I loved the lively academic atmosphere and I made life-lasting friends there.

Have there been any differences, professionally or academically, because you're the daughter of economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and Bengali litterateur and winner of this year's Sahitya Akademi Award winner Nabanita Deb Sen?

My parents being who they are doesn't make a difference because my being at Harvard had nothing to do with my father being there. I had chosen Harvard much before my father was supposed to go there. So there was no clash as such.

As for me being in films, the people I meet may know about my parents, but there's no overlap between the world that my father or mother inhabit and the one that I occupy while I'm working and I prefer it that way.

I'm very proud of my parents and wouldn't want to be the daughter of anyone else, but it's sometimes exhausting to realise that no matter what you do, you're always being perceived as the offspring of so-and-so rather than who you really are. For instance, I'm often asked why I'm in films when my father's an economist and I know that if my father wasn't who he is, no one would ask me that question.

Everybody has to struggle in their own way to become the people they want to be. I'm no exception to this rule and I have had to struggle too. In fact I'm still struggling. I have a long way to go and there's a lot I want to do that I haven't yet done. So my period of struggle is still not over, but there have been very few periods of darkness in my life.

How has life been -- before and after your father won the Nobel prize?

It was a year of rejoicing for all of us in the family! Though the extra attention from outside as well as inside the family was a bit embarrassing and being in the public eye was a trifle uncomfortable, especially when one tries to not let it get in the way of one's profession. But work has to go on, regardless of everything!

Who and what inspired you to be the person you are today?

In terms of people, I've always been very inspired by my family and have received a lot of encouragement from it. The women in my family, particularly, have been a source of strength for me because there are many ways in which I identify with them. My mother is extremely important to me. My mother's mother brought us up and was a huge influence in our lives, though she is no more. Someday I want to make her life into a movie and be in it. My father's mother is still alive and is a very strong woman. I have an elder and a younger sister and I'm very close to both of them. I wouldn't be the person I am today if it weren't for each of these individuals.

In terms of place, Calcutta has been a big part of my cultural consciousness and artistic propensities. Also, this city and my family are responsible for instilling this senseless, irrational confidence that I have, for which there is no reason or explanation!

Tell us about something about Nandana the writer and Nandana the actress.

I've been writing ever since I can remember! I attempted my first novel when I was seven -- my mother gave me a big fat book and it filled up very quickly! Writing has always been an important part of my life.

As far as writing for films is concerned, I started when I was on my way out of college. I took some courses in Boston and made some short films that I directed as well. One of them was based on a story by Milan Kundera and another was a take-off on Little Red Riding Hood.

After I did them I knew that this is what I wanted to do. So I went to film school and made several short films. I thought my focus would be on writing, directing and producing, but I was subsequently cast as an actress where I played the lead in Gautam Ghosh's Gudia. Sometimes things that you didn't plan happen, and you realise it's good to go with the flow. I loved doing the film. Acting was quite a revelation to me because all the work I had done until then was very cerebral and this was a way of discovering my emotional self. It prevents me from living in my head too much, which I have a tendency to do.

Nandana the writer has a lot to do with Nandana the actress. Now that I've acted in a few films, I can see how that has affected my writing. I've actually become a stronger creator of characters. The influence has worked the other way round too because of all that one has to go through, intellectually and emotionally, while creating a character; one learns something about how to get into a role. There's also the danger of being too analytical as well, so I sometimes keep the writer in me away from Nandana the actress. But all in all, it's been a good combination.

What's it like being an aspiring Indian actress abroad? Why did you choose New York as your base?

Being an Indian actress is very difficult in the States because firstly, there are very few American films that need Indian actors. There's a bit more of that happening in England and I think this is because Indians are a far more visible minority there and are an integral part of the popular culture. It's a lot easier to get cast as someone other than your ethnocentricity in London. Some of the work that I got in London, that I chose not to do, was to play parts such as those of an ancient Egyptian high priestess or a young Brazilian woman or a Sicilian. So I've got offered roles that require me to not play an Indian, but this doesn't in America because of political correctness. If I get cast as a Mexican actor, there would be a group of people unhappy with the decision.

My agent is in London and for a while I considered moving there as that made much more sense since I was getting a lot more work in England than in the States. But given that I'm an emotional person, deeply affected by place and surroundings, given also that I'm so much happier living in a city like New York rather than London -- I love to visit London, but I'm more at home in New York -- that's why I'm in New York, though in terms of work there aren't enough films for Indian actors. So I'm at a disadvantage that is two-fold -- I don't get offered roles other than as an Indian and films that require Indians are rare to come by.

Actors in Bollywood normally try entering foreign films after working in Indian films for a number of years. But, with the exception of Gudia, you're doing things the other way round. Why?

I'm really drawn to the world of international cinema. At the same time I feel there's a tremendous amount of talent in India that we do not manage to present to a world audience. We have films that are excellent but don't get shown to audiences abroad or, if they do get screened, it's only to an expatriate audience. On the other hand, there is also a genre of films that is made for the sole purpose of being shown to audiences abroad.

That is not what I want either -- films should be made such that they hold a universal appeal for people all over. My feeling is that to break through this is to be involved in absolutely top quality projects that are made for not only Indian audiences, but for a world audience. I've decided that I want to work in films with great directors that are making history, creating extraordinary cinema, that will be seen the world over. There's great potential to do this in India.

Can you name the directors and co-stars whose work you admire in Bollywood?

There are so many of them! In terms of directors, there are a lot of people who are talented in different ways. There are people like Mani Rathnam, Ketan Mehta, Shyam Benegal, Priyadarshan, Govind Nihalani, Rituporno Ghosh, Aparna Sen, Ramgopal Verma, Sanjay Leela Bhansali... And I'm sure I'm forgetting some! There is also a young group of film-makers who are coming of age now and it would be very exciting to work with them.

As for actors and actresses, the actresses that I've long admired and been deeply inspired by, in Indian cinema, are Smita Patil and Waheeda Rehman. Obviously I can't work with Smita Patil, but, though it's unlikely, if I could, I would work with Waheeda Rehman. That would be like a dream come true for me.

There are a lot of actors whose work I really look up to, like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Manoj Bajpai and Aamir Khan. In women, I think Tabu is truly exceptional and Kajol is a very fine actress.

How different are the filmmaking processes in the States and in India?

Film-making is a completely chaotic and magical process everywhere. There is something so universal about the process as a whole. In any film you have to work collaboratively, truly work as a family and a tight-knit unit and, at the same time, understand that tensions will run high, temper tantrums will be thrown and everyone will be on edge. There's something about all this that really excites me. I'm drawn to the madness of this medium and the enchantment it offers.

When you consider all of the above, it's much the same everywhere, in any part of the world. Some hold that things work far more professionally in the West but, again, that would depend on one's interpretation of the term. Actually, there's a lot of wastage in America as well. For instance, a lot of money is spent in buying scripts that very often don't get made into movies. But of course, there's an infrastructure there that works wonderfully, that is lacking in Bombay. This is quite surprising, considering the size and history of the film industry here.

Another thing that really amazes me is the fact that there aren't any agents representing the actors here. This makes it harder for outsiders to approach this industry. Also, the lack of laws makes co-production a tough proposition. These things need to be worked on.

On the other hand, I'm amazed at the amount of warmth there is on the sets while movies are being made. When I shot Gudia, my first film, it was very enjoyable because everyone took care of each other in a way that went beyond mere professionalism. There's a definite positive side to the Indian film industry too.

You keep stressing that you will do a film if the role is 'right'. How do you define that term?

It's very simply really: it's a part that cannot be reduced to a stereotype; a character that is very complex and has many shades to it. Typically, I'm drawn to characters that are very different from who I am as a person as it makes it more challenging and interesting. I've never played a character similar to me as a person in all the films I've done so far. It's very important for me that the character is not merely decorative. One fortunate aspect about Seducing Maarya is that the movie was all about the character and that's rare because there aren't too many films made, anywhere in the world, that are about the woman.

Most films concentrate on the male protagonist. I'm not saying that I will do films that are only about me and my role, but I'll be in a film only if the part is absolutely critical to the story and the story would fall apart without it. It has to be a part of the backbone of the story.

'I always see what I could have done better'

The Nandana Dev Sen Chat

Next: Meeta Vyas does India proud

Tell us what you think of this report