It’s a rainy day, and Sushmita Sen has been patched on a phone call by her publicist to discuss her latest show, Aarya, in which she plays a mother taking to crime to protect her family. Contrary to the gloomy weather, Sen is in a rather cheery, and almost Zen-like, mood. “We have it so much better, compared to so many people right now,” she says, alluding to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It’s inevitable, therefore, for our conversation to steer towards larger, philosophical subjects, as we discuss her return on a set after five years. Excerpts from an edited interview…
Your take on ambition as been rather unique compared to your contemporaries, from your film choices after winning Miss Universe in 1994 to embracing motherhood as a single parent. How has your take on ambition evolved over the last 26 years?
I didn’t set out to do things differently than my contemporaries. I was very honest about what I needed in my life: that I am an individual and not a clone of somebody. I may be in an industry or part of a job or social strata, but I will stick with who I am. God was kind and I was surrounded by people who gave me support early in my life when it was tough. I have always been this moohfat (blunt). I had a very rebellious kind of approach. If anybody didn’t allow me, I would fight back. That has changed with age and with growing up and I don’t fight back any more. I still do what I need to do. I don’t necessarily get affected by the applause or the insults. I continue to live my truth. Now, that hasn’t been easy. Anybody wanting to follow that path should know that it’s never going to be easy, but rewarding it is. I think the best way to summarise these 26 long years is: I did it my way.
You wrote a post on mental health on social media after Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise , and you’ve been quite vocal about the subject. How do you see the relationship between fame, celebrityhood and mental health, which can get quite toxic sometimes?
The word you used is toxic, and toxic it can be. Unfortunately, I never met Sushant and didn’t know him as a person but have seen him in films and interviews, and he came across as a man with such great depth, understanding and love for his craft, and someone who was very hopeful, not just for himself but for the world around him. I had a very deep feeling of loss which transcended losing a great actor. It was about a human being who gave up, and he gave up because of reasons that only he knows, but they are not compounded only in an actor’s life. I, for one, have a lot of people that follow me, who are extremely expressive. They don’t use emoticons as a response to a post, but write pages and express themselves. They have said to me so many times that I feel like the world is collapsing around me and the only way out is to give it all up. Sushant is a visible loss in our lives, but there are so many young people going through this. I myself was clinically depressed as an after-effect of taking steroids for two years. I had to take medication for it. My reason for speaking about it is that people should know that if you keep isolating yourself because your family, friends or loved ones don’t understand your situation, the world at large understands it. You will find that there are like-minded people who have endured it, and can help you get through to it. A lot of us forget that we are loved, just because we aren’t told that every day. I love people and I need them to know that, that their lives matter. Depression is very very real. You have to choose life, ask for help whatever kind of help, but we have to fight it.
As an actor, was it mentally disorienting to be back on a set after a long time?
Luckily that wasn’t the case at all. I was coming back after 10 years in Hindi cinema but five in Bengali. I did Nirbaak (2015). The good thing about Aarya was that I wasn’t just facing the camera after five years, I was facing the camera in a completely different format and style of shooting. So not just me but for other actors in Aarya, who have been facing the camera on a regular basis every day, it was a new format as well, because Ram shoots everything in one take. You may have a two-take scene or a six-take scene, you may have two characters or six, he takes the whole scene with a three-camera setup from the first take to the last. There is no cut. None of us attached to Aarya worked with Ram, so we didn’t know this way of shooting at all. So thank god for the three weeks of the workshop that we all did, individually and collectively. So it was like doing a theatre performance live, and there happen to be three cameras shooting while you are performing. So it was coming back to the art and craft of cinema in the way that a newcomer does. I’ve realised I’m a better actor in this format than I’ve ever been.
Since Aarya is an adaptation of the Dutch series Penoza, have you seen the series and how did you interpret it?
I saw every single episode of Penoza, all seasons except the last one, because the last season doesn’t have English subtitles yet, so I couldn’t watch it. But I saw the four while travelling to the US, all the way through the flight, landing in New York, during the trip, and I came back with my feedback. Even though it is inspired by Penoza, and is a fantastic character, the way Ram has Indian-ised it, it makes it completely different. Penoza doesn’t have the same emotional connect as Aarya with her three kids. Personally, I love Aarya more, needless to say. We sat down and questioned everything that the character would do and say, and all the other actors would do the same with their characters. So we created a writers’ room of our own. Even though the show is called Aarya and I’m playing her, it wasn’t a biased approach. Every character is well-etched out and they have equations that are very intensely palpable.
Now that you are back on-screen, what lies ahead for you?
Well, it’s exciting. From getting some really rubbish scripts, I finally have some amazing stuff coming my way. I have a film and another series. Everything is on hold while the drafts are getting ready. I like to give my best to what I’m doing now and I want to see Aarya all the way through, till it releases, and then I will move onto the next step.
Aarya premieres today on Hotstar+ Disney