By Sudeshna Roy
Sushmita Sen photographed in 2010
A lot of Bengali filmmakers have suddenly woken up to the presence of Sushmita Sen, and are casting her in their films.
It’s not surprising though as the dynamics of film-making in Bengal has gone through a sea-change, much of it dictated by the pressure to draw audience to the theaters The tactics that are usually adopted range from cheap, promotional gimmicks to larger-than-life stories and presentations.
A still from the Bengali film “Chander Pahar” which is a blockbuster in West Bengal.
For example, the backdrop of South Africa in Chander Pahar, the real-life wild animals coupled with the reel-life Bunip (an imaginary animal species) was successful in drawing audience to the theaters The fact that it was an adaptation of a novel of the same name authored by the famed writer Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay, also helped the film find a place in the audiences’ hearts. We, filmmakers, are always wondering how to lure the audience out of their homes and spend money to buy film tickets.
The audience from the bigger cities, who primarily visit multiplexes, are also brand conscious. So a Feluda by Satyajit Ray, a Byomkesh Bakshi by Saradindu Bandypadhyay or even a story by Rabindranath Tagore help in building the brand image of a film, which in turn help in drawing the audience to the plexes. Add to that the brand image of a director or an actor and you have a winner in your hands.
Even though Sushmita Sen hasn’t been seen in a film for a long time, she occupies a prominent place in the hearts of the Bengali audience as the first Bengali to get crowned Miss Universe.
MEETING MS SEN
The first official photo-call of Sushmita Sen after winning the Miss Universe pageant
I first met Sushmita Sen in 1995 when she had just been crowned Miss Universe. She had come down to Kolkata (then Calcutta) to meet her grandfather at South End Park. It was a time when the satellite channels were yet to to revolutionise the television airspace. I was working part-time for a private television channel when Doordarshan got in touch with me and asked me to interview her.
There were a couple of things that attracted me to the then 20-year-old bubbly, attractive young lady. First, her tremendous self-confidence and second, her towering height.
Even though I asked her all sorts of questions in the interview and mixed it up with a few intellectual (and stupid) questions, she never wavered while giving an answer.
She answered all my questions in a dialect that was a mix of Bengali and English. This could be a result of her having travelled to different parts of the country due to her army-man father’s postings. Sushmita seemed more comfortable in Hindi and English rather than Bengali, but that didn’t matter much as she spoke in Bengali with such confidence in front of the camera.
MS SEN, REVISITED
Sushmita Sen in 1999
A few years rolled by. By then, Sushmita had started to make a place for herself in Bollywood, seeing moderate success too.
It was 1999. Prabhatda (Prabhat Roy) decided to take me as an assistant to a film that he was planning with Jayanti Sen, an NRI. She was the source of the film’s story too. It was a strong female-oriented script and we decided to approach Sushmita to do the main lead.
The lead character of the film came from a conservative Bengali family. She could never marry the person she loved and the marriage that she was coerced into was not a happy one. She broke out of the marriage and landed at the Calcutta airport where she met this filmmaker who was looking for a heroine. The filmmaker was morose as the actress he had wished to sign, demanded a fee which was no less than two-thirds of the budget of his entire film. He couldn’t afford the actress and it was at this juncture that he met this woman, who wanted to rediscover herself. After that point, the film documented her story as that of woman’s journey towards emancipation through a series of ups and downs.
Prabhatda, Jayantidi, our advisor Nimai Moulik and me went to Mumbai to narrate the script to Sushmita, who used stay in Versova then. We met her at her apartment, which was tastefully done and had a sea-facing balcony. We sat in her air-conditioned ‘den’ or her script-reading room. We started with the film’s basic story and then went on to the character sketch about how an ordinary girl becomes extraordinary in the end. The backdrop of a Mumbai star demanding a huge fee was also explained to her.
“Actually Mumbai has such a huge film industry that most stars here don’t understand how small regional budgets are,” she had said after listening to the narration.
On hearing that, we all agreed that she is a smart girl.
Sushmita agreed to do the film, the only part that remained to be discussed was her acting fee.
“Don’t worry about it. I understand that budgets of regional films are small. My secretary will call you tomorrow,” she assured.
We were overjoyed. That time we had accounted the film’s budget to be around R55 lakhs. We had accounted around R5 lakhs as Sushmita’s acting fee, which we were ready to revise further to R8 lakhs. We thought that since she is such a smart girl, she won’t charge us more than R5 lakhs.
We were so happy that we went to dine at a five-star that day. Next day, we called her secretary with much trepidation.
“Madam Sushmita is so excited about your film that she is only talking about you guys. She has decided to charge you half her usual remuneration. Even though I advised her to revise her fee, but she didn’t want to. She will only charge only R22 lakhs and that will be all. I hope you will be able to accommodate that in your film’s budget,” the secretary said.
The film was finally made without her.
THIRD TIME…ALMOST LUCKY
Sushmita Sen attending Rani Mukerji’s Durga Puja in 2013
I met Sushmita Sen for the third time while working for Mahesh Manjrekar’s bi-lingual film. We were trying to re-make the film Astitva in English and Bengali. I wrote the dialogues in Bengali and travelled to the US as Manjrekar’s assistant. Sushmita was playing Tabu’s character in both the English and the Bengali version. We stayed with her during the shooting for a month and got to know each other closely. I never mentioned to her about our earlier meetings in 1995 or 1999.
Every time I wiped the slate clean and re-introduced myself to her. There were never any baggage from the earlier meetings that I had with her.
This time when I went back to Mumbai to complete the last few days of the film’s shooting and editing, Sushmita invited me to spend the day with her.
I won’t forget that day ever.
We went to the ocean in a trawler. Even though Sushmita was already a star, she could easily camouflage her face with a scarf and glare. Randeep Hooda was there too. We sailed to the middle of the ocean where Sushmita and Randeep went for a swim in the ocean. Watching them enjoying themselves in the sea, I too joined them!
That night, we went to see her apartment in Khar — a huge apartment comprising of two adjoining floors. Shooting was scheduled the next day and we had about two days of shooting left.
The first day went off smoothly. On the second day, Sushmita dressed up as a traditional Bengali girl — in a saree and long wavy hair touching her knees just like Goddess Durga.
She gave an amazing shot. Everybody was quite excited after seeing the shot on the monitor.
Sushmita joined us to see the shot on the monitor. After looking at the shot, there was a spring in her steps and she turned back.
Suddenly a deafening ugly scrapping sound took over the set. Khat, khat, khat it whirred. Everybody on the sets screamed when they turned to see the source of the sound. They were stunned to see Sushmita’s wig getting caught in the huge pedestal fan behind her. The fan sucked her wig in so strongly that Sushmita was thrown on the ground and the wig was ripped off her head.
Sushmita, who had fallen on the ground with so much force, luckily escaped unhurt.
We couldn’t complete that day’s shooting.
In fact, the shooting was never completed.
I never met Sushmita again. I got busy trying to become an independent filmmaker and Sushmita got busy with her life.
If she comes to Kolkata again, I will meet her for the fourth time and I am ready to wipe my slate clean again.
(The writer is a filmmaker in West Bengal)
Essential Disclosure: The article was originally written for and published on Ei Samay Newspaper. The article has been translated by us. To see the original article written in Bengali, click HERE.
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Tagged as: Astitva, Bengali filmmakers, Bengali saree, Bunip (an imaginary animal species), Byomkesh Bakshi, Calcutta, Calcutta airport, Chander Pahar, conservative Bengali family, Doordarshan, dynamics of film-making in Bengal, Feluda, film-making in Bengal, first Bengali to get crowned Miss Universe, Goddess Durga, Jayanti Sen, Khar, Kolkata, Mahesh Manjrekar, Miss Universe, Nimai Moulik, Prabhat Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Randeep Hooda, Saradindu Bandypadhyay, Satyajit Ray, South Africa, South End Park, Sushmita Sen, Sushmita Sen in 1995, Tabu, traditional Bengali girl, Versova, writer Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay
Wow, I thought third time will be a charm!