Good girls go to the movies. But bad girls like Sushmita Sen go everywhere. Good is boring, our collective hearts beat for the seriously wicked one. She’s back with a vengeance. On the hoardings, news channels, magazines, and tabloids. India’s diva extraordinaire has consented to speak to me after months of cold silence. Her battery of assistants, including sister Neelam, manager Tushna, and co. check and cross-check with me the date and the venue. Madame has deigned to speak. Don’t know if Zindaggi rocks, but Sushmita Sen definitely does. Over the years, one has interacted with her and she’s been superb (that is when she feels like meeting you). Fielding questions with alacrity, she’s every quote-seeking scribe’s wet dream. Pulling no punches, she conjures up a blitzkrieg of publicity and sound bytes. And then, like some modern-day storybook queen, she gathers the folds of her gown and disappears. It’s always been like this. She has grabbed headlines ever since her sensational win over Aishwarya Rai at the Femina Miss India contest. She has dated an assortment of men from the internationally celebrated Ricky Martin to showbiz newbie Randeep Hooda. Throw in some actors, merry business tycoons, and entrepreneurs for good measure. She has had more flops than hits, as much press as Jackie Onassis, and she lives the high life to the hilt. But one senses that beneath all that bluster is a wonderful girl just playing the part the media wants her to play. She meets me one more time. I’m all ears and more. Does Zindaggi rock more than Sushmita Sen? Is your character a lot like you in the film? Metaphorically, life rocks and how! Zindaggi Rocks is lovely. I wish I could sing like Priya in the film though. But I’m happy acting in a film that’s all about music and more. Priya is a superior version of me, she has her grey side. She does things that are considered an aberration by normal people. She is eccentric, she is creative. And I’m sure creative people are often seen as aberrations. Just living life can rock and be rocky too! Does reel life imitate real life when doing films like Zindaggi Rocks? Oh, absolutely. There are times when you feel a sense of déjà vu. When you see the film, you’ll be able to catch on the slices of my personality when you see me on screen. Yes, the film has some moments from my life. For example I always use the line, “From your mouth to God’s ear.” It’s said as, “yeh dua tumhare hoton se hote hue seedhe bhagwaan ke kaan tak.” It’s the delicious irony in the film. It’s like wishing a long life for a terminally ill patient. How much do you give to your role? What does the role give you in return? What I give to my role is experience (laughs). What the role gives back to me is shock value. There are so many moments in a film that I can’t relate to. Playing dead is one of them. When a director tells me, “Imagine you are dying and see your life flashing by,” it’s a bit disconcerting. But then you try to draw on some experience and do it like a slideshow. It has shock value. For example, playing the prostitute Basanti in Chingaari shook up my foundations. My entire being revolted at being violated by so many men. The disgust on my face in Chingaari is real. Bad language, abuse don’t bother me. Abuse is something alien to me as Sushmita Sen. I’m in control and no one messes with me. So to play something radically different like that was tough. Do you think your directors often shortchange you? That’s the easiest excuse to increase your longevity as an actor by saying the director let you down. But movie making is a collaborative process. Sometimes the script fails you, sometimes actors do. I’m here because of my directors and I’m not about to knock them down. Maybe I wasn’t so good in some of my films. The day someone says, “That is Sushmita’s best work ever,” I’ll quit. I’m making films for people and not for my private collection. I’m glad when people say that my best is yet to come. There are times when films like Filhaal, Samay, Chingaari have left an indelible impact on my psyche. I felt overtly emotional while doing these films. There’s a lot of estrogen-bonding in your life—Meghna Gulzar, Farah Khan, Kalpana Lajmi, and now Tanuja Chandra? I think I connect with women beautifully. But hey listen, I bat on the other side. I’m not a rabid feminist. I love men and the world would be dreary without them. But all the women directors have such a unique take on life and men. Shah Rukh would get worried with the way Farah wanted to shoot some of her scenes in Main Hoon Na. But that’s Farah, so alive, so real. Ditto for Tanuja, her reactions, her take on women and men is wonderful. I’d have a problem with rabid feminist ideology. The way they execute an emotional scene is so much more understated, it’s beautiful. They use silences so effectively. So you’ve changed now? Maybe I have. Over the years, I’ve mellowed as a person. Earlier when things would go wrong, I used to put up a wall in self-defense, especially when attacked. Then that wall started having a window. Today, I’m not so much in denial. I face things more easily. I understand better. I react to situations much better. I’m more in control of my emotions. If you want to sustain a relationship, you have to understand and then feel. If you only feel, chances are that you’ll over-react. Does the relationship you’re in at any given time determine the kind of movie you are doing? Sure. But I think it’s got more to do with the time of signing the film. In the frame of mind and emotional high I’m in now, I may not do a Chingaari. But if a David Dhawan were to ask me to sign on, I’d say go for it man, let’s have a party. That’s why even for Zindaggi Rocks, I’d tell Tanuja not to give me a rona-dhona scene when I’m having a particularly good day. One tries hard to segregate the real from reel. In the last two years though I’ve been finding it particularly hard to compartmentalize my life. Mind you, I’m not a method actor. Right now, there’s no method to the madness. I’m just feeling the madness. That’s why I don’t know how to get out of it. Thank god for my daughter Renee at home. Just going back to her helps me unwind. Obsessive, compulsive, and controlling are words associated with you. Is that a media perception of celebrities in general? I think the minute you achieve a foothold in the industry, you are automatically expected to be in control of your life. Sometimes it’s a goldfish existence; you’re constantly under public scrutiny.
People in public life are always expected to be in control. But the truth is that you have responsibilities and you can’t shirk them, so people begin to label you. Like for example when Steffi Graff had problems with her father and the tax guys were baying for her blood, she couldn’t get off the hook by saying, “My father was my accountant. I’m just a little girl. I only play tennis.” She had to go out there and take the heat. Throughout life we are trying to be in control and maintain that balance. The problems begin when you lose control or are obsessed with control. Every day of my life I wake up and pray to God that I hope I’m finally in control of my life today. So from denial, it’s now an acceptance phase? I’d like to believe that. Then there was denial, today there is acceptance. Earlier I used to have a point to prove and I’d go out there and prove it. Today also, I have a point to prove. The only difference is I know I can do it. Awareness is all. If I want anything bad enough, things just automatically happen. When I’m down in the dumps, I listen to Baz Luhrmann’s “Sun Screen.” He simplifies life so beautifully. There is a line saying “remember to floss.” It doesn’t mean pay attention to your teeth and check the cavities. Often, it’s just a metaphor for us to look closely at the finer aspects. It’s all about reading between the lines, reading the subtext. Don’t take everyone’s advice but listen to them carefully. Because they are a form of nostalgia and nostalgia always has something to benefit each one of us. There’s a song by Lee Ann Womack called “I Hope You Dance.” Whenever I feel a certain trepidation in life, I remember her song and like she says, I choose to dance instead of sitting it out, and here I am. It’s like the mountain you see from a distance. From afar, it seems huge. But once you start climbing it, you won’t even realize when you’ve reached the top. So whenever in life you get a chance my friend, do dance. I’ve been telling this to Renee too. I guess that’s what defines me. Whenever I have the fear of the unknown, I hold on to it some more and then it’s gone. And then people say you are courageous. But my friend, you can’t get to courage without experiencing this fear. How come the Miss Universes after you with the exception of maybe Lara Dutta never really made it. Forget movies or other achievements, we don’t even remember their names? I think we got spoilt. Overnight we became a nation capable of acquiring three powerful crowns in one year especially with Dia, Priyanka, and Lara. The titleholders after that took themselves too seriously. I’ve always maintained that beauty pageants are not about world peace and superficial fairy tales. See, we’re talking 18-year-olds, so I guess wisdom comes only with age. The pageant is an incredible window to the world. In my tenure, I visited 33 countries in that short time. I saw life, I got introduced to problems and issues a normal 18-year-old doesn’t. But then it was up to me to carry my responsibilities further. Nothing wrong in seeing pageants as a ticket to the movies. But there has to be a large worldview too. You have to see the larger picture and I’m not sure if many of the subsequent winners did. Being a movie star or being the head of a country are just by-products. So can we talk about Manav Menon? Manav is off limits. He doesn’t want to be talked about. What about Randeep Hooda? Randeep is an integral part of my life. That’s also because his relationship with my daughter is very strong. Their equation is fabulous. Right now, my 7-year-old has made him her official boyfriend. Ha! Ha! On a more serious note, a relationship doesn’t just fizzle away. You invest too much into it. The fun thing about being 30 is that you grow up (laughs). Randeep has turned 30 too, so hopefully he’ll grow up too. I must meet him today, have to give him some prasad that I’ve brought from Vaishnodevi. I’m not in constant touch with him any more. But Renee meets him on her days off, which are Saturdays and Sundays. How true is Vikram Bhatt’s Ankahee to your life? The only truth about the film is that it wasn’t my life at all. It’s the director’s creative interpretation. God bless him. To make a film on my life, one would have to have at least half the audacity I have. Next question, honey. So from Robert De Niro’s daughter to Richard Gere, you’ve been bitten by the Hollywood bug too? Darling, I came from Hollywood. Remember Miss Universe was then owned by Paramount Communications, which was based in Hollywood. Karma Confessions and Holy will be released at The Tribecca Film Festival in November. It was great to work with the likes of Naomi Campbell and the cameraperson Lisa who worked with Stanley Kubrick. Everything was so organized, well-coordinated. Even the pauses in our conversations would be earmarked in the film’s script. There was not a minute’s wastage. You can’t really come on the sets hoping that chalo set pe improvise karenge. We just need to shoot one musical portion. But seriously, I’m not cut out for Hollywood. It dawned on me when I met three agents who wanted to sign me on. It’s too business-like, you are a product. I mean, it should definitely be done like that. You have to stay there for six months, market yourself, hard sell, I can’t do all that. I’m comfortable just being me. For me, acting has never been a passion, it was an accident. It’s only now that I’ve started loving it. Hollywood is a one-off agenda. How did two divas—Naomi and you—fit in one frame? Who threw bigger tantrums? (Laughs) Oh, my tantrums are completely undistinguished ones. Naomi’s tantrums are distinguished. She’s the diva par excellence. Contrary to what people think, she’s very much like a child. Speak to her like a child and she responds. Actually she’s such a baby, she looks like a Barbie doll.
Know something? You look perfect to be a Bond girl. Strange that you should say it. Ten years ago when I first did a talk show in New York on Regis & Kathy Lee, they told me that I’d make a hot Bond girl. Yeah, if it were to happen, why not? Like I said, maybe I need to inculcate a fire for Hollywood. Right now, it isn’t there. Does your daughter adjust to your peripatetic life, your roller-coaster relationships? May be hard to believe but I actually lead quite a disciplined life. Come hell or high water, I work only eight hours a day. An outdoor schedule has to be in one go. I’ve said no to several lives. My parents vie and take turns to look after Renee. Dad is always saying, “If Ma isn’t coming, I’ll come and stay with Renee.” Where my personal choices are concerned, she’s with me all the time. Professionally, I discourage her from coming to the studios. Yes, like any healthy 7-year-old, she’s fascinated by movies and movie stars, so I try to go a bit easy on that front. Does she miss having a father? I truly believe that as children we miss only the things that we have and are then taken away from us. For Renee, the concept of a father is alien because she doesn’t have one. Sure, when she sees other kids in school with both their parents, she does ask questions. I always tell her she was born from my heart, not from my stomach. She says, “You have a father, Randeep has one too, so why not me?” So I’ve explained to her that once she turns 18 and the courts allow it, she can meet her biological father. So she keeps biding her time. In between she’d say, “My father’s name is Sushmita Sen and my mother’s name is Sushmita Sen too.” Right now, I’ve told her, “Your father is Lord Shiva.” So she went down to the temple and has made friends with Lord Shiva. Now whenever someone asks her who her father is she says it’s Lord Shiva. She’s never had an inferiority complex; she’s a beautifully adjusted child. Much as we hate admitting it, we end up behaving like our parents with our kids? No? You said it. I remember my mom saying “mukhpudi mei” in Bengali whenever I played truant. I use the same words when Renee becomes uncontrollable sometimes. I’d sworn to myself that I’d never lose my temper like my mom did with me as a child. But I find myself doing exactly that. My father is a very forgiving and spiritual man. And I’d keep thinking he is too good to be true. But sometimes I catch myself in a forgiving mood too. Renee has also helped me to bridge the distances between my parents and me. So many years of unresolved conflict and angst have been resolved. You are in that space where you understand your parents better and you are also in that space when you know your child doesn’t understand what you are doing is the best for her. In Gulzar saab’s lines … yeh lamha filhaal jee lene do. Sometimes I feel I’ve come to terms with my own childhood through Renee. Copyright © 2006 Filmfare. All right reserved.