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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Marrying method to creative madness

In the scorching sun sometime in 1999, Aparna Sen gets ready to can a scene for Paromitar Ekdin. Her camera is trained on Rituparna Sengupta, who, surrounded by family members, has to walk into the house with a baby in her arms. The sweltering heat is taking a toll on the actress. She seems a bit distracted and the director isn't pleased with a single shot taken so far. Then Sohag Sen whispers, 'Ritu, it's your baby', and the actress' face softens to the mood of the moment.

While Aparna Sen was busy with the nitty-gritty, it was left to Sohag Sen to nudge the actors according to the script, as and when required. 'The director has to oversee so many things. It helps if someone takes care of getting the cast ready with its lines, emotions and physicality,' explains Sohag Sen, who has helped her film-maker friend bring out the best in her cast, starting with Juganta to the most recent Mr & Mrs Iyer.

The stage veteran is now an invaluable ally for several film-makers in town and beyond, from Aparna Sen to Subrata Sen (Ek Je Achhe Konya, Nil Nirjane and Hothat Neerar Jonyo), Buddhadeb Dasgupta (Swapner Din) to Anjan Dutt (Bow Barracks Forever). Bollywood beckoned recently when journalist Samar Khan asked her to help him out with his debut venture Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye. The film stars Arshad Warsi and Mahima Chaudhury among others, but Sohag Sen had a blast working with the newcomers, 'all very young and bubbly'.

Sohag Sen's task begins with discussing the script and grasping the director's vision. 'Often I pitch in with suggestions. Sometimes they are accepted, sometimes not. But ultimately it's the script that I work towards,' explains she. 'I make the actors ready to perform, just as the director wants. They are also prepared to the extent that if the director wants to make changes in the script, say add or delete something, it's not a problem.'

At the workshops ' a vital part of Sohag Sen's routine ' Day One is kept for ice-breaking when she asks the actors to mingle among themselves, play mind games and even get into the groove with some foot-tapping music. And all along, as the cast slowly gets going, a pair of watchful eyes is busy making mental notes.

'I observe how they behave. I need to find out some details about each one of them. What might work for one might not for another,' says Sohag Sen.

'Remember that scene in Mr & Mrs Iyer where from the forest bungalow Konkona (Sen Sharma) sees a man slitting another's throat and starts retching' That was very difficult for her. I asked Konkona to think of something that scares her out of her wits. She said it was puking. So all the while, she was thinking of retching to give that expression.'

The workshop module that Sen has developed with her theatre troupe Ensemble focuses on psycho-technique. The primary aim, through a series of interactions, is to identify what motivates an actor and the qualities that need to be sharpened.

'Ninety per cent people in this profession cannot marry the mental and the physical. My job is to hone their faculties of concentration, imagination and innovation. I sit with them in groups or individually, let them be and build trust among each other. Sometimes, I also invent scripts for them,' she says.

For freshers like Sohini Pal (she debuts in Bow Barracks Forever), the sessions with Sohag Sen helped her get under the skin of her character. 'She would ask both Clayton (Rodgers) and me to read the script in our own ways, and then jot down what we thought of our characters. We rehearsed our scenes so many times that shooting wasn't a problem at all. The workshops made me confident and a lot more creative,' admits Sohini.

A trip to some of Germany's premier performing arts institutions a few years ago gave Sohag Sen the scope to tally her methodology with theirs. 'Going through their syllabi, I found that I wasn't off track in the technique that I had evolved over the years,' she stresses.

The workshop methodology is integral to all Ensemble creations. It began in the early 70s when Sohag Sen, as the director of her troupe, found her actors lacking spontaneity. 'It seemed as if they were copying the director. So, I would hold workshops where the actors could learn what motivates them and use that when on stage or in front of the camera,' she adds.

Director Subrata Sen feels the workshops take a load off his shoulders. 'Newcomers need some sort of training. Sohagdi rehearses the scenes with them and also creates new sequences to let them slip into their characters. It helps a director like me, who can't act out the scenes to his actors,' he confesses.

Doing workshops before a film or not is entirely a film-maker's prerogative, feels Sohag Sen. But when that happens, the few months of living together (the entire shoot schedule that is) builds bonds that endure. 'You strike up friendships that stay for life,' she smiles.

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