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Hi, stranger!

Nandana Sen is back in the theatres playing a troubled wife in Aanand Rai’s Strangers. As the younger daughter of Amartya Sen and Nabanita Dev Sen, ‘thinking’ comes naturally to Nandana, and now she’s getting her act together on the big screen. t2 in a tete-a-tete with the “thinking actress”.

Your choice of films has been eclectic. Barring a Tango Charlie you haven’t really done mainstream Bollywood cinema. On what basis are you picking your scripts?

It’s always an emotional decision for me. I need to fall in love with a story immediately to say yes. I’m not drawn to films, characters, or performances that are copies of others, including my own. I avoid playing the same type of role or giving the same pitch of performance from film to film. Because I’ve never played it safe in terms of choosing my roles, I get offered all kinds of parts, all over the world. Don’t get me wrong — am I praying that Rituparno Ghosh or Mani Ratnam will cast me? Every day!

So what about Strangers got you going?

The fact that its heroes are also its villains… And it’s a rare pleasure to play a heroine as honest, raw, and real as Preety! She’s used to constant attention from men but is touched by the unconventional advances of a cynical writer (Jimmy). Preety’s extremely warm and kind, but when hurt she can be cold, even cruel. There’s nothing airbrushed about Preety — she’s not the kind of heroine who’s ever in slo-mo or soft focus! A beautiful character who’s not afraid to be ugly.

You have to agree that the storyline of Strangers is uncannily similar to Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, already adapted by Alfred Hitchcock…

I’m so glad you asked this question, for it’s a common misconception! The only similarity is that in both films, two strangers meet on a train and make a plan. Strangers is absolutely different — it’s a love story more than a thriller. While Hitchcock’s film was about a psychopathic stalker, Strangers deals with the theme of finding and losing love. It follows two strangers in a strange land — how they fall in love, instantly and deeply — and how they become strangers to each other all over again.

You worked with a great cast — Kay Kay Menon, Jimmy Sheirgill and Sonali Kulkarni. How was it on the sets?

Fantastic! Both Kay Kay and Jimmy are brilliant, but they have entirely different approaches to their craft. Plus they’re great people to work with — Kay Kay has a wicked sense of humour, and Jimmy’s adorably shy. In our film, however, these roles are reversed! It was quite a trip to be romanced by both on screen. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any scenes with Sonali but she’s really talented and I’ve admired her for years.

The buzz is that Jimmy refused to kiss you in the film. What’s your take on screen kissing and exposing?

Yes, whenever he’s been asked to kiss any of his heroines, in Yahaan, Strangers and other films, Jimmy has consistently said no.... As a professional actor, I approach on-screen intimacy as part of my job — surely no ‘exposure’ is harder than exposing your soul to the world! But every actor has her or his own comfort zone and I respect that Jimmy is self-aware enough to know what personal boundaries he’d prefer not to cross. It’s totally Jimmy’s prerogative to make sure he’s not out of his elements on screen, and all of us — the media, the audience, the cast — must honour that.

You also play the lead in The Forest, slated to release in a couple of months and Ashvin Kumar believes you have done a fabulous job. Are you excited about its international prospects...

Absolutely! It’s an extraordinary film, and it was great fun playing Radha, so different from Preety. Radha is not outwardly emotional but a cerebral, city-sexy, tough-talking girl who nurses a tender heart. Both girls are uncompromisingly ‘real’— and both are loved by two men — but Preety is a romantic who’s disillusioned in love, while Radha is a pragmatist who rediscovers love.

You are also working on Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya about painter Raja Ravi Varma. Did you prepare for the period film?

Yes, Rang Rasiya is the love-story of Raja Ravi Varma and his muse Sugandha. She is the eternal child-woman, an angelic figure who is also every inch an enchantress. Designed since childhood to be irresistible, to give pleasure but not to claim it, Sugandha retains a purity that belie her reality. Ravi Varma sees in her the face and soul of a goddess — a rare combination of sensuality and innocence. I loved every aspect of preparing for this role — from wearing Navwari saris around the house, to absorbing the body language drawn into Ravi Varma’s art, to rediscovering all our classical heroines — Shakuntala, Damayanti, Urvashi, Sita, Draupadi — that Sugandha posed as. Sugandha’s life mirrors the ordeals and trials of these archetypal women of India.

In what other roles do we see you next?

All kinds! Since my first release here in 2005, I’ve worked in eight truly interesting films in India and abroad — so you’ll see me as a rifle-wielding tough chick, a heartbroken city girl, a beguiling Devdasi, an Islamic pacifist, a South-African rebel, and an idealistic Mexican student.

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