as bold as it gets

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  • Published 10.01.09

Let’s be clear about Nandana Sen’s nude scenes in the about-to-be-released and much anticipated Rang Rasiya (Colours of Passion), directed by Ketan Mehta. In the west, they would scarcely draw comment. But as far as mainstream Indian cinema is concerned, Nandana, to adapt the mission of the Starship Enterprise, has been brave enough “to boldly go where no Indian actress has gone before”.

In order to play the painter Raja Ravi Varma’s muse, Sugandha, opposite Randeep Hooda, she knew from the start that quite a bit of nudity was essential if the film was to work artistically. The nudity, Nandana insists, “is more than appropriate. It is the heart of the movie. The emotional drama of the film, as well as the political, focuses around it.”

She has no doubt it’s a first for Indian cinema — and perhaps even more so for a “good” Bengali girl from a “good” family.

“Absolutely,” she exclaims. “Actually, it’s the first time that a director has made such a film (in India). It is the first time that an Indian actress has appeared in such scenes.”

Raja Ravi Varma uses Sugandha to conjure up the faces of Lakshmi, Saraswati and other goddesses that he paints, but in the love-making scenes the artist’s professional life spills over into the personal, as has happened with artists through the ages. Although the story is set 150 years ago, with Raja Ravi Varma hauled up before the courts by self-appointed guardians of Hinduism on charges of obscenity, the tale has all too contemporary a resonance.

Nandana emphasises: “Remember one of the reasons why Ravi Varma was vilified and that the girl that I play, Sugandha, was ostracised is because he chose the face of a devdasi, ‘a woman of questionable character’, as the film calls it, as the face of goddesses like Lakshmi and Saraswati.”

“The film has a very strong story to tell and a very important point to make, both of which rely on those scenes entirely,” argues Nandana. What’s even more remarkable is that “it is the first time that the Indian censor has passed those scenes without asking for a single cut”.

Mehta showed brief clips from his film at Cannes last year and the whole movie at festivals in London and in New York, where it was warmly received. Soon, Indian audiences will be able to judge for themselves.

Nandana is prepared for the inevitable controversy. “Now, 150 years later, the same hue and cry has arisen because some people found out that it is my face you see superimposed on a painting of Lakshmi that Ravi Varma has done. Of course, it is my face because I posed for all those paintings for the film. Beyond that the question was, ‘How can a girl who has chosen to do such scenes in a film be portrayed as Lakshmi?’, which is exactly the same objection that was made 150 years ago.”

Her justification is: “Those scenes are not about sexuality; they are about sensuality and art, not in the context of sex, but of posing (for an artist), which is entirely different. I don’t think anyone else (other than Ketan Mehta) could have made a film like this and turned a geeky, clumsy girl like me into a devdasi, an enchantress. I could not believe that people could be so literal as to make that an objection now.”

Parent pat

Faced with probably the biggest career decision of her life when offered the role, she consulted her parents, Amartya Sen and Nabaneeta Dev Sen, and embraced the project after receiving their full blessings.

“They were both encouraging me from the start when I told them what the film was about,” she recalls. “They absolutely believed in it and wanted me to do the film. I can’t think of other parents whose reaction would be that. They are both very wonderful parents and deeply impressive human beings and also absolutely brilliant at what they do. I am amazed every day how brave and loving and supportive they are.”

Her Nobel Prize-winning father, now based at Harvard where he is Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, and her mother, a writer and an academic in Calcutta where she has taught comparative literature at Jadavpur University, had expected her to follow into academia because she was quite a bookish girl.

“When I decided to go into films, they were initially a bit surprised,” Nandana admits. “But one of the reasons why they have both been successful in their own fields is that they have created their own rules, both of them have thought out of the box, they have done the unexpected themselves. I am amazed at how quickly they took this in their stride. They have been emotionally charged about this film because I don’t do that many films.”

In Cannes, Nandana was able to joke about her “cleavage on the Croisette”. Chameleon-like, her look changes with the time of day, sometimes vulnerable and Bengali, at other times elegant and western. She can look one thing in the morning, another in the afternoon, and something else in the evening. And depending on which city she is in, her looks absorb the environment around her as though by osmosis.

Since I had interviewed her in Cannes, London and New York, three into three made nine variations of the same Nandana, I calculate. She laughs. “I am told that one of the disadvantages is that I am transparently the same with whatever situation I may be in but I do take on the hues of a city. A lot of it has to do with my friends. My friends in New York are very different from my friends in Bombay who are very different from my friends in Calcutta.”

Nandana was born in Calcutta, but part of her childhood and teenage years was also spent in London and Cambridge, Massachusetts, before she studied literature and writing at Harvard. In so far she has a home, it is now Mumbai and New York.

Often, her mother will come and spend time with her. Most recently, she did that while Nandana was shooting a Bengali movie, Kaler Rakhal, in Santiniketan, the family’s ancestral home, where Nandana says she likes “waking up to the sound of birdsong”.

Her friends in Mumbai are mainly the film crowd though she takes care to order Bengali food every day. “It is definitely my favourite cuisine in the whole world. My favourite dish is lau chingri. I am a pretty good cook, too — it’s shorshe illish that I cook.”

But we are not in London or in Calcutta but strolling one sunlit morning through Bryant Park, in Manhattan, with children on an ice rink not far from Times Square. She stops for a drink, and picks out a mixture of fresh strawberries, pineapple and mangoes which are whisked into a “smoothie”.

“My favourite fruits,” she says.

The delicious mixture is almost a metaphor for Nandana.

Nandana on Tagoreland

I try to come to Santiniketan whenever I am in Calcutta. When Thamma (grandmother Amita Sen) was here I’d spend weeks with her.

I love the way the red earth cakes and bleeds in Santiniketan. I love waking up to bird chatter in the morning, catching tiny fish in handkerchieves in the Kopai river and the smell of moisture in the grass before it rains. I learnt to ride the bicycle and love the monsoons. I prepared for all my exams here.

I have so many beautiful memories of Santiniketan with Thamma.... Going to see Chandalika (my favourite dance play) and Anushandhan (her favourite film) over and over again, her home-made mango ice cream, getting my first bicycle from her when I turned 12 and the heavy silver anklets she wore and danced as a girl — precious to me beyond words — a few years later.

Thamma took great pride in claiming it was her genes that I had inherited — everybody else in my family is an academic, while she was a great performer in Tagore’s dance plays. She would see all my films. She would come to my Manipuri performances in Calcutta and I would take her out for Amitabh Bachchan films.

Thamma was an amazing lady. Although she abhorred cats and dogs, she let us adopt all the mangy strays that found their way to Pratichi.

She ordered my first tailored sari blouses when I was 15. She made them for me in red, green, blue, maroon and yellow. How about white? “No, not white,” she said, “you’re too young to wear white.” She gave non-negotiable directions to the tailor to make the sleeves unfashionably long. Grumpily I said I wanted a black one without sleeves. “No, not sleeveless,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes. “You’re too old to go sleeveless.”

During my years in Calcutta, I would get to see my father only a few times a year (before I moved to America). A lot of my time with Baba was spent in Santiniketan, riding around on his bicycle in front of him. That’ll always be one of my fondest memories.

Baba loves khaja (a Bengali sweet), a speciality of the Poush Mela. So, Didi (Antara) and I would rush to the khaja stalls as soon as they would open to fetch the freshest khajas for Baba. He loves patali gur, shorsher tel and Rabindrasangeet.

Because we were forbidden to eat junk food, once Didi and I chose the furthest possible spot in the mela and had a contest of downing 30 phuchkas each. We were ferociously gulping them down when suddenly each of us felt a vice-like grip on our necks. We turned around and there was Baba!

I know the person I am now was shaped by my time both in Santiniketan and Calcutta. Santiniketan is the only place I dream of when I am away. It’s an emotional need. If I’ve been away from Santiniketan for too long the dreams get frequent. A way of my soul telling me I need to come back.

As told to Mohua Das

Amit Roy
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