Tollywood’s acting coach

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By She calls herself a facilitator, not a teacher. meet Sohag Sen, whose workshops are a must for many Ranjan Ghosh What is your message for Sohag Sen? Tell
  • Published 6.06.14

She is Tollywood’s most sought-after workshop director, having coached everyone from Prosenjit to Dev, Konkona Sensharma to Koel Mallick. A visit to her Golf Green residence finds everyone’s Sohagdi making a dish for her pet puppy Aador. Over tea and samosas, she chats with t2...

Tell us how you got into doing acting workshops for films...

I was already doing preparatory workshops for my group. Rina (Aparna Sen) knew that. She too would rehearse with her actors for her earlier films. One day she asked, ‘Why don’t you workshop with us for Yugant?’ That was the first time. We did an intensive workshop for three weeks with Anjan (Dutt) and Roopa (Ganguly). Aparna would not be there initially. When we went into the script stage, she joined us. Those days, actors used to allot more time for the workshop unlike today…. Anyway, by the time we went on floor, everyone was extremely well-prepared!

You don’t seem too gung-ho about the workshops of today…

See, everything is becoming fast, and so one has to change. Today’s actors are a busier lot, and they can’t allot enough time for workshops. Yet they want to be prepared. One manages accordingly. These days it is more of rehearsals than actual acting workshops.

Why do we need acting workshops?

It helps the actors since they come prepared with the history of their characters and the story. The director and the producer gain too. Lesser retakes for acting save time and hence money!

Can you think of any instance where your instructions were used on a film set?

(Thinks) During Paromitar Ekdin, Rituparna (Sengupta) was getting tired owing to some delay. The way she was holding the baby on her lap was incorrect. The director was busy with a million other things. I whispered into Ritu’s ears, ‘It’s your baby!’, and she immediately got into the correct posture. Again, for Goynar Baksho, I had asked Koushik (Roy) who was playing both Ramkhilaon and Benu, to be ‘submissive’. He is very urban otherwise, but transformed totally with that one word.

Do actors always take to workshops well?

Some of them do. Some don’t retain what they learn in the workshop. They have to be reminded on the set. Not that they aren’t serious about it… they may want to learn, but they don’t always have the wherewithal, the discipline to retain their learning. It is easier for a theatre actor to remember things because they go through that rigmarole regularly. But this is not a rule. Each actor works differently. You never know who ticks in what way.

I don’t see you as one who teaches acting…

I don’t know who started this misconception that I am an acting coach! I had worked with Shabana (Azmi) in 15 Park Avenue. There too, the workshops were similar to those for the other films. I am a facilitator — for the actor, for the production, and for the director. Not a teacher!

How varying would your workshops be for Aparna Sen, Buddhadeb Dasgupta or Goutam Ghose?

Nothing as such. They require naturalistic acting, even as Buddhada’s films go into certain esoteric territories. But the way they approach acting, and hence workshops, is the same. With these directors, I have always been on the same page. So far.... (Smiles)

At times certain screen performances are snubbed as ‘theatrical acting’. What’s the difference?

The difference is in the measure. But the way you approach a character, the way you prepare would be the same. A play is linear — an actor performs from the beginning to the end. A film is fragmented and not necessarily shot in a linear order — so an actor has to remember the past and the future when he is giving a shot. For cinema, less is always more. Theatre is more intense.

There is a myth that workshops affect the spontaneity of acting…

Workshops prepare the actors in such a way that they are ready even for any last-minute changes. A workshop is not restrictive, rather it opens up an actor. It looks at the film and its scenes holistically.

We see films where deadpan expressions are hailed as realistic acting, while emoting well is dubbed as overacting…

That is because they copy mindlessly from foreign films. The West is different from us. When they face problems they laugh about it, but we go hammer and tongs! We are emotional people, how can our expressions be the same as theirs? Even as you and I are chatting, we’re going through a modulation. We’re not talking on a monotone. Two foreigners would chat differently. Their ‘buddy films’ would be different from ours. When you resort to copying foreign cultures, the audience immediately knows. Not easy to fool them!

Is there any actor you’ve groomed who makes you proud today?

Two of them — Raima (Sen) and Konkona (Sensharma). I have done around nine films with Raima, starting with Nil Nirjane. She has greatly evolved as an actor. As for Konkona… she just comes with it. A dog barks. A cat mews. Konkona acts (smiles). A complete natural. She’s also serious about workshops and has her informed inputs. Raima is a prankster who creates magic once the camera rolls!

Do you turn down offers for workshops?

Yes. It depends on the script and the director. If I have doubts about the script or the director, I decline.

Give a quick-fix tip to actors unsure of what to do with their hands while delivering a line!

If you have a business, nothing better. If not, say your lines while concentrating on some distant object. Your hands will automatically fall into place!

You started doing theatre as an actor in 1969. When was your first directorial outing?

In 1978, I directed The Informer, a one-act play by (Bertolt) Brecht. I was with CPAT (Calcutta People’s Art Theatre) at that time. Max Mueller Bhavan had invited me to direct the play for them.

Ensemble is an interesting name for a theatre group…

When we founded my group in 1983, I thought it was an apt name. Different people coming together for the very first time on a creative mission.… I guess I was also slightly influenced by Berliner Ensemble (smiles).

Who would you consider your mentor?

All of them. When I was with Utpal Dutt, I would just observe his way of working but was not conscious about it. Then there was Asit Bose. His staging was very good. People say that staging is not bad in my plays. So maybe, I learnt that from him. I was probably a sponge, absorbing everything as a young learner! Those days, the learning used to happen gradually…

Can you point out one thing you like about yourself as a theatre director...

How do I answer this! (Thinks) I do not ‘show’ my actors what I want from them. I let them do it their way. Yes, I discuss with them, I give them ideas, but I never act it out for them. When directors perform for actors, each and every character starts behaving identically — they talk like the director, walk like the director, have the same mannerisms… I have been able to avoid that, I think…