Twenty-one years ago, she was the first Indian to win the Miss Universe crown. Eleven years ago, she had enough oomph to be the dream Chemistry teacher, dancing in sexy chiffon sarees, in Main Hoon Na. Shah Rukh Khan broke into a R D Burman song every time he set eyes on her in the super hit film. Today, hitting 40, that same Sushmita Sen is happy playing a corpse in the Bengali film, Nirbaak.
It's cruel irony that a SRK song pays an ode to Sen's beauty, albeit with a grim twist, in Nirbaak. The Hindi song, “Tujhe dekha to yeh jaana sanam…” plays on her last admirer’s cellphone, as he gazes at her still form inside a morgue, covered in white sheet, her bare shoulders and face gleaming luminous.
As falls from grace go, this is a painful one. Sen had never bagged the best of roles in Hindi cinema, neither was she particularly well-known for her acting skills. However, her vivacious charm and sex appeal were undeniable, and remain so. Yet, there she lies in Tollygunge morgue forgotten by her Main Hoon Na fans and filmmakers.
Sen is not the first to turn to Tollygunge way after being dismissed by Bollywood. Talent and beauty are not enough when age catches up with a Hindi film heroine. Manisha Koirala had to make do with an ungenerous amount of screen time in Rituparno Ghosh’s Khela in 2008. She was 37 at the time. Despite the few scenes, she made her presence felt, as an unhappy wife who wants a baby. You couldn't help feeling, though, that Ghosh had wasted Koirala and valued her only for the superficial gloss, fading as it might be, that she as a Bollywood actress added to Khela's publicity.
When Bipasha Basu's career slumped after flops like Dhan Dhana Dhan, she tried to gain credibility by dropping her “sex symbol” image and going demure in sarees with long sleeve blouses, complete with big, black bindi, in Rituparno Ghosh’sShob Charitro Kalponik in 2009. The film, surprisingly, won a national award for the best feature film in Bengali. Basu, though, didn’t contributed much to its success. Her beautiful face barely twitched with emotion and Ghosh decided to dub her voice. Perhaps that's why Basu is content, screaming and running in high heels, in B-grade horror movies in Bollywood.
It’s difficult to say though, what’s more horrifying: Basu not being scary enough or Sen playing corpse.
By the time Dia Mirza starred in Pratim Dasgupta’s Paanch Adhyay, she was in that uncomfortable situation where her lead roles were for forgettable films like Hum Tum Aur Ghost, but she was carving a niche for herself in memorable cameos, like her role in Lage Raho Munnabhai. In Dasgupta’s Bengali film, she looked stunning and performed earnestly. Wisely perhaps, Mirza, 33, appears to have cut her losses and go behind the camera. As producer, she brought us a fairly decent Bobby Jaasoos, starring Vidya Balan who incidentally made her debut in Bengali film, Bhalo Theko in 2003. It probably didn’t bother Balan that trees played more crucial roles than her in the film since she was on the threshold of what was to become a very fine career in Hindi cinema.
It’s a huge pity that Sen has to make do in Nirbaak with a role that requires her to say very few lines while her character is alive and the rest of the time, lie around doing nothing.
Oh, she does a solo dance too. Around a lusty tree, which is in love with her. As though Sen is attractive only to a lump of wood, literally. This amorous tree is shown emitting liquid discharge when Sen is asleep in its shade. And guess who is jealous of Sen in the film? A female dog; that is, a bitch.
Nirbaak is Sen’s first Bengali film. She was last seen in a flop Hindi film called No Problem. It’s been precious five years since then. Perhaps this gap explains why Sen has subjected herself to such a deathly role. Or maybe because the director, Srijit Mukherjee, who is this year’s National Award winner, dedicated Nirbaak to Salvador Dali.
Promoting Nirbaak, Sen was all praise for Tollywood and dismissed Bollywood by saying of actors in the Hindi film industry, “We look good and our job is done.” Sen said she appreciated the way actors got into their characters’ skin in Bengali cinema. Was she referring to the tree or the dog or Jisshu Sengupta who just looks handsome or Anjan Dutt who is simply disgusting in the film? Is this reason enough for her to slip into a morgue, professionally? We can only guess, along with marvelling at her being thankful that the director “made sure he made me part of the film in which I had to speak absolutely nothing.”
If Nirbaak fetches some festival (read: pseudo) award for Sen, it might be worth the actress’ time. But it will be no match for her gorgeous million-watt smile and husky voice, which deserves much more. The trophy will be a small consolation prize for the death of the Bollywood heroine.