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Sushmita Sen returns on screen as 'Michael Corleone in a female form'

Over the past decade, Sushmita Sen has had time to reboot and reprioritise. The former Miss Universe now returns after a hiatus with an author-backed role in ‘Aarya’

Sushmita Sen in a still from 'Aarya', which releases on 19 June.
Sushmita Sen in a still from 'Aarya', which releases on 19 June.

Sushmita Sen's last Hindi film was No Problem in 2010. After that, she acted in the Bengali film Nirbaak, which released in 2015. The ensuing years have come with a host of challenges for the former Miss Universe and mother of two—chief among them being a debilitating illness.

Determination and time have cured her and she is now looking forward to a fresh innings in the world of acting. “The universe is sending hordes of positivity my way. After 10 years of being away from Hindi entertainment, you would expect a semi-warm welcome, but it has been hot," she says, referring to Aarya, a crime and family drama based on the Dutch series Penoza.

An avid consumer of streaming content herself—and a self-confessed binge-watcher—Sen found everything she was seeking in a comeback in Aarya, which releases on Disney+ Hotstar on 19 June. “This show allowed me to be part of a team and to look at the script, which had an author-backed role," she says. “It is progressive content which is edge-of-the-seat but not nonsensically dramatic."

“Think Michael Corleone in a female form," she adds, drawing on a reference to The Godfather.

The original Dutch series had five seasons, and as the lead actor here, Sen says she has committed to Aarya for as long as it takes. “We have written content for five seasons and while it is inspired by Penoza, it has been adapted to suit Indian sensibilities, with fleshed out equations, relationships and situations."

Returning to a set after a long break was accompanied by learning—or unlearning, as she puts it. “It was like going back to school and and so exciting to discover that there is such a thing as unlearning and, by default, learning a new way."

The explosion of streaming content and fresh opportunities (she is looking at another series and a feature film) are not the only changes Sen has noted in the last decade. It has been a mixed bag, with the rise in commercialism, the eruption of the paparazzi and opportunities for actors to deeply explore their characters.

“Some things basically remain the same. For instance, each release will dictate the ability of the big five stars surviving yet another Friday. The pressures of our business continue but the monopoly of the big screen, as the only place to see an actor, does not. Today, A-listers are also on OTT platforms because they too are driven by content. The first season of Aarya is nine episodes. That’s like three feature films. As Ram Madhvani (show director) says, it’s my entire showreel."

At 44, she has had time to reboot and reprioritise. She bypassed a mid-life crisis because her early 40s were taken over by the diagnosis of Addison’s disease (a rare adrenal gland disorder due to which the body is unable to produce certain critical hormones). After some years of treatment and dependency on steroids, she turned to yoga, anti-gravity exercises and meditation and has been steroid-free for two years.

“At the time when I should have had a mid-life crisis, I was dealing with a physical crisis and the emotional crisis that came with it. I was focused on having a life because lots of lives are attached to my own, especially my two daughters. After the good news (of recovery), the big shift was to realise that the only way to break inertia is to just keep moving forward, no matter the odds. Things will happen and they resolve themselves—whether you like the outcome or not."

Not one to follow a rulebook, the Biwi No.1 and Main Hoon Na actor opted to be a single parent and adopted her first child when she was 24. “When you turn 40 and go through this life-changing experience, a near-death experience, you realise that the choice you made at 24 is the only reason you will see this through. My children were my greatest reason to fight back," she says.

For Sen, her daughters and partner Rohman Shawl, lockdown has been a “mixed bag", much as it has been for the rest of us. She's grateful that a large chunk of time was devoted to post-production of Aarya. “There were lots of video calls, dubbing in the closets, visual effects, promo edits, looking at creatives, etc., while dealing with Wi-Fi issues. But there were also moments of restlessness. I miss my family, which is all over the world right now. Luckily, Rohman and the children are with me and we have made the most of it. It has been a nice time to breathe together and make peace with each other’s company."

She offers some tips for staying positive at this time. “This may be the end of an old order. But the end it is not," she says. “Everybody is in their own situation and there is no standard guideline. But what works for me is to make note of a few things: Don’t obsessively watch the news—it can diabolically affect your sense of stability, calm and hope. Social media has been a big part of how we have spent time in lockdown. Be aware of what you are consuming on it. Don’t consume stuff that brings you down.

“Just lying on the floor and stretching your body sends the right signal to the brain—that you are active. Being active helps with positive energy. Eat comfort food, but not every day. Blast music. It changes the vibe instantly. Choose the people you want to be around. Keep your distance from people who vibrate wrong."

There have also been a surfeit of shows for convenient entertainment. Sen has a vast list that traverses American, British, Dutch, Spanish and Italian content, including Madam Secretary, Better Call Saul, Penoza, Money Heist and Billions. “It’s so interesting to delve into these characters, which is why I am so excited about our show. The notion of distancing is so intense right now that it’s perfect to be able to come into people’s homes and be a part of their lives."

Udita Jhunjhunwala is a Mumbai-based writer, film critic and festival programmer.

Aarya will be streaming on Disney+ Hotstar from 19 June.

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