She's no doll, nor a moll
She has plenty of oomph and makes no bones of using it in her movies and commercials. But it turns out Amartya Sen's daughter, Nandana, is actually a nice girl-next-door.
IF NABOKOV hadn't written about her, we would have had to invent Lolita. The idea of a child-like waif who can turn the heads of balanced, mature men recurs in literature and film.
Nandana Sen does a fair imitation of Lolita in Indian feature and advertising films. We see her again and again, dressed (or otherwise) in a daring fashion, usually with a clutch of drooling men around her. Watching our young heroine in a commercial lick her fingers and turn the men around her into sugar-shunning health fiends leaves us ill-prepared to meet the lady in person. More so to discover a quintessential girl-next-door. After an hour with her, the overwhelming impression is of a very nice young woman, with an aura of innocence and childlike faith in the essential good nature of people around her. She is also no candyfloss tinsel-town doll; there is a fire and sparkle about her, which clearly warns off would-be transgressors.
The impression I carry away from our meeting is of an ingénue, warm and spontaneous, quick to break into peals of laughter. Budding stage and film actress though she is, she is probably better known as the daughter of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen.
Growing up in Kolkata in her early years with both her parents is what Nandana remembers and cherishes. She doesn't like discussing her relationship with her illustrious father, except to admit that her home was indeed a powerhouse of intellect presided over by parents who were absolutely "great human beings".
Growing up in such a cerebral atmosphere with two geniuses for parents, it was but natural that Nandana's childhood was steeped in books and reading. Her mother's strong influence encouraged her to start writing very young. But she and her sister Antara an acclaimed journalist and today editor of a thought-provoking alternative journal did not have such an unusual or extraordinary childhood as Bengali children go. Music, books, and the arts dominated her growing years, as in any average Bengali family. Visits to Shantiniketan, where her paternal grandmother lived, strengthened this cultural foundation, which so visibly provides her with an anchor in her present jetsetting lifestyle, as she shuttles between Mumbai and the Big Apple.
Nandana was in Bangalore for the premiere of her latest film, Bokshu The Myth. She recalled that when she was approached by the director, she took a long time to decide. She has always been very picky about her roles, and has looked for strong characters to play. She has an affinity for heroine-backed stories. The story of Bokshu, the fact that it was a movie of the `earth', and her own role, moving from being a victim to taking charge of her fate, made Nandana eventually decide to do the film.
This, however, cost her a leading role in Mahesh Dattani's Mango Soufflé, which was shot around the same time. Nandana is rueful about that. Having acted in the opening performances of Dattani's play, 30 Days in September directed by Lilette Dubey, Nandana has a special equation with the playwright/film-maker. (In fact, she insisted that I add the bit about her disappointment at not being able to do Mango Soufflé for the benefit of her Bangalore fans.)
Her most exciting premiere so far has been her off-Broadway play in New York, directed by Robert Castle. This was the outcome of an improvisation workshop she attended in New York at The Artists' Studio, a revered institution for the dramatic arts. She took on the role of Beatrice, artist Modigliani's muse, researched the historical character, and delved into the fascinating and complex role she was given in this dark period play which ran to full houses over an extended engagement. Her parents flew in from different worlds in Oxford and Kolkata to be there for Nandana on that special occasion, making it an opening night to treasure.
Nandana's Canadian film, Seducing Maarya, a strong female-oriented role of an Indian girl running away from her past, has done well consistently in the film festival circuit, bagging awards and gaining release in over10 countries. It's another matter that we haven't got to see it here in India as yet.
Nandana has used her major in literature and writing from Boston to write many screenplays, which have been produced. She would rather not act in her own screenplays: "I would like to maintain a certain objectivity in my writing," she says. She is on the verge of finalising a role in a Strindberg play in New York. Her next film is Vinita Nanda's White Nose, an Indian language, woman-oriented movie. And to fill the gaps between plays and movies, Nandana has been doing commercials for Pizza Hut, FM Radio and Sugar Free, among others. She staggers me when she says she actually finds it quite challenging to make an impact in a 10-second commercial. This is in line with her approach of constantly trying and doing new things, exploring fresh areas, and growing and learning from every experience.
As our interview wound to a close, Nandana suddenly lapsed into the little-girl-lost syndrome, and started looking around for her mother. "I really miss my mother when I am away. She has been such a strong influence and support in my life. In fact, I asked her to be with me in Bangalore today because it's Mother's Day."
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her what a nice, middle-class girl with seemingly all the right values, keeps doing overtly sexy roles. But then, I chickened out. Honestly, Nandana was one of the nicest celebrities I have spent time with, and I didn't want to spoil a great evening with her.
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