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August 5, 1999


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Bright 'n' beautiful

Rituparna Sengupta. Click for bigger pic!
Shoma A Chatterji

So how do you make a girl peaceably doing her history honours and looking forward to a career as a teacher become the top heroine on the Bengali marquee? Well, just ask Rituparna Sengupta -- she went that route, didn't she?

Rituparna, the cat-eyed beauty from Raja Basanta Roy Road, stepped into films with a pretty aggressive role that had plenty of negative shades. That was in Prabhat Roy's Shwet Patharer Thala, with Aparna Sen the heroine. The film won the national award for the best Bengali film that year.

"Believe me, I've never trained in acting. All the fluidity, the confidence you may see on screen comes from my stage performances in school and college. I've learnt Manipuri and Odissi [dancing] and given public performances. So I'm never nervous in front of the camera. But I never even dreamt of a career in films. All I wanted to be was a teacher and perhaps give dance recitals from time to time."

So, what happened? While Rituparna was still studying at Lady Brabourne, Calcutta, she caught the eye of some film people. Prabhat Roy came in with the first offer.

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"I was doing my masters in Modern History at Cal U [Calcutta University, for the uninitiated]. But I had to drop out because, by the end of the first year I was well into films."

Rituparna became a national name when she bagged the national award for best actress last year, sharing it with co-actress Indrani Haldar, for their performance in Rituparno Ghosh's Dahan.

"The award is very special for me because the Bengali film industry and the Bengali audience has already typecast me in singing-dancing roles filled with glamour and chutzpah. I have no quarrel with these roles. I treat them with the same amount of dedication and respect that I did Romita in Dahan.

"Yet, after a point of time, an actress begins to feel that her potential is not being exploited properly. I was too busy doing too many films at the same time to give a thought to anything else. Then, suddenly, out-of-the-blue, came this offer to play Romita.

"Abhishek, who plays my husband in the film, suggested my name to Ritu-da when he was scouting for a girl to play Romita. Ritu-da said he did not know whether I would fit the role, in terms of acting. So, Abhishek said, 'Why don't you try her out and find out for yourself?' Look what came of it," says Rituparna, still hardly able to contain her joy.

She has bagged the biggest award for any actress in the country within five years of stepping into films. Which is not unique, but pretty rare.

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Rituparna is the most prolific star in Bengali films today. The posters are flush with close-ups of her oval face, with the honey-coloured eyes highlighted to good effect. Whether it is a vulgarised attempt to fight the woman's cause like Meyerao Manush or a Mithun starrer like Bhagyadevata, you just cannot miss Rituparna's face on screen or her name in the credits.

Her two major television appearances, Andolan on Zee and Cinemawalla on DD7 did offer the promise of an aggressive star capable of fiery performances. But she mainly got lost in the jazzy world of glamour. Which was a surprise really, because Rituparna does not have what one could call conventional Bengali good looks. Did this work against her?

"There was a lot of confusion in the industry to begin with. Some felt my looks would not go down with the Bengali audience. They felt I was not photogenic. Others felt I was just what Bengali cinema needed when there was lack of glamour for heroine roles and there were few leading ladies around. For some time, it was as if I was in no man's land. But as soon as my films hit the box-office, one after another, we all knew that the audience had accepted me.

"If people think that it is the glamour that has pulled me through, then Dahan and the award will lay their doubts at rest. Perhaps. Besides, how long do you think a star can keep fooling the audience and the directors with glamour alone? Sooner or later, she must prove her worth as an actress.

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"This schizophrenic thinking that a glamorous heroine cannot act and an actress cannot ooze glamour must go. Bollywood stars are proving it every day. Look at Tabu, Madhuri, Karisma, Manisha. They all began by peddling their glamour. Each one of them is today known for her equal command over acting. I want to be like them. Not any particular star, but a little of each of them," says Rituparna.

Heaping all the credit on her director for her performance in Dahan, she says Ghosh had told her just to become Romita and forget everything else. I did not wear any make-up in the film except for some eye-black under my eyes for those post-molestation scenes in Romita's bedroom. I did not read the original novel. I only read Ritu-da's script and that was enough. I had to perform the Romita of the script, not the novel. I placed myself totally under the control of my director. The technical and the acting team did the rest."

Rituparna is now enthused about her title role in Aparna Sen's Paromitar Ek Din. Nemesis found me linked once again with Rina-di [Rina is Aparna Sen's nickname].

"My first film was with Rina-di who played my mother-in-law in Swet Patharer Thala. In Paromitar Ek Din too, we play mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. The additional challenge is that the film is being directed by Rina-di herself. She put us through the paces of our characterisation through a four-week-long theatre workshop in her home. It was conducted by her theatre director friend Sohag-di [Sohag Sen].

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"It was a wonderful experience in self-discovery. I play Paromita in the film. It spans 14 years of my life and I grow much older than my real age during the film. There are various shades of grey to the character and her bonding with Sanaka, her mother-in-law, forms the essence of the theme.

"I am divorced from my husband, Sanaka's son, but she cannot bear the pain of my departure from the house and from her life. She gradually grows weaker from loneliness and by the time Paromita comes to see her, she is dying.

"Rina-di has been an excellent person to work with. I am also grateful to my other directors for having given me the go-ahead to work on the long, single-stretch schedule for Paromitar Ek Din," she says. She does not wear any make-up in this film as well, except in the wedding scenes.

She feels her Bombay stint is somehow jinxed, or that she made some wrong choices.

"The Bombay scenario is so different. No actor from Bengal will know how to go about his career in Bombay unless he has a good guide and good banners. I got both. Mithun-da was a wonderful guide. He helped me brush up my bad Hindi, made me feel comfortable. I got a good banner and a good director for my first Hindi debut. It was N N Sippy's Teesra Kaun directed by Parto Ghosh. Hema Malini picked me for a negative supporting role in Zee's home-production Mohini, starring Madhu and Sudesh Berry.

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"I did four films with Mithun-da in Hindi. I worked in Zakhmee Sipahi, produced by K C Bokadia. But nothing seems to have worked in my favour. I am waiting for the big time. As of now, I am very happy working with my Bengali directors in Tollygunje."

She names her favourite Bengali films -- Sujan Sakhi, Shami Keno Ashami, Moner Manush, Adorer Bon -- directed by the quickie-hit-maker Swapan Saha, Ami Shei Meye directed by Prasenjeet, Sansar Sangram directed by Chiranjeet.

Rituparna has made a name for herself in Bangladesh and her Indo-Bangladesh co-productions have all been hits, both in Bengal and in Bangladesh. The spin-off from location shooting there has revealed another facet of this girl: She has begun writing a column for Anandalok, narrating her experiences of the people, the films, even the environment, culture, et al. Her writing is easy to read, her language being free of intellectual pretensions -- simple and straight.

Provided of course, that she is writing them herself...

"Of course, I am writing them myself! Whatever gave you the idea that they are ghost-written," she protests.

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