Sushmita Sen - The tale of a unique stardom
With her recent release, Taali, making all the right noises, here's the writer looking at the phenomenon of Sushmita Sen, who is on a one-woman race, in a rivalry with herself
It’s the kind of subject that is traditionally not supposed to go down too well with the family audience, but a fortnight since it dropped on Jio Cinema, Taali — a web series based on the life of transgender rights activist, Gauri Sawant — has proven to be Indian streaming world’s latest surprise success with 25 million views and counting.
It has also brought the spotlight back on Sushmita Sen who vitalises the battles of 'identity, survival and equality' of the protagonist Shreegauri Sawant with singular poise and power. Ravi Jadhav’s series cruises smoothly on good-hearted, well-meaning, audience-friendly melodrama, with tears, smiles, song-n-dance, verbal parleys, and fiery speeches thrown in equal measure but it’s Sushmita who owns the show. She constantly underlines her onscreen avatar’s demeanour with admirable composure, self-possession, and gravitas even as she plays fabulously to the gallery with the traditional filmy dialogue baazi.
Sushmita gives the series its moments; she is the one who stays with you long after it’s over. This isn’t something new. Sen’s stately bearing, confidence, talent, intelligence and eloquence have never been in doubt since she walked away with the Miss Universe title in 1994 by explaining to the judges, and the world at large, what the essence of being a woman meant to her: Showing a man what caring, sharing and loving is all about.
This time, success is sweeter in terms of the role she has dared to essay and the way she has challenged the actor in her. The jury might be out on not opting for a transwoman actor, but Sushmitha has won Sawant’s prized endorsement: “I thought they would pick a Cis-male actor." Far from it. Indeed, it's a rare instance of a woman (apart from an odd Vaani Kapoor in the film Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui) playing a transwoman in Hindi films or series. By playing Sawant, Sen storms a male bastion inhabited by the likes of Akshay Kumar (Laxmii), Ashutosh Rana (Sangharsh) and Sadashiv Amrapurkar (Sadak) among others, who have contributed to reducing and degrading the community’s portrayal on screen.
Taali is significant in what it is able to achieve within the confines of this male-centric, patriarchal gaze. Sushmita’s performance, unlike Akshay or Ashutosh or Sadashiv, doesn’t lock the protagonist in the shackles of caricatures and stereotypes but liberates them from the expectations of the farcical, comic, pitiable, and perverse. Sushmita accentuates the dignity, elegance, credibility and 'normality' of real-life Sawant, while also effortlessly bringing issues of gender fluidity into focus. Men can have motherly affection and crave children, while women can have ambitions of becoming supercops.
With this, Sushmita takes another significant step forward in the gender debate. For heroines in the industry trapped in defined paradigms of youth and good looks, Sushmita, a top beauty pageant winner herself, pushes the ‘lookist’ envelope and how. Her portrayal remains graceful and refined despite a gruff, heavy voice and evidence of facial hair... It's a beautiful union of femininity and masculinity all at once. The once-beauty queen subverts and reinvents the very idea of beauty through Sawant.
Most of all, Sushmita helps take the series beyond the already converted and aware, harnessing her star persona to sensitise the masses that could be harbouring needless preconceptions and biases against the trans community. She takes their marginal voice and consciousness into the mainstream. Having said that, this is not an odd turn by Sushmita. She has been outspoken on several social issues especially to do with gender and children.
A series like Taali also makes one admire Sushmita's unique stardom that hasn’t been driven by fanfare yet. It is not energised by a blind chase for ambition but created conscious choices, often in the face of pragmatic, not-so-sweet realities. In an era of in-your-face stars all around us, Sushmita has valued her privacy away from the limelight. While her colleagues might be getting shot by paparazzi at airports and gyms, she has not always been so readily available. She comes under the public gaze at the time of her new work with always something consequential to say and share.
She has been as much of an iconoclast in her personal life as well. Be it her relationship with actor Randeep Hooda or businessman Lalit Modi or her choice to date a much younger man, model Rohman Shawl, she hasn’t been one to hide. She has been as candid about her medical condition, Addison’s Disease, as well. She adopted two girls—Renee and Alisah—and decided to devote time to them at the peak of her flourishing career, with hits like Biwi No. 1, Main Hoon Na and Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya? behind her.
Over the last few years, she has done relatively fewer projects without making a hullabaloo about them. In fact, it’s the industry that hasn’t quite been able to tap into her enormous talent resourcefully. When things became stagnant on the work front, she had no qualms in taking a five-year-hiatus only to return in 2020 with the thumping success of another clutter-breaking role of a mafia queen in Ram Madhvani’s web series Aarya. Taali has cemented this newfound success.
But this won't let her get carried away, just as failure didn’t rattle her. In that sense, Sushmita’s model of life is worth emulating. One which is centred on equanimity, and a sense of security. It is all about Sushmita’s own expectations of herself rather than merely making a point or proving something to the world. It’s about being in a one-woman race, in a rivalry with herself. With what is possibly her highest career point till date, Sushmita is in an enviable league of her own. A celebrity who maybe a trifle reluctant, but nevertheless, an unequivocal newsmaker.