Rediff Logo Movies Find/Feedback/Site Index
September 18, 1997



The mirror as muse.

Suparn Verma

Sushmita Sen
Hanging on this old weatherbeaten studio wall, I contain reflections of memorable faces -- some beautiful, some ugly, many moments -- moments of joy, moments of pain, moments which have created history.

I hang on the wall, and I tell you silently who is the most beautiful of all. I reflect the truth and oft, on reflection, my images are better than the truth. Remember the Lady of Shalott...The mirror crack'd from side to side...?

Crossing her legs, she lights up a Marlboro, her eyes dart from side to side. She removes her shades and stares at me. A frown mantles that pretty brow as she sees herself in me. A hurried gesture and her make-up man appears with a brush, some shades and gloss. He waves his hands all over her face, calling upon the ancient spirits of beautiful maidens.

A smile appears on Sushmita's face. The cigarette stubbed out, she looks at me again, waiting for my approval. I inspect minutely, every pore that she exposes to me. She looks surreal.

But there is something more. Something much darker than the fair maiden has chosen to reveal. Something darker, like a wound festering with anger and pain... Raw.


She is not the first and not the last, but she is unique with her list of achievements, the way she lived, and the way she is now fighting to come back.

Sushmita Sen, looks up, at me once again putting me in place, a place that she guards zealously, a place that she locks away all her memories, her joys and fears.

As she looks closely at her eyelashes, she starts talking. To someone else.

"The mirror and I are supposed to be the best of friends, because I'm in a profession where my best friend is the mirror. Not that I don't ask my mirror a couple of times a day who is the fairest of them all but at the same time I believe my relationship with the mirror will become very boring if I keep looking into it every moment. At the same time it will start reflecting things about myself that I don't want the mirror to know.

"I'm keeping certain sides of me away from the mirror. Yet, at times, I become completely part of the mirror -- but that's quite rare. It's only when I want to find some emotions, some expressions in myself which I can't see without a mirror that I like looking at it. Like in a relationship, two people need their breathing space. Accordingly, I think my relationship will last longer if I stop looking at it every second of the day, and I hope it doesn't crack... It will if I keep looking at it every five minutes."

I look on at her, expressing nothing, saying nothing ... waiting.

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, are you angry with me?"

I still say nothing.

She puts on her best smile, trying to entice me, and then she says the magic words.

"C'mon, tell me who is the most beautiful of all?"

I try to stall, but she cuts the silence.

"No, now that isn't right, see, a mirror never lies. You don't lie to me, you mirror, so tell me..."

I look at her closely. Well the whole universe says you are the most beautiful of them all, then who am I -- just a run down studio mirror on the wall -- to dispute the fact? If I did matter, you would tell me what is that you hide from me. You turn away your eyes every time I start looking inside you. It is almost like you are avoiding me."

"Yeah, but that is only to maintain our relationship, it's not because I dislike you or I see something I dislike in you, it's just that the less I see you the more I'll appreciate you."

So the fair face won't speak. But then what's new. They all try to hide under the greasepaint, until the layers run down with the tears, leaving the real thing exposed. I don't want her to cry, but then I do have the right to know what's happening inside the face, when it stares right through me everyday.

So how was your day?

She is an Indian from Bengal,
She is from a country that teaches love and respect for all,
She is a girl of 18, yet a child at heart,
Even now she loves to play those games which used to be a part of her childhood art
She loves little children and she envies them bad,
Because to this one stage she can never go back.
She is a dreamer of a kind with a wish to make them come true,
She is a writer or a kind who wishes to create something new,
She doesn't believe in ambition but what she aspires to be,
She aspires to be successful in whichever line she might be,
She is jolly, sometimes upset, coping up with the ups and downs,
And whatever life has to offer one must wear as a crown,
Her motto in life are the lines of Shakespeare,
"Life is not a midsummer night's dream,
Nor is it a tempest, it is but a comedy of errors,
So you live it as you like it,
Hence love one, love all, now and forever."
This is Sushmita as I know her.
                -- Sushmita Sen
"My day went good. You have been seeing half the time what has been happening. Without you I wouldn't have my eyelashes in place, that's definite. And my lip liner. So you did a pretty good job yourself today. I get damn upset with you sometimes, when you make me look terrible and out of nowhere. After three hours of putting make-up suddenly you change your mind and I look terrible and have to start all over again. You know you have a problem. You can't do without light, you just don't help me in the dark, I need a light to see you. It's almost like you need to see the teeth of some people to know they are there."

Well, I can see you clearly in the moonlight, though I can't still see inside the souls of people without light.

She evades my remarks again.

"In the moonlight I can just see my silhouette, but in the light whenever I look at you, I can see every feature of myself."

Ah! a narcissist, aren't we, my dear?

"That's what you make people out to be, darling! You mirrors do that to people -- you make them narcissistic," she retorts, flinging back a stray lock.

I may make my beholder a narcissist, but then that's not all that I do is it? And you know better than to lie to me, because I'll catch every flicker of emotions that run through your skin.

She smiles at my threat, looks for a long time at her eyelashes, and then she starts speaking: "You help me a lot in an out-of-body experience. Looking at you sometimes I get lost as if your mirror was a mirror to my future or a mirror to my past, and I just start to feel like I'm out of my body and I'm seeing everything as you are perceiving me. I don't see it the way I'm looking at you but the way you're looking at me, and I get this amazing feeling because I can bring back my childhood memories and I can see things happening in front of you. I can make faces in front of you and make myself look different. I think my experiences with you are something which nobody can share because you are a part of my private life, because what I can do in front of you in a quiet room, nobody will ever know. You have been seeing them do them all the time and tell you about it."

Sushmita is a child-woman who has lived a lifetime in the short span on 22 years. The way she drives herself, the way she is running towards something, away from something, her drive is nothing short of fear.

Are you afraid of dying young?

Smiling her feline smile, she waves her hands in the air.

"See I once had cracked a joke to a journalist that someone had read my palm and that he said I have a short life. The journalist took it seriously and wrote a long article on it. But it was just a joke.

"I always wanted to something young, I always wanted to be the first one to do it, to be the youngest one to do it. That was my ambition, because people, most of the times, not all times, achieve their goals when they are old, after years and years of struggle, I didn't want to struggle that much, I would have put anything that I had but I didn't want to struggle that much. Some of the things I went for, I achieved it very young so it wasn't that I intended to be any other way.

"The end is the beginning is the end"
-- Smashing Pumpkins

"I knew you were coming to that. Dastak was actually very good for me, I don't deny that when it flopped, it hurt. It was my first film and I obviously had high hopes from it, but it did me a lot of good. I was entering a profession where you have to get used to flops more often than hits because that's what happens here most of the time. Someone who is not used to losing may not enjoy that side of life and may get completely depressed and ask how this could happen to him or her. Dastak taught me that there is more to life than always winning, and I loved every minute of it. I loved losing because I knew that if I feel depressed about it and sulk about it, then all my other work will suffer. And I let it go at that. People appreciated my work. The fate of the film is not in my hand. Whatever people may say, it's in no actor's hand. I gave it my 100 per cent in Dastak. I'm happy with that.

But how did the industry which never forgives react to your failure? Did they change colour overnight?

She laughs, not an amused laugh. She inhales harshly, and her neck muscles pop out in relief for a second before she smiles again.

"No, not really, but the minute you have a flop, everything you do is wrong and people start to criticise you for everything that you do. At the same time, if you have a hit, everything you do is God's gift to mankind. That is something which you will have to live with. I haven't really felt that much of a change because I never let anyone get that close to me so that they can affect me. So even if they don't behave properly, I don't get to see it because I'm not that close to them. So for the five minutes or couple of hours that they see me I give them their due respect and they give me theirs, and that's where it ends.

But how did she take the reaction from the film press, whose articles were a far cry from the ones published on her when she was Miss Universe. Her voice takes on a severe tone, the voice of a woman scorned.

"It happened to me twice and I swore never to speak to them (the two magazines in question) again. Because one thing I can't tolerate is someone betraying my trust. Either you behave like a journalist who doesn't know me, come, interview and bitch about me, because you won't affect me. But if I have treated you like a friend that you have felt so comfortable that you felt like you were talking to a friend or to a family member, I don't want you to betray that trust. But at the end of the day their loss is also my loss and my loss theirs. It's not like I can't do without them or they can't do without me. It's both of us doing each other a favour.

As the mood gets grimmer in the room, her eyes take on a 'let's talk about something else, let's talk about something nice, something beautiful' look. So instead of talking about her beauty, the topic comes around to Sushmita's childhood.

She picks up a samosa delicately from the plate brought to her by the unit boy, trying not to get too much oil on her fingers. And starts speaking chirpily.

"One of my nicest memories, which my dad actually has on tape, is of my mom cooking. So one day I wanted to do some cooking. I took my mom's utensils as I had seen her and I took a baingan ( brinjal), and a kadai (pan) and started hitting them all over the house. When my mom came and saw me she asked me what I was doing and I said I'm cooking. You do it inside a pan; I'm doing it all over the house.

The gal still can't cook.

So did your mother ever hit you owning to this or some other 'nice memory' of yours?

"My mom did but she was given strict instructions by my father, not on the head and not on the face. Because it's a girl. But, yeah, I got my bit of spanking. My mom had her rules, but she utilised it very rarely, especially when I didn't do my homework. She was majorly at it, but my dad never raised his hand at me. He is a very daughter-daughter daddy you know."

Sushmita still repents to this day is when she missed seeing her grandfather when he died..

"When I lost my grandpa -- he was very close to me -- it was very tragic. Because he would tell me, 'See, you never come to me and when one day you come to me it will be too late.' I never used to take him seriously, and I always used to laugh and tell him, "You're gonna live for a 100 years," I would kid with him. And one day when it actually when he passed away I didn't get a chance to see him."

But then no one is immortal. When did the child in her come to terms with the fact?

"I think every child in the back of their mind know this as they keep on growing up and understanding things around. Everyone you love is going to go away one day, especially your mom and dad. And when you see death happening at a young age you realise that even faster. But somehow you can't see your parents ever dying. You think they will live forever to see you forever. But it didn't really scare me off, but certainly I'm still very insecure about my parents."

Does death scare you?

This time she laughs a real full laugh. "My death..... Haven't really thought about it. I'm too involved with life right now, I haven't given my death a thought."

Born in an military background, living in the camp compounds, did her notion of the ideal man have a lot to do with the uniformed pilots who would stroll by?

"No not really, I mean when I was really young, I remember my dad's air force camp. We had a very guarded lifestyle. Even the school used to be in the camp compound, and the only people you could find attractive there were the fighter pilots and the flight lieutenants, and they were like really young boys, who had just passed out of NDA (the National Defence Academy) and learning to fly. We would just look at them and go like 'Wow'. What used to be even more glamorous about them was the uniform.

"But when I came out of the camp life I had no preconceived notion about what I like about a man. I like people who are nice to me, irrespective of whether it's a man or a woman, and it's difficult to understand that today, because I have more male friends today than women friends. It's probably because I get along better with them. Maybe because they are less bitchy and they are more comfortable to be around at all times, because although they are the opposite sex they understand you a whole lot better.

See a friend will not be a friend if they are jealous of you. I don't go out to make friends with women because I don't think it's necessary. Friendships happen over a period of time. You can't wake up one day and say, I like this person, let's be friends with them. It doesn't work that way. It's just that most of the time when I have met women, they love to discuss what kind of clothes I have, what kind of shoes I wear, my hair, their hair, their shoes. I like women with whom I can have an intelligent conversation, the way I can have a conversation with a man about anything. I should be able to communicate with them about other things, like about my life, besides fashion. And most women consider that appropriate because you are from the glamour business. Not that I don't have girl friends. I do have three really close friends who would die for me and I would die for them.

Who does she love more, her mother or her father?

"Do I love my dad more or my mother?? Now that's a good question, but I'm going to be damn diplomatic about it. Sometimes I love my dad more because he says yes to a lot of things I want, and sometimes I love my mom, more because she understands a lot of things I have to say as one woman to another woman. She is also my friend. But overall, I love both my parents a lot."

Have her parents been making her decisions in her life?

"No," she exclaims waving her hands in the air, "I have been I have been making my own decisions since I was 15. From the time I was 15-16 my mother and father had a big hand in helping me make my decisions, though by the time I was 17, I was definitely on my own.

"It's just that if I don't learn to control a given situation by myself, then when will I learn? I don't think maturity comes with age; it comes with experience. The faster you go out and live life and go out and get experience, the better you will have the understanding of a situation. I can have a life living with my mom and dad who can be constantly saying that you cannot do this film, or you cannot act with this hero. I'm against that idea, because I'm an individual and I want to have my own regrets. I don't want anybody to decide for me and then go on complaining for the rest of my life that this happened because of him or her, making yourself and that that person miserable. It's better I be miserable alone."

And are you miserable with the decisions you have made in your life?

"Not miserable. Because being miserable is a very momentary thing. People who are miserable all the time have a serious problem. Being miserable is a phase that passes by. It's not permanent but being bitter is something more permanent because bitterness is a feeling that is closer to hatred. And being a strong emotion, it comes quite rarely to you sometimes. When it comes, it stays for a long time."

And are you bitter?

"Yes, I have got bitter a lot of times, but the bitterness has varied from degree to degree, I can't give examples..."

And Sushmita shuts up. I wait. She finally breaks the silence.

"But yes I'm bitter and I'm waiting for my time to come, waiting for payback time, to the people I'm bitter about... I haven't planned anything, it's just that I remember everything. For example, if I'm stuck on a road, like an ordinary person, not Sushmita Sen, and someone comes by and helps me, I'll never forget what he did. But at the same time if I'm desperately in need on help and there is only person who can help me, I'll never be forgiving if that person betrays me at the last minute. I'll wait a lifetime to turn around. I truly believe that if you need me today, I'll need you tomorrow. So don't forget that."

Has anyone betrayed you?

Sometimes silences speak more than words. I could have done better than to ask her the question. Looking into those eyes would have been enough. But today I wanted to put everything on record.

"Let's not talk about it," she says, sealing her lips, looking away.

Okay we won't talk about it. Lets go back to the beginning of Sushmita Sen, the making of a 'sensation' as the media had termed it. How did she get into modelling? Did someone discover her?

"Nobody discovered me, I was 15 years old and doing summer jobs in Delhi, and I was getting bored out my mind, and you know what the summer in Delhi is like. It's hot and dry," she says. "Enough to make you sweat. And when you are really young, the last thing you want to be doing is going from door to door and selling stuff. But I was doing that for pocket money. In my case it was Euroclean (vacuum cleaners) saying, 'If you need to order, we can have it for you in 24 hours.' It was good pocket money for me but I wasn't happy doing it.

"I had a friend who was planning to get into modelling and she, Jyoti, said to me "Why don't you get into modelling?" And I said, "If you ever mention that word to my father he will probably kill me!" She apparently too made it big in Delhi, and she is married to my ex-boyfriend."


"No, no, Rajat is not married... This is someone else... But she is a sweetheart, a real doll. Anyway, I was hesitant and Jyoti said she would speak to my father. My dad expectedly threw a fit and said, 'You are in school', and all that. Anyway I borrowed Rs 6,000 from Jyoti, who by now was already into modelling. There is another friend of mine, Popo, who helped me out with some money. And then I went for the portfolio to Harbans Modi, in Delhi. My mom helped me out too. In fact, she came over on the actual day of the shoot, and dad, to this day, doesn't know about it.

"When I got the pictures I showed it to dad and he was mad at first. In fact, mom had specifically told Harbans Modi, 'Cover her up in sarees and what not. Her father should not see anything.' So we did some very aunty-aunty pictures for my portfolio. And I remember coming home and my father being very upset. But I told my father, 'You keep telling me to learn to exist on my own and stuff, and here is my chance to do so.' I promised him my school grades wouldn't suffer. I had to work very hard to keep my grades up as well as work. I remember my first campaign was Ranbaxy, and my father came along with me because he had heard that women are exploited in the advertising world. He came for 5-6 shootings and he got comfortable and then I was on my own. That's how it started. As I started earning I paid back my friends --- without interest. The interest was only love."

So how did you react to Jyoti marrying your ex-boyfriend?

"C'mon, he was my 'ex' boyfriend and I really have no right to comment on it. As long as she is happy, it's cool. At first I was like 'Aawwkk! How did that happen?' But then it was okay, it didn't really matter, because the man didn't matter anymore. But as long as she is happy..."

Why is that when one loves somebody they are completely blinded by the other person. But the minute they are out of it there is a lot of bad blood?

"I still talk to all my ex-boyfriends. I have no problems with them and there is no bitterness. They have their own girlfriends, they have their lives. Their girlfriends don't like me being around, but actually I'm the safest person to be around with, because when I'm in a relationship with someone, I'm extremely faithful."

What do you perceive fame as?

"I never got carried away with it, I'm definite about it. I am from a middle-class family, and everything I have achieved in life I have only appreciated. I have never gone overboard because I have seen the other side of life. When you have seen the other side of life you appreciate what you have. You don't take it to your head; you take it to your heart.

"But people's perception of you change once you are famous. For example, I'm your close friend and when we meet, I'll be totally normal, but in your hearts of heart you will be thinking 'Yeh badal gayi hai (She has changed). But that's how you are perceiving me. I'm still the same. That is not that way I am. But, yes, there is always a certain amount of respect that grows if one of my friends did something really big in life. My respect for that person will grow because of that person's ability to reach there. What I really appreciate in my friends is that they really respect me. And beyond a point even the best of my friends don't get into the shoulder patting kind of behaviour in public. They don't do it. Because today if my friends will backslap me in public, people will think they themselves too are free to do so, and that's an idea they should not get."

So how different is her public image from what she really is and how important is her public image?

"The image is never created by you. It's created by the media, by the people around you. In my real life self, I would be without make up and in jeans and a T-shirt. But when I'm outside I'm dressed up. It's not because I enjoy doing it. A lot of times it becomes too much for me but, you see, a lot of times people are meeting me for the first time and I want their first meeting with me to be very special. I don't want them to meet me for the first time and say, 'She looks like this?!?' They have imagined me and created an image in their heads about me. I don't want to kill that image, but if the image is wrong, I would love to correct it for them. But at the same time, images can be very negative too. For example, a picture put in a magazine can create an image which is not you at all, but then that's an image that's been created. But then when you meet me personally, you immediately perceive me differently. That's how you move on, that's how I see it. It's different people with different images of me."

You mean to say you have never believed the hype around you?

"No. You have to remember something. There is a spotlight on you and that's why you stand out. One day that spotlight is going to move and if you get too used to standing in the light you'll never be able to balance in the dark. I have to know how to stand in the dark at all times."

So did you always want to be a model or be in the glamour profession, or did a mix of professions excite you?

"As a kid I wanted to do so many different things, I saw my aunt as an air hostess and then I wanted to be an air hostess. I found it very glamorous, but when I flew for the first time in my life , and I saw how air hostesses have to slog and how they have to work with everybody going 'ting-ting' and how they have to keep on running up and down. I said, Noooooooo I can't do that. Then I wanted to be a pilot, after looking at my father. It was so glamorous. Then people talked about being a doctor or an engineer. I passed all those phases. Finally I got stuck on being a model and got into beauty pageants, I didn't decide it. Amazingly, life took me into it, and then it just went on from there."

So what do you think was the deciding factor in the Miss India pageant that made you win? Aishwariya was a hot favourite and had been around for a long time. What do you think made you win?

"I don't know, you know. All of us were put up on that stage after a lot of effort, but the difference was that, other than Ash, the rest of us were very insecure, I don't know about Ash. We were going up against a person who was very big in the modelling world, and, obviously, if affects you negatively. Twenty-five women did not enter that year. They took their applications back when they found out Ash was entering. But that's where you have to take certain chances.

"You have to go up to the person who you really want to dance with and say. 'I want to dance with you.' The maximum that will happen is that person will say no. But what if the person says yes? Whatever you wanted will come true. So I took that chance and went up to the person and said I want to dance with you, and the person agreed.

Why did he agree to dance with you?

"I don't know maybe because I was very constantly at it. I was very adamant about dancing with the person and I put in everything I had, my charm my grace to convince the person - 'Pleaaaaaaaaasee dance with me' -- and most of all because I did everything. But I didn't beg. I just went with whatever I had, and just requested. With that request came a lot of hard work. And then it worked out for me. Destiny too played a part in it, but only that much."

Would you have liked it if you came second place?

"No why should anyone like to be number 2 in life?" She lights another cigarette, covering the stick while lighting up. The smoke rises out of her nostrils, her eyebrows arch. Sushmita regains her poise and retires into her no-nonsense mould.

Mirror, mirror...

Tell us what you think of this feature