Seen Sushmita Sen, anyone?   

When strong roles are being written for women, Miss Universe Sushmita Sen could have captured this Universe too. How about a script with Ash and Sush in powerful roles, wouldn’t that be a blow-out?

Photo Courtesy: social media)
Photo Courtesy: social media)

Monojit Lahiri

Whatever happened to the stunner who had the Universe at her feet and was the toast of the nation in the mid-nineties? Monojit Lahiri investigates

In 1994, an unknown young Delhi girl created history! Her Miss Universe title wowed India and zoomed her to top status in everyone’s heart. Tall, attractive, articulate, confident, the well-spoken and intelligent charmer was a brilliant symbol of ‘Beauty with Brains’, reflecting rare poise and grace under pressure. Overnight, she was wooed by every glamour-specific industry.

Predictably, Bollywood got into the act and very soon Sushmita Sen debuted with Vikram Bhatt’s Dastak, where she played the role of a model stalked by a crazed maniac. The sky did not fall! It was the fun Biwi No.1 role that got her Filmfare’s Best Supporting Actress a couple of years later. Sirf Tum and Fiza followed.

Other releases came along, the most memorable being SRK’s yummy teacher where she had audiences – and SRK – going berserk! Maine Pyar Kyoon Kiya followed with Salman, where she was a knockout too. Several others came and went, with diminishing returns and post 2015, she vanished from the big screen.

In 1994, another gorgeous beauty also captured public imagination. Ash Rai’s Miss World crown zonked one n’ all and got the media into a frenzy inviting the audiences to respond to the biggest scream of all: Sush or Ash?

It was an old clip from a Sush movie that actually grabbed my attention in these lockdown times. Her Dilbar Dilbar burned the screen and poor Sanjay Kapoor – forget second look – didn’t even warrant a first look! Her mesmerising moves really were really woooaaaah material! That’s when it struck me ... whatever happened to that show-stopper? Why had she, after those sizzling appearances, allow herself to be totally overtaken by Ash Rai in the popularity polls – which she dominated in the mid-nineties – relating to roles, banners, directors and hits?

There are differing opinions. Young Production Assistant Esha Arora believes it was a no-brainer for Ash. “She was truly beautiful and the camera loved her. So did Bollywood. After a shaky start, she understood the rules of the game and quickly adapted herself to this new world. She worked hard and played her cards smartly. The Salman Khan association also helped, but ultimately her work showed results, as can be seen by the banners, heroes and box office reports. Sushmita Sen was nowhere near her! She was intelligent and attractive alright, but Bollywood wasn’t a Beauty Contest. In this maledominated industry, with its very own rigid rules, where terms and conditions apply big time, she was a solid misfit. Today, 26 years later, Ash Rai remains an icon. Sushmita Sen – where is she??”

Veteran Film Critic Saibal Chatterjee is less strident, more objective. “See, they belong to two completely different spaces. Sushmita - being a Defence Services product – was forthcoming, extrovertish, confident, poised, transparent with amazing social skills, as part of her DNA. Sure, she was lucky to get the crown, but by all reports [apart from her looks & personality] she floored the jury with her charm and intelligent answers. Thereafter, she never indicated any burning ambition to be No.1 heroine in Bollywood. She didn’t ever pitch, request big producers, directors, banners or heroes for work or do the stuff required to capture the gaze of the Badshahs. She lived life on her own terms, bindaas, with her red-hot boyfriends and adopted kids. She was happy to do her own thing and damn political correctness or convention! If and when something nice came along, she did it.

She wasn’t particularly careful about choice of movies either, which explains the galaxy of duds! Nor did she ever complain or regret any move”.

The other thing, explains Chatterjee, was her personality. “It could be the Khans or any big hero. Sushmita Sen, unfortunately, is a natural scene-stealer! She intimidates and that’s bad news in Bollywood! Where do you fit her in? How to cast her? She couldn’t play the typical cutiepie dumb eye-candy or the traditional Paro – so what to do? Ash, for her turn, fitted and adapted superbly because she neither intimidated nor awed heroes. So be it Hum Dil De Chuke ...,Devdas, Mohabattein, Jodha Akbar, Dhoom, Guru, Iruvar, Chokher Bali, Taal, Aei Dil Hai Mushkil – she scored all the way. And let’s not even go to her celebrated Cannes & L’Oreal association or endorsements. Even today, in the era of Deepika, Priyanka, Katrina, Kareena and Kangana, Ash Rai remains a name to reckon with. Sushmita Sen isn’t – because she appeared to have taken a VRS [Voluntary Retirement Service]!!”

Esha and Saibal have made their respective points with clarity. I’d like to add two more factors. One, the Bollywood perception – and this comes in the intimidation zone – was that she appeared over-confident. Add to that a personality that overwhelmed and a persona that clearly reflected superiority & confusion gets confounded! This may be imagined or real, but at a time when the rona-dhona sweet love interest ruled and the beautiful Bimbette was the most sought after object of desire, Sushmita Sen was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If she was around today, when strong roles are being written for women, powered by reflective maturity, self-renewal and re-invention, Miss Universe could well have captured this Universe too ... but hey, just a thought. How about a script with Ash and Sush in powerful, starring roles, when women-centric movies are rocking the screens? Wouldn’t that be a real blow-out??!

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