Fresh off a four-hour flight and amidst the smoke and noise of a crowded restaurant, Raima Sen still exudes an air of cool unflappability broken only once in a while by girlish giggles. Raima is in town to promote her new film, The Bong Connection, and feeling quite chatty despite the late hour.She talks excitedly about her upcoming releases including Aparna Sen’s new film, The Japanese Wife, in which she plays a widow with an eight-year-old son. Playing a mother will be a first for her but Raima says there were bigger challenges. “The difficult part was the body language. Aparna wanted me to look like a widow who is used to doing housework and very graceful in her movements,” she explains. “During a fifteen-day workshop, I learnt how to cook, clean, swab the floor, make the bed, light a lantern and cut vegetables on a ‘boti’. The first time I was scared I’d cut my finger but by the end, I was cutting vegetables. There is a certain rhythm even to swabbing the floor. It was all very interesting!”
Graceful and gifted, Raima has often been compared to her illustrious grandmother, a crown she wears uneasily. “My grandmother inspires me,” she says pointedly, “but I can’t be like her so I don’t want to try. I don’t want to do any of her movie remakes or anything. There would be unnecessary pressure and too much expectation and comparison.”
A look at Raima’s career trajectory will reveal that her roles have always been carefully selected. Here is an actor who is clear about what she wants—and what she doesn’t. “I want to do good movies and have a long career. I don’t want to get burnt out doing unnecessary films.” When pressed for an explanation, she clarifies: “Small, commercial films. So many girls have done too many of those and burnt out. I want to create a mark.”
“In Bombay, it’s very difficult,” she continues. “There’s too much pressure. Girls are very replaceable; men are not. Too many new girls are coming in who are probably better looking than you, who can probably act better than you. It’s important to have a niche, create your own identity. The producer should say I want only her for the film and she is not replaceable.”
Asked who she would like to work with, she reels off the names of all the top directors, including the Chopras. “We’ve grown up watching their films,” she says. “I think everyone wants to do their films and anyone who says they don’t, is lying. Because they really present you in a beautiful light.”
For now, she has a slew of interesting films lined up including Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife; Ruchi Narayan’s episodic film about Bombay, which will be part of Mumbai 10; and Manorama Six Feet Under, which is a thriller. She also shot for Mira Nair’s film on AIDS.
Her Bengali film Anuranon, in which she plays a “demure wife” was also released recently. In the past as well, Raima has played demure roles: Ashalata in Chokher Bali and Koyal in Parineeta. Is she being stereotyped? “But that’s all changing now after Honeymoon Travels,” she says. “Like in Mumbai 10, I play a girl who comes to Bombay from outside and gets into the wild party scene. She is shown drinking alcohol, smoking, and snorting coke.”
Although she has played the traditional woman with ease in many of her movies, Raima identifies more with the spunky, modern Sheila of The Bong Connection. “We’ve had a very modern upbringing. We didn’t do pujas at home. No-one speaks Bengali at home. We speak only in English. Most of my friends have been Anglo-Indians.”
And will all that talent find an outlet in mainstream, commercial movies as well? “Yes, I am looking at some offers,” she confirms. “I can’t talk about them yet, but hopefully soon!”
A version of this was published in Deccan Herald last week.