Sushmita Sen on her comeback, overcoming an autoimmune illness and what it means to be a mother
It's taken a decade for her to make a comeback. But when she did return to the silver screen, Sushmita Sen came back with all power and grace in the Disney+ Hotstar web series Aarya, playing the eponymous role of a woman who gets drawn into the murky world of drug lords. Her commanding screen presence and remarkable performance reiterated Sushmita’s status as a bankable star. “When I look back at all the pros and cons that I weighed before the show, I think it has all paid off,” says the actress thoughtfully over a phone call from Mumbai where she is busy shooting promos for a new reality show. She adds further, “The way Aarya has been received, I can say the love (showered upon me) has been pretty palpable.”
Making a mark
Aarya and the leading lady, both continue to be in the news. Following its success and critical acclaim, the web series is currently being dubbed in six languages — Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi and Kannada, while Sushmita is back in familiar territory. The former Miss Universe is one of the judges on a reality fashion contest along with celebrated designer Manish Malhotra and the young influencer-actor comedian Mallika Dua. Known for always speaking her mind and only choosing work that appeals to her, Sushmita says she had her reasons to take up this show. “When I look at reality TV or digital content, I don’t want to sign on anything unless it is something that I haven’t experimented with. Myntra Fashion Superstar is new to me. I haven’t worked in a show like this. To be on a platform with the finest fashion influencers participating in it and to be on the same panel as the two well-known judges, I think it worked out well. After I had finished something so intense like Aarya, it was lovely to be part of this fun and inspirational project in the interim till I begin shooting for Season 2 of Aarya in January (2021),” explains Sushmita.
While the term ‘influencer’ is being thrown around casually today, the beauty queen became a globally influential voice much before the term came into being. As one of the top three contestants at the 1994 Miss Universe competition, the then Miss India won hearts across the world with her answer to the question in the final round. When asked, ‘What for you is the essence of being a woman?’ Sushmita had answered, ‘Just being a woman is a gift of God that all of us must appreciate.’ Since then, Sushmita has stayed true to her belief. From making the choice of becoming a single mother at 24, when she adopted her first child Renee (a decade later she adopted Alisah), to the decisions she has made in her career and personal life, the former Miss Universe has always been an aweinspiring icon for both men and women.
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Becoming a brand
Recalling the era of the ’90s, she says a lot has changed for everyone. “Zameen-aasmaan ka fark hai (it is akin to the difference between the sky and the earth). We didn’t have the Internet. We didn’t have awareness of global brands. I was aware because I had won Miss Universe and had moved to the US. I got first hand experience of international labels,” she says. The way things have evolved today, courtesy the Internet and social media, Sushmita says people are more aware of global fashion icons and the statements they make. However, what makes an individual a true influencer is his or her ability to initiate a dialogue. It’s something that’s not easy to achieve and the former beauty queen vehemently advocates the idea. “I think an influencer should have the ability to change a conversation. Which means even if I look at great videos and pictures with innovative captions on social media, what I really want to see is if the content evokes a feeling in me. Without this ability to elicit emotions an influencer cannot communicate with a wider audience,” she says.
Perhaps it’s conversations like these that the actress engages in through her social media that add to her inimitable personality. Whether it’s her Instagram or Twitter bios — both share the same description ‘I AM’ — or her openness about repeating attires, Sushmita is unapologetically outspoken. “You look at the world right now and there are such serious issues people are facing, that to discuss what I wear and which eyeliner I use is the least of my worries. When you reach this space in your life, you are filled with gratitude for everything you have. You don’t compare yourself with the next person or worry about what’s in or what’s out. I wear my own clothes because I am most comfortable in them. I don’t know about fashion faux pas because that isn’t a big consideration. But I am open to criticism because I repeat my clothes and accessories. They are so expensive and if I wear them only once, it would be the worst criminal offence I could ever commit,” she offers.
A cursory look at her social media pages may not reveal how often she repeats her clothes, instead the actress (who does not have a stylist) looks effortlessly stylish and comfortable in her own skin. “I don’t dress to look good. I believe that I make the clothes look good. That ‘I’ factor is very important to me, and I keep repeating this — it doesn’t matter what you wear. If you don’t have the personality to carry it off, you will fail. If you have a personality, you could be in rags and still kill it,” she says.
The language of fashion: For me, fashion is all about clean lines, great cuts, colours and how these are structurally represented. I like elegance and the ‘less is more’ idea. When it comes to Indian wear, I absolutely love Sabya (Sabyasachi Mukherjee). He is consistent, dependable and absolutely fashionable. When I want to get into my classic chiffon look, I go to Manish Malhotra, and when I want something bridal, I like Neeta Lulla’s work. They have been my go-to designers.
The learning curve
This sense of self-assurance is refreshing in these uncertain times. The incessant awareness of what’s going around, a will to survive and an optimistic attitude are attributes that have guided Sushmita in the last decade — a difficult time that she has overcome. After she was diagnosed with Addison’s disease (a condition which affects the body’s adrenal gland) in 2014, she went through a difficult phase.
“Like everyone else, I was just growing up and growing old. Then this autoimmune illness happened, and it jolted me out from my inertia. I thought what am I doing? This made me value my life all over again. I promised myself that if I get out of this mess and come back to life with vigour, I would give everything I have in my power — be it a positive mind, a fit body or a great attitude. God answered my prayers,” says the survivor who went into exploring her body further.
Gymnastics and yoga, particularly anti-gravity workouts, were her tools to take-on the physical and emotional challenges. She kept upping the levels of the workouts, and her Instagram video posts stand as testimony. “People discouraged me. They’d say ‘you are 40+, you shouldn’t be trying this, you may break a bone or pull a muscle.’ But when I went past the noise, I realised, you just need a positive mindset. The (gymnastics) ring does not know I am 44 years old. I have learnt to keep going, and believe that I can do it. I think this mindset has started showing in me,” she says enthusiastically.
Advice to aspiring models: You really need to have a burning passion to be a model. It looks very glamorous and it seems like it is a career, but it isn’t. It is fantastic as a hobby. Modelling has a very short lifespan. In India, more than half the people walking the ramp are not even Indians, so there is stiff competition. You are not just competing against your own people, you are in the race against foreigners too. Do it only if it piques your interest but always have other professions in mind.
Mum’s the word
While she was dealing with what life had thrown at her, her two daughters Renee and Alisah were growing up along with her. The doting mother that she is, Sushmita says she can write books and volumes on both her daughters who have taught her so much in life. “Both are very different from one another. Renee knows and understands self-love. She is very focused on what she wants and how she wants to go about it. She is far more fiery than I have ever been. Alisah is the compassionate one. Her self-love is expressed through compassion. When I watch her, I think people praise me for the things I have done, if they only get to know what Alisah is at the age of 11, they will realise she is far more giving than me. Both have taught me to be patient. They both have a different sense of fashion and styling, Alisah has a distinct and simplistic taste, while Renee has a glamorous and dramatic approach. I am quite amazed to see how they have learnt all this from social media. They know everything; they will even tell me if what I am wearing isn’t okay,” says the loving mother.
Her only message to her daughters and perhaps to all women is this — ‘Never stop learning. When you lose, work harder than you ever did. When you win, you redefine working hard. It just doesn’t stop.’ “You are here to graduate in life... have integrity, be unshakable. You need to have a strong spine to stand up for yourself. For you to be able to say this, there’s a line in Bengali — ‘Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe, tobe ekla cholo re (When nobody comes when you call for them, then have the courage to walk alone),’ this is my message to my babies,” she signs off.
Myntra Fashion Superstar will go on air this October on the brand’s app