Son of well-known actor Kaushik Sen and dancer Reshmi Sen, Riddhi Sen was all of twenty years old when he won the National Award for Best Actor in Kaushik Ganguly's path-breaking film Nagarkirtan (2017) in a jaw-dropping performance as a woman trapped in a man's body. As the film finally gets a theatrical release, we speak to the young actor.
You came into films at a very tender age. Share something of your background with our readers.
I come from a family of actors. Both my parents and my grandparents are well-known actors. (He is the son of Kaushik Sen and grandson of Chitra Sen, prominent names in the Bengali film and theatre world.) My parents provided an ambience where I could choose to be who I am, letting me take my own decisions. They have been my first school. I always wanted to be in this profession from my childhood. But an actor needs support to go in the right direction. I got that from my family which taught me that acting is a subject I needed to study, put in a lot of effort and time.
Throwback to your first film. Tell us about the first time when you faced the camera.
Around 2004-05 telefilms used to be very popular like web series are now. I was six years old when I faced the camera for the very first time in a telefilm, Baba-r Christmas, by Anjan Dutt. It is the story of a father and a son where my father and I played the respective roles. That was super fun. Anjan Dutt is a fantastic director. The way he handles actors, especially kids, is amazing. I was never daunted by the camera. I really enjoyed the shoot.
How did Nagarkirtan happen?
It was in 2016 that Kaushik Ganguly sent me the script. It took time to get it rolling because of the subject. People thought that a story dealing with eunuchs and transgender people would not be commercially viable. A lot of producers turned it down. Kaushik Ganguly and I were a little disheartened but he promised me that he would make the film, no matter what. We started shooting in August 2017.
Your character is nothing like what we are used to seeing in Indian cinema. How did you prepare yourself for it?
I had to undergo a 360-degree transformation! In Hollywood and Bollywood, you get months to prepare for a character. That was not possible here because of budget constraints and we had to complete shooting in three weeks or so. Also, I never knew when the film would start, when it would go on the floor, so I couldn't really prepare or rehearse for the role. However, I did study about the subject, about the concept of the third gender. I also watched movies like The Danish Girl, Aligarh, etc. I watched the performances minutely. I read about the struggles of Christine Jorgensen, who became known as the first trans-woman to have sex-reassignment surgery in the world. These helped me a lot. I also observed how a girl walks, how she talks, how she runs, how she eats.
My mother and my girlfriend played a huge role, demonstrating how to drape a dupatta, how to pick up something. And Kaushik Ganguly being a wonderful actor himself helped immensely as he described the nuances of the character, providing me with the tools with which to bring it to life. He understands an actor's psychology which is a big plus. I also met transgender people, spoke to them, heard about their conflicts, how society looks upon them.
Apart from the physical part of the preparations what was it like getting into the mindspace of the character? Was there a particular scene that you felt was the toughest to put across?
There wasn't one particular scene as such. What was tough was to understand the balance of the character and maintain that fine line to prevent it from becoming a caricature. In our cinema, the depiction of the transgender or homosexual often degenerates into the farcical, the comical. I was always conscious that the audience should not laugh at a gesture. Also, I had to keep a psychological continuity to the performance – dig into the character's feminine aspect and walk that fine line.
Ritwick Chakraborty and you seem to be feeding off each other in the way the characters play out – would you say that he contributed as much to your performance?
The best thing about Ritwick-da is that he does not pretend he's getting into the character, sitting alone, aloof from the rest. He is constantly interacting on the set, talking, having fun, but the moment the camera rolls he switches on in a way I find amazing. He is not only one of the finest actors we have today, he is also a fantastic co-actor. He understands a scene as a whole. Without ever telling me what to do, he allowed me the space to do what I wanted, giving me the cues to react to. We never consciously communicated about the characters off-camera, but because he believed in my character he created the ambience that enabled me to reveal myself.
How is Kaushik Ganguly's style of direction?
He is very relaxed. On the first day of the shoot I was panicking, but when I looked at him I saw he was not worried at all. He was like, why are you even worrying about something this easy. So, you look at him and you've the confidence that you can rely on him. Then there's his crew and the set of assistant directors, they are amazing! He has one of the best editing and production teams in the industry.
Your film Helicopter Eela did not do well either critically or commercially…
The response to a film is beyond one's control – it's also relative, everybody has a different perspective towards a film. One may like, one may not. Eela got mixed reviews. When I saw the film for the first time, I felt that the first half could have been tighter. But a film not working, doesn't necessarily make it a bad film. I'm grateful to the audience and the critics because my performance was appreciated. I enjoyed working in the movie!
What are your forthcoming films?
After Nagarkirtan, I have a cameo in Srijit Mukherji's Vinci Da. It is one of those cameos I consider very lucky to have got – something that I can look back on and smile, because it is an immensely interesting character. An actor can have one scene or twenty scenes in a movie but the duration really doesn't matter. If a scene is written and shot properly, it is equivalent to an entire movie. Param-da and I have paired up again for another web series for Zee5. It is a thriller about a terror attack being planned targeting the Durga Puja.
Your five favourite movies?
It is very hard to choose. Room by Lenny Abrahamson changed my perception of life completely. It is my all-time favourite movie. Amores Perros by Alejandro González Iñárritu is a path-breaking movie. Then there's Birdman. Satyajit Ray's Kanchenjunga is another favourite. And Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan.
Five actors who have inspired you?
What are you making me do? (Laughs) Okay, apart from my parents – Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Soumitra Chatterjee, Rami Malek and Eddie Redmayne.
(With inputs from Soujannya Das)