When we met him, Riddhi Sen—national film award winner for the best actor—was at Yash Raj Film Studios, shooting for Pradeep Sarkar’s Eela. The 19-year-old was not in the least swayed by the award for his role in the Bengali film Nagarkirtan, directed by Kaushik Ganguly. “Art is a very relative thing,” he says. “There cannot be anything called the best. It is just how people see it. For many, I would be the worst too. Many may not like my performance. That is the beauty of art. The term ‘best’ is very relative.”
Nagarkirtan, which would be taking the festival route before hitting the theatres, has Riddhi in the role of a transwoman. He said he felt numb, after reading the script a year ago. “I did not know how to react. But, when Kaushik kaku told me that I am doing the film, I began preparing,” says Riddhi, who not only watched a slew of films like the Danish Girl, but also met many transgender persons. Riddhi was so moved by the character that he also read books like Man Into Woman: The First Sex Change by Lili Elbe. “I started observing my mother and my girlfriend—how they walk, pick up things, eat, run, or may be how they clean their lips after a sip of water ... just about any thing,” he says. “I started picking up minute details. And then, the script itself is a powerhouse. It gives you the entire reference. Physicality, of course, is very difficult. But, to understand the psychology of a woman is something else.”
Riddhi throws you off with his awareness about theatre and world cinema, quoting Konstantin Stanislavski and Bertolt Brecht, and explaining the layers of Shoojit Sircar’s October. I pointed out similarities he has with Mexican actor-filmmaker Gael Garcia Bernal, with regards to their career graph, especially the initial years. Debuting as toddlers, both had parents, who were actively involved in theatre. They both followed up with coming-of-age films, and later played transwomen. Riddhi is humbled, and admitted to being a fan of not just Bernal, but also his frequent collaborators—director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga.
Prior to Nagarkirtan, Riddhi had played a drunkard in Leena Yadav’s Parched; in Bikas Mishra’s Chauranga, he was a dalit boy who helps his younger brother realise the importance of expressions; a rapist in Omung Kumar’s revenge drama, Bhoomi; and a teenager, who comes of age in the much celebrated Bengali film Open Tee Bioscope, produced by Sircar. “But, then, these were my gender. In Nagarkirtan, I play a different gender. It was hard for me to perceive how one feels when you cannot make the society understand your pain about identity crisis. To get into that state was the most challenging,” he says.
It was a bold decision for an actor, and he could be easily typecast. “People think differently now than a decade ago. We are lucky that way,” he says. “Also, that is the job of an actor—to become various characters and not to be choosy about the image,” says Riddhi.
Growing up in a family that was totally into arts through their Bengali theatre group, Swapnasandhani, and living with his actor parents—Reshmi and Kaushik Sen—and grandparents—Chitra Sen and Shyamal Sen—the inclination towards art and acting, came naturally to Riddhi. He took to the stage with the play, Prachya, when he was three. Riddhi caught the attention of Anindya Chatterjee, the director of Open Tee Bioscope, with his role in Anukul, a play based on a Satyajit Ray short story. “When I decided to do Open Tee…, I knew I had to get him. And, he marvelled in the film, becoming a sensation in Bengal overnight,” says Chatterjee.
Kaushik Ganguly, who cast him opposite Ritwick Chakraborty, says, “Acting is not a pastime for him, nor is it a high-school obsession. It is what he wants to do. He is very serious about it. It is very difficult for a 19-year-old to understand the depth of such a character. But, Riddhi is very well-read and well-groomed [to understand that]. Plus, the physical traits were very important for this role.”
Nagarkirtan won four national awards—special jury award for the film, best costume, best make-up artist, and best actor. Sujoy Ghosh, who cast him in his critically-acclaimed Kahaani as a young chaiwala, Poltu, says, “Riddhi understood the character very well. He was just 12 or 13 at that time, but he instinctively knew what to do. It is a well-deserved award.”
Riddhi, is the youngest winner in the category. “It feels great. Who wouldn’t feel so?” he says, but, he thinks that awards are not given for a particular film or character. “It is a kind of a boost for any actor to go on further discovering himself. That is kind of an encouragement that the jury members are giving me—to do better. After the excitement sunk in, that was the feeling I was left with.”
Riddhi, in 2016, refused to accept an award from the West Bengal government. Without insulting the award, he says that was the right thing to do, taking into account the prevailing milieu at that time. Ganguly says that Riddhi’s maturity to understand sociopolitical situations and to speak without inhibitions is also what makes him the actor he is. “From this point on, he has to understand that he is competing with himself,” says Ganguly. “He has to choose characters that challenge him further, while we [the directors] will have to give him roles that are stronger than what he has done in Nagarkirtan.”
Riddhi’s long-term plan is to become a filmmaker, too. He already has a short film in the inception stage, and would not shy away from taking up issues that matter. This is just the beginning for him.