Riya Sen says being sexualised in films and music videos at a young age made her so uncomfortable that she decided to stop working in Hindi movies.
The actress hails from a family of actresses that includes her grandmother Suchitra Sen, mother Moon Moon Sen and sister Raima Sen. Riya was just 16 when she got her breakthrough in 1998 after she featured in the music video of Falguni Pathak's song 'Yaad Piya Ki Aane Lagi'.
Films naturally followed, with director Bharathiraja's Tamil romantic drama Taj Mahal in 1999 marking her big screen debut. Riya went on to star in Hindi films, including the 2001 sleeper hit comedy Style, Sujoy Ghosh's musical drama Jhankaar Beats (2003) and Ajay Devgn's Qayamat: City Under Threat (2003).
The actress said when she began her Bollywood journey, she was excited how her choices were paying off at the box office. But with commercial success, the tag of being "bold" caught on.
"I realised some of the films I did, after a few hits that I had, they weren't working for me because I wasn't comfortable in the roles I was playing. That's why probably people thought I was a bad actress and I don't blame them. At that point when I did a lot of Bollywood movies, it was about being sexy, the clothes that you wear, the makeup that you do. I didn't fit into that," Riya told PTI in an interview.
The 39-year-old actor said that labels such as "sexy" and "bold" made her feel terrible.
"Getting those tags, it was just terrible, horrible. Living with that... I was in school when the tag of 'sexy' started coming way. There was so much pressure to always look perfect, a certain way. Even when I went out, people had this perception that "Oh Riya Sen" because they feel what you're on screen, you're the same in real life," she said.
With time, the discomfort of fitting in the stereotype of a "Hindi film heroine" started to get on her nerves. So, despite featuring in multi-starrers, including Apna Sapna Money Money, Shaadi No 1 and Love Khichdi between 2005-2010, the roles and the overarching emphasis on "looking glamorous" became increasingly tough to handle.
"Everyone wants to be glamorous, no doubt, but I was so young when I came here. I was doing all these roles, wearing a mini skirt, running around and acting 'cute'. When I'd watch myself on screen I'd be like 'eeks, I can't believe that's me."
"I found myself very uneasy, very uncomfortable. It wasn't me. I couldn't go on set everyday, get my hair curled for hours and sit with all that make-up. It just didn't do it for me. I took a conscious decision to stop working in Bollywood movies at that time."
But what was a loss for Bollywood, turned out to be a gain for Bengali cinema.
The actress found acclaim in filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh's 2011 period drama Noukadubi, based on Rabindranath Tagore's 1906 novel of the same name. She went on to work in other Bengali films, including Srijit Mukherji's musical drama Jaatishwar and the romance-action Hero 420 in 2016.
"In Bengali films, I played my version of glamorous, where I played a wide-ranging characters. I tapped into my potential in Bengali films, which I don't think directors in Bollywood were able to understand. I played what they wanted. Today, I know what I can bring to the table," she said.