After teaming up on a succession of projects with Indian directors including Ram Gopal Varma and Ketan Mehta, Sen signed for one of the principal roles in the jarring, terrorist-themed American drama The War Within (2005) which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and, in the process, both made a name for herself and began to cultivate a reputation for being drawn to offbeat, challenging, and demanding roles, often with a social or political theme.
Sen is the daughter of Nobel Laureate and Bharat Ratna economist Amartya Sen and Padma Shri winner Nabanita Dev Sen, one of the most prominent authors in the contemporary Bengali literature. Her elder sister Antara Deb Sen is a journalist. Nandana Sen's first piece of writing was published when she was a child in the magazine Sandesh, selected by Satyajit Ray. She spent her growing years in various cities across Europe, India and America.
Nandana Sen studied literature at Harvard University, where she was awarded the Detur Prize in her first year for topping her class, and thereafter every year she also won both the John Harvard Scholarship and the Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Award for Academic Achievement of the Highest Distinction. As a Junior, she was elected early into the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa. Subsequently, Sen studied Film Producing at the Peter Stark Producing Program at the USC Film School. She wrote and directed various short films, including her thesis film "Arranged Marriage" which was shown at multiple film festivals. As an actor, Nandana trained at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, New York, as well as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London.
Along with acting in theatre and films internationally, Nandana also promotes the cause of child protection. Nandana is Smile Ambassador for the global children’s NGO Operation Smile, UNICEF India's National Celebrity for Child Protection and against Gender Based Violence, and Cause Ambassador for RAHI (India's first organization to break the silence about child sexual abuse). She collaborates with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) as a Child Rights Expert and Juror for Public Hearings. Nandana has been actively fighting to stop the crisis of child trafficking in India, both with organizations such as the NCPCR and the Terre des hommes foundation as well as addressing this topic in cinema. She has been invited to speak on the cause of child protection in international conferences, including the Global Call to Action Summit for Child Survival and Development organized by USAID and the International Comprehensive Cleft Care Conference of 2013. Whenever possible, Nandana Sen has combined her commitment to child rights with her acting work, including originating the role of the traumatized protagonist of the play "30 Days in September" (Prithvi Theatre) and the film "Chuppee/ The Silence" on Child Abuse (UNIFEM).
Sen has starred in over 20 feature films from multiple countries and in various languages (see Filmography). Her portrayal of Sugandha in her latest release Rang Rasiya (2014) has been hailed by critics as "pitch-perfect," "superb," "divine, elegant, and enticing," "innocent and vulnerable," "fearless, uninhibited," "radiant in every frame", "poignant, lustrous", "stunning" and "as refined as it is bold". Sen’s pathbreaking performance as artist Ravi Varma’s muse in this historical romance on the religious censorship of art), subsequently won her the prestigious Kalakar Award for Best Actress in 2015: in her acceptance speech, Nandana went on record saying that the award honours "the greater cause of free speech and expression, now under enormous threat everywhere, as shown by the horrifying Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. The need to protect our creative freedom – whether we are actors or journalists, film-makers or novelists – is more urgent now than ever."
However, controversial acting choices, Best Actress Awards, and critical acclaim are not unique in Nandana Sen’s unconventional career. Sen experienced her first taste of cinema while still a student when director Goutam Ghose tapped her to play the lead in his dark and disturbing psychodrama The Doll (Gudia) as one of the targets of a middle-age man's sexual obsession, which premiered at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Sen was first seen on Indian screens as Rani Mukerji's younger sister in Satjay Leela Bhasali's prize-winning film Black. Sen's portrayal of a vulnerable teenager was not only critically appreciated but also earned her a nomination for Breakthrough Performance of the Year (Stardust Awards, 2005).
In the anti-war film Tango Charlie, Sen played the female lead opposite Ajay Devgan (also starring Sanjay Dutt and Bobby Deol) and with Anil Kapoor in My Wife's Murder. Both of these movies did well with critics. Nandana followed this by signing lead roles opposite Salman Khan in the bilingual Hollywood-Bollywood film Marigold, and Vivek Oberoi in Prince, at the same time playing the protagonist in unconventional but acclaimed films such as Strangers and The Forest.
The British television series Sharpe increased her notability. The episode ‘Sharpe’s Peril’ featured Sen in a pivotal role. In 2007, Sen signed on to portray a young rebellious woman fleeing from law authorities in director Shamim Sarif's lesbian-themed period drama The World Unseen. In 2010, Nandana starred in the Bengali super-hit Autograph, for which she was awarded the TeleCine Award for Best Actress and the Reliance BIG Bangla Rising Star Award.
In theatre as in film, Sen has often played an artist’s muse and has been critically appreciated each time, including the off-Broadway production "Modigliani," the Bengali blockbuster "Autograph," and her latest release, "Rang Rasiya". A favorite cover-girl of leading magazines for women as well as men, such as Femina, Savvy, FHM, Man’s World and Maxim, Sen is known as much for her performances as for being comfortable with her sexuality and for speaking her mind: "My body is as much a part of my humanity as my brain, my morals, and my heart, and I will never be ashamed of expressing it with the dignity and self-respect it deserves."
Sen, whose professional choices have included a tenure as a literary editor at Houghton Mifflin Company, and as Princess Jasmine in Disneyland, is also a children's book author, a screenwriter, a maker of short films, and a published writer in multiple genres, including poetry, narrative non-fiction, and Op Eds. She has authored three children's books, Not Yet! (Tulika Books, 2017), Mambi and the Forest Fire (Puffin, 2016), and Kangaroo Kisses (Otter-Barry Books, 2016), and has three more forthcoming in 2017 (including Love Book). Sen also writes a monthly fiction series for The Wire entitled Youthquake, and has edited and published a bilingual book of her mother's Bengali poetry (iUniverse,2013). Sen's first original screenplay to be made into a film was Forever, funded by Telefilm Canada. She was commissioned by Divani Films to adapt R.K. Narayan’s novel Waiting For the Mahatma into a film script, and by Big Bang Company to write an original script focusing on a father-daughter relationship. Sen is collaborating on a script about the history of the kiss in Indian cinema, with Italian filmmaker Franco La Cecla. Represented by Andrew Wylie, of the Wylie Agency, Sen is also writing a book on three generations of rule-defying Bengali women, tentatively titled "Shamelessly Female", which grew from an essay she published with the same title.
Sen married John Makinson, Chairman of Penguin Random House, in June 2013.
She previously dated an Indian film producer, Madhu Mantena, for few years.