Anyone else might be exhausted by now, but not Tannishtha Chatterjee. Over the last two years, this darling of the festival circuit, has been working non-stop. Last year she was on screen in Gour Hari Dastaan, Angry Indian Goddesses, and more recently in Chauranga. This year, you’ll watch her in Parched and Island City. She is working on a Hollywood project with Nicole Kidman called Lion, playing the lead in Lucy Liu’s directorial debut Meena, and romancing Brett Lee in UnIndian. Perhaps the 35-year-old actress needs to slow down!
But no. You can tell that such a thought has not occurred to Chatterjee. She moved to Mumbai from Delhi in 2003 to work in films. She’s living her dreams. So why stop?
“I was very lucky,” says Chatterjee. “My first film, Swaraj, released the same year I arrived in Mumbai, and went on to win the National Award. Then came Shadows of Time (2005) by Oscar-winning director Florian Gallenberger. And the rest just followed.”
International projects poured in, starting with the Indo-French production Let the Wind Blow (2004) that won the best film award at the Durban International Film Festival in 2005. After a few years and a best actress award (for Bibar) at the Osian Film Festival in 2006, she did Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane, and the film catapulted her into the mainstream. In 2013, Chatterjee became the only Indian actress to have her films screened at all the three major international film festivals: Monsoon Shootout at Cannes and Siddharth at Venice and Toronto.
The acting bug
None of this might have happened had Chatterjee not suddenly told her parents that her future lay in drama, not science. Oh, her family had nothing against movies. In fact, Chatterjee grew up watching the Bengali staples, the auteurs and old Hollywood and Polish cinema.
“I was exposed to great literature and music from early on, but those were all considered hobbies,” she says. “Science was the profession. Then suddenly I decided to take up acting.”
Never was Bollywood on the agenda.“I was hoping to act in films of the Italian greats and Polish legends like Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda, no less,” she laughs. “But I have enjoyed even the disillusionment process!”
In August company
So far, the disillusionment hasn’t been too intense. Chatterjee has worked with actors like Jude Law and Kiera Knightley (in the 2006 film Anna Karenina), and her frequent collaborators back home include Naseeruddin Shah, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan.
“I am blessed when it comes to co-actors. Their tips helped me in the early years of my career,” she says. “Naseer saab had once told me that when the script is well written, less is more. Don’t act. Just do what is written.” She followed that advice while playing a mother of a young boy in Chauranga. “She is responsible and has her own problems, but she is a rangeen and chatpata character. The script was so comprehensive, all I did was follow it.”
Though she isn’t fond of rehearsals, she does what the project demands. “Island City is a film in which I speak just about five or six sentences. It is all very internal. So Ruchika (Oberoi, the director of the film) and I had a long discussion that helped us understand each other and the character better, and then when we shot, it all came very organically. But then there are films that require you to be spontaneous, such as Angry Indian Goddesses.”
Chatterjee’s roles thus far have steered clear of the Bollywood cliché. She’s been a Bangladeshi immigrant in London in Brick Lane, a prostitute-turned-caregiver in Anna Karenina, a rural widow in Parched, and a high-class call girl in Bibar. So, what keeps her away from mainstream cinema? “I have nothing against it. To me Bollywood is a style of filmmaking; it is larger-than-life and a celebration of life. It is just that I always had exciting work and those happened to be non-Bollywood projects.”
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From HT Brunch, January 24, 2016
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