I have done lighter roles but it gets overshadowed by serious ones
German, French, British, American and Indian, the award-winning actress Tannishtha Chatterjee has traversed the globe because of her penchant for interesting roles in cinemas of the world. This year she has four diverse films – Gour Hari Dastaan, UNindian, Island City & Parched – lined up for release. In an exclusive conversation the versatile beauty talks about her roles and career so far.
From Indian to International films, you have managed to work in different kinds of movies. How do you manage to find such interesting projects? Do you still shuttle between London and Mumbai?
I just concentrate on my work… In 2012 I shifted back to Mumbai, but the last three summers I spent in New York because of releases of my films in America. Last year I did two Australian films so I spent time there as well. It’s been like this ever since I started (acting). I started with a German film, Shadows of Time, it was my first exposure to international festivals – the big daddies of festivals like Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto. Back then films with Indian connections were not made by Indians. But, in the last two-three years, Indian films made by Indian filmmakers have started making it to official selections of the A-list festivals. This year I also have two films premiering internationally – one in Venice and second in Toronto.
As an actress did you set out for a career in international films too?
I don’t come from a film family. My father is an engineer and my mother used to teach political science. So, I had no clue how to go about having a career in films. When I came to Bombay (Mumbai), in 2004, Bollywood was not what it is now today, mainstream and art house films were demarcated. There were filmmakers like Prakash Jha, Vishal Bhardwaj, etc. who were making alternative kind of cinema, but it was very difficult for them to make their films without stars. So, neither were they casting us nor were the mainstream filmmakers casting us, it was very difficult and disappointing time for me. Then I started going to auditions for international filmmakers and started enjoying it. I was getting very good scripts, working with fantastic directors from across the globe and travelling the world. So, then I knew I wanted to do this kind of thing.
Can you tell us about your roles in Gour Hari Dastaan and UNindian?
Both roles are quite different from each other. In GHD I play a journalist, who reveals Gour Hari Das’s story. Many times it is a struggle for a journalist to tell a story that he or she want to tell and have fight the system. So, I play this layered character and it is because of me (and Ranvir Shorey’s character) assertiveness the old couple gets what they want.
Whereas UNindian is a fun romantic comedy, but in that too I play a very well-written character, Meera. She is today’s single mom, independent and financially doing well. She wants certain things her way and there is no compromising. Also, the film breaks the NRI clichés that we keep seeing. These are the things that attracted me towards the script.
Then, I have a very wonderful film called Island City premiering at the Venice Film Festival. After that I will go to Toronto Film Festival with my film Parched.
What are the other films you’re working on?
In terms of shooting I just wrapped up Lion (starring Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel). I have signed two more films that I begin shooting after I return from Sydney (to release UNindian), but I am not allowed to talk about it.
What makes you say yes to a script?
Sometimes, it is not only the script. Many times I say yes because it is a role that I have not played before. It could be a small role too, but something I have not done before. Sometimes the graph of the role may interest me even though if I have explored something similar. Sometimes it’s a sheer fact that I love working with the people who are making it. At times it is just the film’s shooting locations. Getting out of Bombay is always a driving force. If the film is set in Bombay then the script, role, set-up has to be really good, otherwise what’s in it for me?
From Shadows of Time to Brick Lane to Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain to Chauranga to UNindian, how do you prepare for such diverse roles?
It is different with every role. Some roles actually need a certain freshness that needs to be explored on the set. Of course, I read the script, discuss it with my director and have a background of my character. I don’t like to over rehearse. I have had enough experience of acting, life, travel, etc. to do things intuitively. Having said that, sometimes there are roles that demand hard work, research, learning a new language, a certain body language, costuming etc. to get into the skin of the character.
You are a National School of Drama graduate and doing European films. Obviously the acting styles and cinemas are different. As an actor did you have any trouble shifting acting styles?
Sometimes a lot of actors take a very long time to shift from theatre to cinema. But for me because I started young and immediately after NSD started doing films, it was an easy process. Then I worked with a lot of good directors. My film with Florian Gallenberger (Shadows of Time) was a very good learning experience as far as understanding nuances of cinema acting was concerned. Then I worked with French, Polish filmmakers too. Even at NSD I had very good teachers. Naseer sir (Naseeruddin Shah) came for a workshop on the nuances of cinema acting. We also worked with German, Polish and Russian theatre directors that was exposed us to European style of acting and cinema early on.
Is there a change in approach when you work with Indian and international filmmakers?
I think with every director you have to go with a different mind-set and approach. Be it Indian, European or American, every director works differently because they communicate differently. So, as actors you need to learn to adapt accordingly. When you can do that you either become schizophrenic or become so spiritually evolved that nothing matters. And I’d like to believe that I am following the second path.
In Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina you played a small but important character whose ethnicity was kept ambiguous. It is refreshing to see an Indian not cast in stereotypical South Asian character.
That was actually Joe’s vision. We first met for another film in which I had a big part. Sadly, he didn’t end up making it. Two years, later he called to tell me about Anna Karenina film. Obviously, I knew he wasn’t casting me as lead. When he said he wanted me in the film, I said yes, even without knowing my part. I think whatever little we worked together for the other film he liked something about me to cast me again.
Since you get offers from international filmmakers too, what is your opinion on the stereotyping of Indian actors in South Asian roles?
The clichés are everywhere, and it takes really unconventional thinking to step out of the box. It is not that directors are not thinking differently. There are studios, financing, star system, recovery, distribution etc. that forces them to give in to the clichés. It happens in India and around the world. As actors we do get typecast, but one has to keep fighting. Sometimes the media is also ruthless. If I do a film in a similar costume and landscape thrice in a row, then they will think she is repetitive. But they don’t understand that story, role and character are different. Actors who are wearing mini-skirts for 15 films, the media doesn’t say anything. That is my constant complaint with the media. There are different kinds of gangsters, cops, prostitutes, etc. so you can’t call them the same.
However, I have been pretty lucky that after every two-three films I have been able to break that typecast. I have done diverse roles, from playing a physics teacher to a journalist in Gour Hari Dastaan to a single mom in UNindian to a young girl who suddenly gets an anonymous love letter in Island City to Parched.
Given that a lot of your roles have been intense, does it take a toll on you?
Ya, sometimes it does but one has to come out of it. Sometimes it is short-lived and sometimes it’s longer, one has to mediate and get it out of the system. Parched was like that. When you watch the film you will know what I am talking about. But it is a very special film.
You have done films in Hindi, English, Bengali, etc. Does language play a part in bringing alive the character?
If you are familiar with the language then you can definitely play with the character a lot more. I did a film called Sunrise, which required me to speak in Marathi. It was a very complex character and to do it in another language was a bigger challenge. I am very comfortable in Hindi, English and to some extent in Bengali. The moment there is a different language then I have to work harder to make the role my own. If you are playing the character at a superficial level then it is OK, but I like to play it real. It is tough to achieve that.
Are you happy with the roles coming your way in India?
Yes, in the last two years I have done very interesting films. Sometimes the role is exciting and sometimes the project is exciting. I am enjoying the diversity in the roles that get offered to me.
Is there a role or kind of film you crave to do?
I would love to work with people like Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, Shoojit Sircar or Anurag Kashyap who do mainstream films but are experimenting within that format. Actually, I love the younger directors’ work, like Chaitanya (Tamhane) who made Court or Neeraj (Ghaywan) who made Masaan, I think they are making fantastic films of international quality. I am glad to be part of such films like Island City and Parched. But I would like to do more such work.
What has been your most difficult and easy role so far?
I think a very difficult role is yet to come to me. While UNindian was fun but not easy. It was closer to me as a person than the Dekh Indian Circus where I play a mother to an eight-year-old and live in Rajasthan. I find serious roles always tough and I have always been cast in such parts. And that’s not what I am as a person. Sometimes when I am allowed to improvise my own scenes I bring in an element of humour and people are surprised with it. Because of the way I look or maybe I always talk sense and am well read, I get cast in very deep, serious and intense roles.
Recently I Love New York released and everyone who saw it told me that I am very good in the film and very different from my usual roles. I have even acted differently in it. I have done lighter roles but it gets overshadowed by serious roles.
You have shared the screen with acting stalwarts like Irrfan Khan, Nawazzuddin Siddhiqui, Martin Sheen, Nicole Kidman etc. Do you feel nervous or pressure to match to their performance levels?
I don’t pressurize myself. Nawaz and I have been friends and done many films together. Initially it was unnerving, like when I did Shadows of Time I was a kid and Irrfan Khan was the Irrfan Khan. The first time I was really overwhelmed by a star was when I went with Shadows of Time team to Berlin Film Festival. I lived in a studio apartment in Bombay and suddenly landed at the Ritz Carlton and walked the red carpet with Keanu Reeves. It was a very surreal experience. But now such situations don’t unnerve me.