Interview

West doesn't see Nawazuddin as a poor labourer: Tannishtha Chatterjee


Hailed by some as the queen of parallel cinema, the Pune-born actress slams the stereotyping of unconventional actors/films by our own people, says a false national pride will never fix our problems.

Mayur Lookhar

The doors to commercial cinema are ajar only for a few. Stardom doesn’t hinge on your talent, but beauty can take you places. When you don’t possess the conventional, however, you ought to stand tall amongst the unconventional. Tannishtha Chatterjee has surged from the bylanes of Pune, where she was born, to the Brick Lane of Britain to be counted amongst the leading unconventional actresses of our time.

A National School of Drama alumna, Chatterjee has carved a niche for herself in internationally acclaimed films. She was nominated for best actress at the 2007 British Independent Awards for Brick Lane (2007), and lauded for her roles in films like Shadow Of Time (2004) and Bibar (2006). Last year, she was amongst the carefree women in the critically acclaimed Pan Nalin film Angry Indian Goddesses. And she will soon be seen romancing former Australian cricketer Brett Lee in the crossover film UnIndian.

Chatterjee spoke to Cinestaan.com about UnIndian, other upcoming projects, and the scope of off-beat films and slammed the philistines who have tagged the brilliant Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the ‘poor labourer of Bollywood’. Excerpts:

From being an Angry Indian Goddess to being labelled UnIndian. I’m afraid you are not only losing your nationality, but the Angry Indian Goddesses may strip you of your immortality. Your thoughts.

(Laughs.) Firstly, I don’t want to be immortal. Nature is very wise and that is why the whole process of perishing happens. Like all, I accept that gracefully. Well, I'm happy to remain the Angry Indian Goddess who will not be immortal.

UnIndian is the story of modern India where we are breaking free from certain traditions. It enables us to express ourselves. 

Recently, I was watching the new Jason Bourne film, where they have shown a different perspective to terrorism, how America, its CIA [Central Investigative Agency] may also be partly responsible for it. Now, Jason Bourne doesn’t get labelled anti-national, anti-American. Our film speaks the universal theme of love. Nationality, religion, colour of your skin is immaterial. So why should I be tagged unIndian?

Brett Lee has retired, but it appears he is still bowling maidens over. You may be tired of this line. So, here's a googly for you. For someone who graduated in chemistry, how would you describe your equation with Brett Lee in UnIndian?

I think it is great chemistry not just because I graduated in it (laughs). Brett and I hit it off instantly. I didn’t know him before this film. He is such an amazing guy. He can sing, he can play the guitar. Any friendship thrives on mutual trust. That is something both of us have in each other.

We all know how good a cricketer he was, but how good is he while romancing on screen? There are reports that he wasn’t comfortable shooting the intimate scenes.

I don’t think he was uncomfortable, but yes, he was a bit nervous, purely because he had never done this before on the silver screen. However, once he started the process, he was fine. That comfort stems from the wonderful friendship and trust we have not just between us, but also the script and the director.

You are an NSD alumna, but today you are making news for being the actress who gets to romance former cricketer Brett Lee in his maiden film. Does that reflect the ignorance of the audience or are you fine to be cast alongside a former cricketer who is trying his luck at acting?

I don’t think Brett is trying his luck at acting. Brett has done many ads, he has his music videos. He has his own interests. This is a script he liked, it fitted his personality. That is why he took up UnIndian. I have worked with many first-timers, be it actors, directors or writers. I have always enjoyed doing that. There is no reason for me to get into a separate bracket. Other people’s ignorance doesn’t bother me.

Usually crossover films tend to harp on standard story lines — cultural stereotyping of Indians, crossover love struggles, and the struggle to adapt to Western culture. Doesn’t UnIndian follow the same clichéd route?

No, not at all. It is actually the reverse. It is a contemporary film. It is a story of modern cities, multicultural existence where different cultures come together, but there is also conflict in that. Meera [Chatterjee's character in the film] is a modern-day woman, a single mother, well educated. She has a high-flying job. She is not what the white man thinks of as a poor destitute girl thrown into prostitution. Love stories are often about overcoming a particular conflict and here the conflict is the cultural difference.

Meera’s mother [played by Supriya Pathak] wants her to get married to a doctor/scientist/engineer because they believe such a groom will provide her financial stability. Will [Lee's character] teaches Australian English, but for Meera’s parents there is no such thing as Australian English. It may be cliched, but that is also the reality. There are certain cliches that are broken from their side too. Like they terming our girls as hottie with a dot. Will is asked how do you date an Indian, but Meera is like any modern Indian. The film establishes those cliches and breaks them.

The biggest challenge for crossover films is that while they appease the Indian diaspora, how do you sell them to the mass ‘Bollywood’ audience back home?

These films needn’t necessarily cater to the Indian diaspora because the experiences are universal. The film will strike a chord with the globally travelled audience. Perhaps, if you talk of your mass Bollywood audience, then these subjects may not be understood by them. The problem here is that we need to educate our audiences about different cinema. It can only happen when we make more of such films..At the moment, they are limited to a niche.

I read that you are called the princess of parallel cinema, but do you really think there is a parallel cinema today? In the Hindi context, in the past, parallel cinema earned recognition, but can it give commercial cinema a run for its money?

Parallel cinema has never given commercial cinema a run for its money. But I think today things are changing. When Nagraj Manjule made [the Marathi-language film] Sairat, he never thought this would turn into the biggest blockbuster in Marathi cinema. Films like The Lunchbox (2013), Masaan (2015) are critically acclaimed, but it’s not that they haven’t made money. One must not forget these films operate on a tight budget. My film Parched has been running to full houses for eight weeks in France. So how can it not make money? People aren’t stupid to invest in these films, if they didn’t make money.

As opposed to earlier, when some parallel cinema artistes like Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi were as popular as mainstream stars, today we hardly know of parallel cinema or its stars.

The difference then was that parallel cinema films were aired on Doordarshan and other national networks. So, they were able to pierce into the homes. Now these films aren’t easily accessible. Maybe they do not get their widespread screening. But parallel cinema is still very much existent. The line between parallel and commercial cinema is now thinning.

The West is still accused of being fascinated by Indian poverty, by our dark underbelly. Is Indian cinema still lost between the domestic demand and the international stereotyping?

Honestly, I don’t think the West is fascinated by our poverty. This is something which we have created ourselves. We have forgotten how the most celebrated filmmaker from our country, Satyajit Ray, never made films on poverty.

However, when Slumdog Millionaire won an Oscar, there was some criticism that the film showed the uglier side of India.

Slumdog Millionaire was quintessentially a Danny Boyle film. All his films are about how you go into the deepest pits and yet you triumph. Life Of Pi wasn’t a poor man’s film. This is a cliché in Indian people’s minds. Why is it that we do not want to accept that most of our population lives in terrible conditions? What is the problem in accepting this fact? A false national pride will never fix our problems. It is very easy to say that the world wants to see our poverty, but that is not true.

From Brick Lane to Bhopal, Dekh Indian Circus to Monsoon Shootout, a lot of your films are showcased at various film festivals, but do these festivals really help to sell these films back home?

Brick Lane was widely appreciated at various film festivals. We must remember that most of these films are made by foreign directors, filmed in those countries. Perhaps, those filmmakers, producers simply don’t want to sell it to an Indian audience.

You have worked with Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a few films. Are you surprised by the success he has achieved in Hindi films? What do you make of him being labelled 'poor labourer of Bollywood'?

From what I have observed in the West, they have never looked at him as a labourer of Bollywood. This is something which [our media] has created. He is a fabulous actor and you will also get to see him in another great role in Lion.

With Madhuri Dixit on board, there was great buzz about Gulaab Gang (2014), but the film flopped. What do you think went wrong?

Honestly speaking, I do not know. You can’t control the fate of your film. I was just thrilled to work with Madhuri Dixit. She is a great actress and dancer, but above all she is a fantastic human being. Not just Madhuri, but I had a great time shooting with Juhi Chawla, Priyanka Bose and the rest of the cast. Yes, the film didn’t work, but one must learn to move ahead.

Just reading online about Saroo Brierley made me numb. How did you react after reading his story? What part are you going to play in Lion?

I was shooting for UnIndian in Australia, and that is when [director] Garth Davis called me and informed me about the film. I hadn’t read Brierly’s book then [A Long Way Home]. I was moved merely listening to Garth talk about the subject. I was touched by this man’s plight. It is nothing less than a miracle how a five-year-old gets lost in a train, he doesn’t fall victim to human trafficking, and is then adopted by this Australian family. This is nothing but a miracle. As for my role, well, I’m not allowed to talk about it now.

Hope Siddiqui and you aren’t playing Saroo’s [Dev Patel's] parents!

No. Not at all. I’m playing an important role. You will have to wait to learn about my role.

Here is a story about a poor Indian boy from Howrah that moved both India and Australia. Ideally, shouldn’t this film have been created and produced by Indian filmmakers rather than Down Under?

That is because we are shying away from the reality. Sadly, India doesn’t see Lion as a miraculous story. India would see it as a poor kid’s story. I’m not saying that films always have to be realistic. I personally love the song-and-dance sequence, there is so much beauty, aesthetics and celebration of life in Bollywood. But in doing so, we shouldn’t say that is our only reality. Films like Lion are also reality.

Did you get to shoot with Nicole Kidman? Did you speak to her about how 'Chamma Chamma' was used in Moulin Rouge (2001)?

No, Kidman was supposed to do a sequence in Kolkata, but that couldn’t happen. Please don’t think she wasn’t comfortable to shoot in India. India is a great and beautiful country. Actually, a lot of the actors in the film, including Rooney Mara, have cameo roles. All the characters come into the various phases of Saroo’s life.

It would have been great fun to talk about the ‘Chamma Chamma’ soundtrack used in Moulin Rouge. Back then you could never imagine a foreign film using an Indian soundtrack. I really liked the way Baz Luhrmann used 'Chamma Chamma' in his film. It looked beautiful seeing those exotic dancers jig to an Indian track. I felt proud as an Indian.

Does Ajay Devgn coming on board Parched quench the commercial thirst?

Actually, Devgn was on board from the beginning. He is someone who has always struck a balance in his career. While he does a Singham, you will also see him in a small film like Raincoat. It is very nice to have someone who understands and appreciates both worlds.

Be it urban girls from Angry Indian Goddesses or village belles in Parched, Indian cinema is screaming feminist tales. Has this feminism been over-emphasised? Is it more sexual liberation that is now coming out?

It is feminism. Sexual liberation is a part of feminism. All these films are very feminist. But it needs to be like that. Every privilege or right that we have today is because many women really fought for these feminist rights. My next film Rukhmabai is about India’s first female practising doctor in India. Here was a lady in the 18th century who defied child marriage at the age of 11 and went to England to pursue medicine. Imagine if she had got married and had kids, she would have never been able to pursue her dream.

I have people who tell me that this feminism talk has been blowing over the top. But this was bound to happen given how women have faced oppression for ages. Even till the 1980s, there were nations which didn’t allow women to vote. Even today, in every family, which includes yours and mine, you will find a mother worried if her daughter hasn’t returned home or is leaving late at night, but it is very different if she would ask the same to her son.

You have travelled the world, done some fine films, but there is hardly anything written about your personal life. Are you a loner? Are you still looking for your soulmate?

(Laughs.) Well, I’ve always maintained that I’m a very private person and that is how I would like it to be now.

Finally, if you are Down Under, then you ought to be adventurous. Did you indulge in any crazy adventure in Australia?

I can’t do bungee jumping because I’m afraid of heights. But I had a divine experience of swimming with dolphins on the Gold Coast. I had heard that dolphins have healing powers. I was carrying a leg injury and at first I was too afraid to step into the water. Besides, I also feared what the dolphins might do, but all of it vanished when I got close to them. It was simply a divine experience.