Interview Hindi

Women should not just be angry and lashing out: Tisca Chopra birthday special

On the subject of the casting couch, The Hungry actress reiterated her stand that women are as much to blame for putting themselves in a vulnerable position.

Mayur Lookhar

A career-defining role can sometimes mask other noteworthy performances by an actor. It is only human to get fixated with a certain film, a certain character, so that the moment one takes the name of the artiste, all that springs to mind is 'that film, that role'.

Acclaimed actress Tisca Chopra is best known for her maternal character in Aamir Khan's Taare Zameen Par (2007). As Maya Awasthi, Chopra reluctantly agreed to send her dyslexic son Ishaan (Darsheel Safary) to boarding school, leaving both distraught, and the nation sobbing.

Remarkably, the same actress played a killer mum in Rahasya (2015). And in The Hungry (co-produced by the Cinestaan Film Company, a sister concern of Cinestaan Digital Private Limited, which runs this website, and screened at the MAMI film festival 2017) her thirst for revenge leaves a bitter taste in your, and her character Tulsi’s mouth. Yet, so fascinated are we by Maya Awasthi that we have ignored Chopra’s other notable characters.

Wonder how many would recall that the Himachal Pradesh-born Chopra made her debut back in 1993 with the Ajay Devgn-starrer Platform? She was credited as Priya Arora in her early films. Sadly, they failed and as the offers dried up, she switched, successfully, to television with shows like Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki and Astitva. She honed her skills and excelled in theatre before returning with a bang to the silver screen with Taare Zameen Par.

Chopra, who turns 44 today (1 November), says she is thrilled with the response to The Hungry and feels more proud of her short film Chutney (2016) than Taare Zameen Par. She also says South cinema has a patriarchal system and plays down the trolls who lashed out at her for comments on the #MeToo campaign. Excerpts from a telephonic interview:

As an artiste with an insatiable appetite for meaty roles, I wonder, what will The Hungry Tisca have on her birthday?

Hmmm... (pauses, then laughs) After so many years of keeping a check on my appetite, I have become a frugal eater. So, unfortunately, not much 'juice' over there, except that I love one thing which is frozen yoghurt. So, The Hungry feast for me would be a cup of giant yoghurt — the flavoured ones.

Your husband is a pilot with Air India. Is it easy for an actress wife and a pilot husband to take time out to celebrate such occasions?

I think that in the past many years, there has been just one occasion when he wasn’t there as the flight got stranded. That was something out of his control, but otherwise we plan to be together and he is going to be here with me this year as well.

In Taare Zameen Par,  you shed oceans of tears leaving the nation teary-eyed as well. A decade later, The Hungry has some tragic and shocking visuals, but your character Tulsi appears a little restrained in grief, and perhaps the audience is too shocked to show any grief or sympathy. Is that how you would also feel about Tulsi?

Tisca Chopra as Tulsi in The Hungry

I think The Hungry has pushed the envelope in terms of what a dark film can be in India, [shot] with Indian actors and in the Indian space. So, I’m very proud of The Hungry. Yes, the audience is left rather shocked with the proceedings. But primarily the younger crowd, people under 35-40, have loved the film, because they understand the darkness we were going for. It is very Game of Thrones-ish.

As an actress, which role consumed you more, Maya or Tulsi?

Neither. I’m a professional doing multiple things at the same time. So, I take it as my work. It’s pretty much switch on, switch off. It was disturbing to do Tulsi. Maya was easier. Tulsi was a little harder because the range of emotions was outside almost all human experiences. It is very difficult to experience what Tulsi has been through. So to draw parallels from your own life was hard.

The film was premièred at the Toronto festival. What was the response to the first Indian adaptation of Titus Andronicus?

Wonderful! As wonderful as it was at MAMI. In fact, the latter was more wonderful because people had a long question-and-answer session. We are happy with the response the film got.

The film was largely appreciated at MAMI. However, is the festival appreciation enough to sell to a larger audience in India? I’m sure a producer wants more eyeballs, but a distributor may think that it may not appeal to the masses.

I think they would be surprised to know what people like eventually. They [the distributors] should try... even if it’s a limited release. Then again, these are calls that are taken by the producer.

You have honed your craft learning from the likes of Naseeruddin Shah. Given the respect that you, and many other artistes, have for him, was it easy to square off against him in The Hungry?

When I am acting it is not important who the person opposite me is and what their credentials are, for you are in the role. That person is in their role and you are seeing them like that. And that is what matters. The rest of it is humbug. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that when you are playing your character, you should be true to that emotion, that thought. I think I am.

I believe this is just your second film with him. What was the experience working with someone like Naseeruddin Shah?

The first one, Firaaq (2009), doesn’t really count because we were in just one scene together. He is amazingly well prepared. One wonders when he does his preparation, but whenever he does it, he remembers every single continuity from one take to the other. He remembers all his lines, those are basic of course, but he is so on the ball and so prepared that he lifts the level of the film.

Having started in 1993, you only got name and fame when you did Taare Zameen Par. Fourteen years of struggle in Hindi cinema is a long time. How tough was that phase?

With Darsheel Safary in Taare Zameen Par (2007)

I was always working. I did television, I did theatre. I wasn’t sitting and waiting for a role. There was no such thought. I was continuously working. I was part of the mega-serial Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, and Astitva, Sarkar. In between, I did a short film called Ek Shyam Ki Mulaqat and I did another called Hum Saath Saath Hain, directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, that had Irrfan Khan and me.

I did plays like Mahatma Vs Gandhi, All The Best, Dinner With Friends. I wasn’t sitting around, I was polishing my craft. It wasn’t like I was waiting for 14 years and hoping for a miracle... it was more to keep on working and something big comes up, then again something small came up. You have to keep giving your best. That is how I look at it. I didn’t look at it like mujhe Taare Zameen Par mil gayi aur main Ganga nahake aa gayi [I got the Taare Zameen Par role and was blessed].

Last year, you opened up about the casting couch controversy by talking about the incident when you cleverly escaped from the clutches of a top producer/director whom you rightly referred to as a reptile. Amidst the Harvey Weinstein saga, there have been calls to unmask the Harvey Weinsteins of Indian cinema. Would you be tempted to name that reptile now?

It's a matter of the past. If I wanted to do it then I would have done it in the first place itself. It is one of the most interesting stories of my life, of what happened to me, interesting in the way that it worked out well for me. So, I wanted to share with some of my friends at a storytelling session. I had no idea that the session was being shot. I sort of knew that there was a channel, but I didn’t know they will put it up online. They asked me, by that time six months had passed by. I said put it if you want to. I didn’t even think about it thereafter. I hadn’t planned any big revelation.

I’m glad you brought out this point in an interview about the casting couch. Sadly, your views evoked some criticism online. How disappointed were you by some of the comments against you?

It doesn’t matter. All these things are bubbles in the air. People I don’t know are making comments about what... ah, they don’t know what I said. The online stuff is all unreal, virtual. This [criticism] doesn’t really matter, neither does it give me two minutes of thinking time and space. People will troll you for your opinions. My interest in this whole thing is to have a balanced discussion.

I’m a mother of a four-year-old daughter, my concern is that women should not just be angry and lashing out. We should have a balanced view where we can make genuine progress in the way where women are safer, where men are more responsible, more accountable. I think that’s the wish. But if certain people want to think that I’m... ah, whatever they said, that’s their opinion. I continue to hold my opinion strongly. This is a democracy. Everyone is allowed their own opinion, but I’m not accountable to them.

You have done a few South Indian films. Is it the money or the quality of cinema that attracts you to Southern cinema?

The films that I did were for money. I did [two] mainstream commercial [Telugu films]. It’s a very patriarchal system, very deeply entrenched in the old system — the hero, the heroines, there is a vamp, a villain, typical stock roles. And they keep making more of the same. However, there are some people in Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil as well who are making interesting, different kind of cinema. I did these two Telugu films — Bruce Lee: The Fighter (2015) and Sardaar Gabbar Singh (2016) — because the money was too good to say no.

You enjoyed your finest hour in Hindi cinema with Taare Zameen Par. Thereafter you received acclaim for films likes Firaaq (2009), Ankur Arora Murder Case (2013), Qissa (2015), but they were not great commercial successes. The audience perhaps had expectations from you after Taare Zameen Par, but did you have any expectation of yourself? How do you look at your journey in Hindi cinema so far?

I’m greedy. I’m a very greedy actor. I’m always thinking what better can I do? My journey has been fantastic because not many actresses have been working for as long as I have. I feel with my short fiilm Chutney (2016) I really have come into my own much more than with Taare Zameen Par, because I also wrote and produced that [Chutney]. That has opened a whole new path for me because it is a phenomenal success. So far 120 million [12 crore] people have seen the film. We won two Filmfares for it (Best Actress and Best Short Film). So, we produced another short film called Churi and I’m in the middle of writing a feature film called Dilliwale Bhatias.

After watching Rahasya, I felt the film was trying to milk the tragic case of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj [the 2008 NOIDA double murder case] to create a sensational tale of its own. Your thoughts?

Whenever there is a real incident, one that is shocking in its content, chances are that people will make films on it. It is the case with Spotlight (2015) and many other stories. To some extent the filmmaker is trying to give his spin on a famous situation. But beyond the point people have read in the newspapers, they are now interested in a fictional account, which is why Rahasya became a hit, running for 106 days in the cinemas.

The Aarushi Talwar case has seen many flip-flops. The parents have now been acquitted [by the Allahabad high court]. Don’t you think a film like Rahasya can lead to people formulating opinions about the Aarushi Talwar case?

No, I don’t think our judiciary would be watching such films and making up their minds. They have enough evidence, more than enough work, and I have enormous faith in the judiciary. So, I stand by what the courts say and absolutely trust the verdict the honourable judges have given. I think one would be overthinking.

You have a few films lined up — 3Dev, Bioscopewala... what is the status of these films?

They are ready and up for release. Bioscopewala, I think, will be released in December, this year. I have no idea about 3Dev yet. 

I believe you worked with Sam Pitroda on the National Knowledge Commission to help revamp the education system. There is little emphasis on acquiring knowledge today....

Well, that is part of the reason why I decided to work with the National Knowledge Commission: (a) Mr Sam Pitroda is one of the most knowledgeable men I have met in my life; (b) we were talking about introducing skills in schools and college, not just rote learning, not just memory-based learning, wherein we talked about plumbing, carpentry, becoming an electrician, masonry. After a certain basic education of 10th or 12th, the child can go and get themselves skills which can help them earn their livelihood, rather than having 20,000 unemployed engineers running around everywhere. It doesn’t make sense.