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Interview Assam Bengali Hindi

Indian men don’t mind dating an actress, but they don’t want an actress wife: Bidita Bag

The Babumoshai Bandookbaaz actress says it has been tough to find the right guy even after finding success on screen.

Mayur Lookhar

A lotus blooms in muck. The layman would gaze upon the flower fondly, but there is an earthy beauty in the mud, too. Babumoshai Bandookbaaz (2017) unearthed one such beauty in Phulwa, an impoverished, wheatish, dangerous woman over whom voyeuristic men drool.

The scent of Phulwa spreads through the being of actress-model Bidita Bag. Born in Santragacchi, Howrah, West Bengal, Bag earned her bread by walking the ramp. She switched to films with Bengali cinema, then made her Hindi film debut with the little-known From Sydney With Love (2012). Panned by critics, Bag faced tough times as even the modelling assignments started to dry up.

After battling depression for three years, the young woman got back on her feet, taking up a few regional films before a touch of destiny helped her bag Babumoshai Bandookbaaz with Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Chitrangda Singh had walked out, and in stepped Bag, unafraid to play a ragged, raw, rusty and lusty lass. Today, she is being hailed as one of the finds of the movie, a talent to look out for.

In an exclusive interview with Cinestaan.com, the Bengali beauty spoke of her journey, her struggles, why she wasn’t afraid of retakes for the intimate scenes, why she is still single, and more. Just like Phulwa, Bidita Bag shoots straight from the heart. Excerpts:

After watching the film, did you happen to sing the Kill Bill song, ‘My baby shot me down, bang bang, I hit the ground, bang bang’?

Yeah (laughs). It’s a desi Quentin Tarantino film. I would love to do a film like Kill Bill someday. I love Uma Thurman a lot. And I love Tarantino films. Maybe someday we can make a desi Western set in Bengal.

After what you have been through personally, how satisfying is it just to see yourself back on the silver screen?

Well, that is the sole reason I have been surviving in Mumbai all these years. I wanted to see myself on the big screen again. I had worked in films before, but they were all small/independent films that were released across a few screens. I think Babumoshai Bandookbaaz has been released across 1,200 screens.

People are praising my performance. Models are not taken seriously. I guess I have busted that misconception. There are other models, too, who have made it big, like Priyanka Chopra, but every time they had to prove that models can act. I’m a model and I can act.

Chitrangda Singh opted out of this film because she wasn't comfortable doing the bold scenes. You stepped in, or should I say you bagged the opportunity with both hands.

I think she had a problem with her character. From what I have heard, Chitrangda wanted to change the character graph.

A cinema website quoted Chitrangda Singh as saying she opted out because she was unhappy with the way she was asked to perform the intimate scenes.

As far as I know, she had shot for all the romantic scenes.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui had said casually that his wife didn’t speak to him for two days after watching the intimate scenes. Have you had a word with his wife or family?

No, I haven’t met his wife. I have only heard good things about his wife and family. Guess Nawazuddinji, too, knows what people like to hear. In all probability, he was joking. I’m sure his wife was very supportive.

I read that you led the way for your male co-stars while enacting the intimate scenes. Is that a natural talent?

(Laughs.) Look, whatever the scenes be — emotional, tragic, intimate or comedy — all have to be played as per the demands of the characters. I try to give my best shot for all scenes. If a particular scene requires a retake, then I myself tell the director to reshoot it. One heroine had left, a new girl has come and she has to shoot the intimate scenes the next day. The scenes were bold, but I sensed that the flavour of the character was not coming through. Director Kushan Nandy and Siddiqui both were unable to say anything, [probably for] fear [of] what I’ll think. Probably they didn’t want another girl to leave the film. [But] I could sense that the scene was not coming out as per the demand of the script.

I told them I have no qualms in giving retakes. We reshot the scene and it was shot from different angles. The retake was done quickly. I had the confidence in both Nawazji and the director that they won’t shoot anything that is vulgar.

It has now become a cliché to ask you about the experience of working with Nawazuddin. However, I wonder if there is anything you can share with us that you haven’t disclosed before.

There is no debate that he is a good actor. As an actor, he draws inspiration from real-life characters. That is how I could connect with him. From being jobless for 12 years to enacting hundreds of street plays to taking up basic jobs — head chemist, security guard — Nawazuddin has done it all. He has taken up different professions and so he must have met many people in his life. He tends to recreate some of the real people he has met.

Often you would be asked which actor or film you have taken inspiration from, but for me it’s all about drawing inspiration from real-life experiences. We were sharing jokes, and then he used one of the jokes in the film. I told him, 'ek deewar doosre deewar ko kya kehta hai, chal kaune main milte hain.' Five minutes later, we incorporated this joke in the scene where Babu [Siddiqui] meets Phulwa when he returns home after being shot.

Pahlaj Nihalani is gone but the former CBFC [Central Board of Film Certification] chief gave your film a hard time. You were quoted as saying the controversy helped the film, but if the box-office numbers are limited, can you say the controversy helped?

Well, we are in profit now. You don’t expect this film to make Rs100 crore. Other factors need to be taken into account too — like the trouble in Punjab and Haryana over Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s conviction and arrest. We had heavy rains in Maharashtra on the day of the release [25 August]. Bihar saw massive floods. There was competition, too. I believe 11 films were released that day.

The producers have recovered their money.  Besides, I believe this film still has a limited audience in India. Perhaps it will make more money once it is streamed on Amazon Prime Video or Netflix.

There is a discrepancy in the film's budget. The trade reported Rs14 crore while team Babumoshai has been running on social media that the film was made for just Rs5 crore, including prints and advertising. A film like Babumoshai would appeal only to a certain audience. Did the team really need to shout about the budget?

The producer is the best person to comment on this. The film was made on a small budget. If you take out Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s remuneration, the film was made on a very small budget indeed. We have mostly shot at real locations, creating only minor sets. We even got a grant from the Uttar Pradesh government. We had a bunch of passionate people who did multi-tasking. Ashmit Kunder [one of the producers] chipped in with the editing. Producer Kiran Shyam Shroff helped with the styling. We shot the film in about 30-35 days. The days would have been fewer if Chitrangda Singh had not been part of the film earlier. We didn’t promote it much on TV, radio, nor did we have too many hoardings. Most of our publicity was on digital platforms. So, tell me, how can the film cost Rs14 crore?

Models who take to Bollywood often get cast initially at least in glamorous roles. But you were cast as a rustic cobbler. How did you react when you first saw yourself as Phulwa?

There is a perception that a model will look sexy only if she wears Western clothes. I have worked with designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee who have promoted rural culture, traditional handlooms. Ten years ago, I was featured in the Vogue India magazine. The same edition had a top Bollywood actress walking the ramp for another designer while I was shot as a Bihari girl with orange sindoor. That image was widely appreciated. Besides, my early films were arthouse cinema, where I often played rural characters. I have done a film on the poor in Nandigram [in West Bengal]. Then I have interacted with the tribals while shooting for an Assamese film on Majuli [island in the Brahmaputra]. Tribal women weave their own clothes, make their own ornaments. They look really sexy in their traditional avatar.

As for the film, I had to look dark. Dust and powder were sprayed on my head so that I looked messy. For makeup, I just had kaajal [kohl] and a bindi. My clothes, too, were torn. If you notice, I have used a safety pin to fasten a blouse where the hooks were taken out. Every place has its own flavour. I have played a tribal woman from Odisha, Bengal, Assam (Mishing tribe). Each tribe has its own body language and dialect.

Your first Hindi film was From Sydney With Love (2012). It didn’t do well and you didn’t get any further Hindi film offers. But I was stunned to read that your modelling assignments also dried up. Why should your film’s failure deter the fashion industry from having you walk the ramp?

I don’t know. Maybe it is common for people to blame an actor for a film’s failure. Maybe the designers labelled me a flop and didn’t want me to endorse their brands. If one was earning Rs2 lakh per assignment, you are then offered just Rs10,000. They play with your emotions, warning you to take the 10,000 or soon you won’t even get that.

You went through depression. Can you talk about that phase and how you overcame it?

We felt the film was good. It had its flaws, maybe it was a bit lengthy, but the critics just slammed it. Some of them are inexperienced critics, who are mainly frustrated wannabe filmmakers. You don’t become a good critic merely by having a good vocabulary. It was a bad phase for about three-and-a-half years. I wasn’t getting work. Once I was the face of many brand, but now they felt that I had no face value. So, I was reduced to do hand modelling for other models, wearing 100 saris a day. From a time when I was earning in lakhs, I was reduced to endorsing a sari for as low as Rs100.

Some of my friends, too, started misbehaving with me. Before the film was released, they wanted me to wear their clothes lines for promotions, but the day it flopped, they didn’t hesitate to say, “When are you returning my clothes? Please courier them fast.” When they started their careers, I had not charged a penny to do various shoots for them.

I was running from city to city endorsing the basic sari brands just to earn a few thousand rupees. That took a toll on my health. I was not drinking proper water, not eating right. I had to be hospitalized once. I was alone in Mumbai, my parents were in Kolkata. I had no close friends in Mumbai. You have to pull yourself out, nobody will come and help you. I read some self-help books, reconnected with some old friends. As my health improved, I started getting TV commercials, a few Bengali films.

You have also mentioned that not everyone in the Hindi film industry wanted sex. They would say they are not happy with their wives and girlfriends. Were most of these people from production houses, directors?

No, you encounter people from all walks of life. Whether you are in a film or in the corporate world, boys will be boys. Not all men are like that though. It all depends on how you wish to go about your career. I have met such directors, producers, lightmen, spotboys, makeup artists. But I have also met some good people. You are travelling on a flight, and you could find an uncle who tries to be overly friendly. It’s not just men, though. You find shady women, too.

I just politely turned down most of these people. In the corporate world, if your boss turns out to be shady, you could lose your job. The advantage in films is that you can turn such offers down and wait for the right film/ad, the right people to come in your life. The more desperate you are, the more these people will exploit you. Never disclose your income or financial troubles to others.

You are now doing a film called Dayabai, based on a social worker from Kerala. What other projects have you bagged after Babumoshai?

I have signed three projects. There is one educational film, T For Taj Mahal, there is Dayabai, and there is a female gangster film based on a true story. I play a Marathi gangster.

When you were struggling you were getting indecent proposals. Now that you have found success with Babumoshai, are you getting any decent marriage proposals?

No. That is the sad part.

That’s surprising. Hope they are not scared of your Phulwa avatar!

I don’t know. Maybe Indian men like to have hot girlfriends.

You don’t think you are hot?

They don’t mind dating an actress, but they don’t want an actress wife. I don’t know what problem such men have with actresses. Whatever we do, we do it on the screen. If I am doing an intimate scene, then I am shooting it in front of 50 people. I have tried hard to find the right guy, but so far I haven’t found him. I have been rejected by men before. They want a beautiful, quiet, docile woman.

On a lighter note, maybe you should make friends with journalists. They tend to be open-minded.

I have a few journalist friends who have played a positive role in my life. Whatever positive changes have happened in my life are because I have surrounded myself with good journalists. They have helped me get out of the negative phase.