Interview Hindi

Definitely want to tell more stories: Tannishtha Chatterjee looks forward to making more films

Tannishtha Chatterjee shares her journey from actress to director and also talks about what excites her about the characters that she plays.

Tannishtha Chatterjee at the Oxfam 'Women in Film' brunch, Mumbai, 2018

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Tannishtha Chatterjee’s directorial debut, Roam Rome Mein, is an unusual story that delves into the life of an artist as she is thwarted by patriarchal norms. When Reena (Chatterjee), sister of Raj (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), goes missing, Raj goes to Rome to look for her. In the process, he must discover aspects of his sister’s life that he had never imagined, but he must also confront his own beliefs.

The film follows a non-linear narrative that interweaves surreal and supernatural elements to create an emotionally powerful narrative that keeps the audience thinking. Roam Rome Mein had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival 2019 and was part of the lineup at the 21st MAMI Mumbai Film Festival as well. It was also part of the Rajasthan International Film Festival (RIFF) in Jaipur last month.

In a conversation with, Tannishtha Chatterjee spoke about making the move to direction and her experiences. Incidentally, there were two films of hers playing at RIFF — Roam Rome Mein and Rahat Kazmi’s Lihaaf (2020). Excerpts:

What made you shift from acting to filmmaking?

It was very organic. Nawaz [Nawazuddin Siddiqui] and I were shooting for Lion (2016) together and we were generally discussing acting and directors and how we would like to be directed. The urge to make something came from that discussion. Then there were some bizarre experiences that happened and I thought I would write the story. Like I had written the basic story of Parched (2016) and discussed it with Leena [Yadav] and she wrote the screenplay and it became a film. So I thought it would be like that. 

But as I started writing [this story], it became such a bizarre film that it was actually Nawazuddin who said that no one is going to understand the story and execute it like you. He said it’s too much inside you and the story is coming in that form — surreal, supernatural, from a feeling within you... so esoteric. My film is like that. He said you do it.

With Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Roam Rome Mein

Finally, when Eros agreed to do it, it was so sudden and we didn’t even have the first draft ready, so we had to jump in and make the film. I made Roam Rome Mein with 14 days of pre-production, which is insane with a film like this. It’s my first film, I had a big cast, Italian actors, foreign locations, hadn’t worked with many of the actors before. So I don’t know how it happened. It was very organic, so I didn’t plan a shift, it just happened.

For your first film, you chose a very daunting form that weaves the surreal and the supernatural; we question what is happening, there is no linear narrative. It would have been difficult to script it.

It was kind of an overwhelming experience, but I didn’t plan it at all, it really happened to me and I just went with the flow. I really discovered a lot in the process. The whole creative team was amazing, but the tough thing was producing it.

You have been a regular presence at international film festivals with several of your films being showcased, so one would have thought funding would not be a problem for you, but you say that it was.

It’s a very unique film, so in India people would say it’s an English film — Italian actors, too surreal, Nawaz in this kind of a role — but for people abroad, they said it’s such an Indian subject, an Indian family, patriarchy, but you don’t see India. So it was very tough, because it did not have the clichés of anything... and I did not want to compartmentalize myself that because I am an Indian filmmaker, I have to only show images which the West wants me to show. Though my film is very Indian and while writing I felt that our urban existence is such that they travel and can intermingle, the thing about patriarchy is that it exists everywhere.

You talked about one stereotype — of being an Indian filmmaker. Let’s talk about the other stereotype — about a woman filmmaker.

As an actor, I have done so many arthouse films, so there was an expectation that I would shoot in villages. I have a male protagonist in a feminist film, so that was another hurdle. When people watch the film, they see why I wanted to do that. All these things are breaking the stereotypes and it’s always difficult for women because I think the standardization of art is standardized by 5,000 years of written history by men. How we celebrate art and appreciate it is a masculine look.

When [actor] Adil Hussain saw the film in Busan with me, he said it’s such a gentle film. And that was the other thing that was a struggle for me. I wanted it to have the poetic, lyrical quality that you see in the film. That’s who I am. While making the film, I sent the story to my male friends and they all wanted the investigative and thriller elements to be highlighted. And I would say that it’s not a thriller. 

As an actress, you have chosen roles that are usually strong and feisty. You do not play the submissive woman and neither do you go in for the conventional roles in mainstream cinema. I’m sure that would have been a conscious choice, but also it would not have been easy to do. What are the kind of roles that excite you?

I trained at the National School of Drama (NSD) and after that, initially, I was offered roles where I just had two scenes doing nothing. I don’t mind the length of the role, but I need something to play around with, so I chose to not do such roles.

The kind of films that happened were really layered, like Shadows Of Time (2005) and Brick Lane (2007), which were Western films, Siddharth (2013), and then slowly, I started collaborating with directors like Leena Yadav in Parched, Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), where we all collaborated, Doctor Rakhmabai (2018), where I was involved in the process of writing. So, it’s just like something needs to constantly excite me as an actor because that’s what a creative process is, otherwise you are dead. With Lihaaf also, the same thing happened and I thought the script was really interesting.

Will we be seeing you direct more films?

I am acting in a few and am doing a web-series also. I am also writing and I think that film has to be a very organic thing. The moment I feel that I’m ready with something, yes. I enjoyed directing, so I would definitely want to tell more stories.

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Rajasthan International Film Festival