Actress Gupta speaks of the need for representation of Northeastern artistes and stories in the mainstream, the struggle to make it happen, and why she would prefer to take it easy rather than jump back into work after the lockdown.
About time we made films to represent the Northeast: Sayani Gupta on Axone
Mumbai - 16 Jun 2020 19:01 IST
While the film industry is slowly emerging from hibernation during the 75-day countrywide lockdown and returning to work, Sayani Gupta is still hesitant about going before the bright lights. "I don't think it is feasible right now," she told Cinestaan.com in a telephone interview. "The other thing is the thought of putting on make-up and going through costume is not very comforting. I know I will have to, but right now I wish I do not have to put on make-up and get ready."
Gupta might still be shaking off the cobwebs, but her film, Axone (2020), has already reached the public. Released on 12 June on Netflix, Axone is directed by Nicholas Kharkongor and captures the trials of a group of friends from the Northeast as they prepare to make a dish to celebrate a close friend's wedding. Sayani Gupta plays Upasna, whose absent-mindedness combines with a smart wit to create some of the more humorous moments in the film.
"There are a lot of myths [about the Northeast]," Gupta said. "We tend to speak of the Northeast as a homogeneous entity, but it's not. It is totally different culturally, cuisine, language, everything."
With a cast dominated by artistes like Tenzin Dalha, Lin Laishram and Asenla Jamir who truly represent the region, the story takes on the inherent racism of the mainland against the diverse cultural distinctions of the Northeast.
Speaking of the experience, Gupta said, "The script was really funny. It was so humorous! I have been a big fan of satire. When you say a serious thing through humour, it tends to reach out to more people. Nick [Nicholas Kharkongor] has an innate sense of humour. They [the characters] all have a sense of chaos and comedy of errors, which I think is very good cinematically." Excerpts:
How has the lockdown been for you?
I am okay actually. It is mixed. Some days are bad. Some days you feel hopeful and happy. We are all going through a gamut of emotions now.
Is it strange to not have to face the camera for such a long time?
Yeah. I hadn't been home for two days in the past three years, you know. So just to be at home was strange. I am very happy. Even when it started I was like, 'It is a much needed break'. I can work for days without sleep or food. But once I sleep, I sleep for 48 hours. Now that I have not been shooting, I don't feel like I will be ready to shoot for a while.
One, of course, is because of the practicality of it. I don't think it is feasible right now. The other thing is the thought of putting on make-up and going through costume is not very comforting. I know I will have to, but right now I wish I do not have to put on make-up and get ready.
Axone, a lovely film, is now on Netflix. Talk to us about how you entered the project.
I was sent the script by Dilip Shankar, our casting director. He is a very senior casting director and I have always wondered why he never sent me any scripts. He finally called me and said, "I have the perfect script for you. It is a breakthrough script from India. A lot of people across the globe are already talking about it." I auditioned for the part and they immediately came back with a confirmation.
I really enjoyed reading the script. One, because I know racism of this form exists and I have friends from the Northeast. I have been with them, around them, when they faced this. It is about time somebody made a film about this issue, and authentically represented people from the Northeast. There are a lot of myths [about the Northeast]. We tend to speak of the region as a homogeneous entity, but it's not. It is totally different culturally, cuisine, language, everything. There is so much ignorance about it.
Also, the fact that the script was really funny. It was so humorous! I have been a big fan of satire. When you say a serious thing through humour, it tends to reach out to more people. Nick [Nicholas Kharkongor] has an innate sense of humour. They [the characters] all have a sense of chaos and comedy of errors, which I think is very good cinematically.
The script really spoke to me, and there was no reason not to do it. Also, I loved Upasna's character. She is totally mad, quirky, and doesn't have a hold on herself, and is such a smart-ass. Her lines were very funny, and she was adorable.
In 2019, the film came across as a step forward in representation, against racism and discrimination. In 2020, in view of the events around us, it gains more relevance than before.
Yes. Racism has always existed. It is just what you choose to see and what you choose not to see. It is only with George Floyd and everything, everyone is talking about racism. [But] it has existed for centuries. This is not the first violent act. It was just caught on camera.
Having said that, we are an extremely racist country. We are casteist, classist, and tend to divide people on the basis of food, gender, skin colour. A constant division of Us and Them.
Unfortunately, the world we are living in and the climate of the country is such that the divisive forces are much stronger. It is a big worry we all have. With every passing day, this is becoming even more relevant and topical.
Are we still, as an industry, struggling with representation? With casting directors casting to type? Or do you see this changing with the variety of stories coming up on OTT platforms?
Not really (pauses). Maybe with OTT a little bit. It just has the option of choosing a variety of characters and writing about a variety of characters. In Paatal Lok, the character of a transgender girl, Cheeni, is such a refreshing and beautifully written and portrayed character. It is not something that has been seen before. To actually choose to cast a transgender actress in the role, I am sure it wouldn't have been easy for her or the casting. These are choices that we should make more often.
I know Lin [Laishram], and what she has faced. There are so many actors from the Northeast who face a lot. Unless and until it is a Northeastern character, people do not cast Northeastern actors. There are so many minimal characters where ethnicity is irrelevant. But still you don't see people being cast. Unless it is set there, or is a stereotype or caricature. Our understanding is skewed.
Our industry does suffer from a lack of equal representation anyway. Not just the Northeast, but also women, LGBTQI community... the OTT is trying to bridge that gap.
Has the arrival of storytellers, directors, writers from different parts of the country contributed to this growing diversity? Do you see that changing?
I am not the right audience, since I have grown up in film school watching films and actors from around the country. But a lot of filmmakers, who are also my friends, from the Northeast, who make smaller indie films can't find a theatrical release. The only way is film festivals, of course. All these years that has been the only way out. Now, suddenly the gates have opened. It feels like a bookshop willing to give you a shelf for your book. Suddenly, you have found a new avenue, no matter how small or regional your films are, and I mean it with the utmost respect... there are such gems in so many languages. As a country, we are fortunate to have so many languages, dialects, humour is so different.
Having said that, with OTT the palate has expanded. Everyone is now getting used to watching films with subtitles. This was not a common phenomenon a couple of years ago. I think it has definitely opened a case and opportunity and I hope it continues to flourish.
You also have the third season for Four More Shots Please! coming up. Are you starting any time soon?
Yeah, we were expected to start shooting on 15 March, but now we are just waiting. There are two more films I was supposed to shoot for this week. I don't think we are ready to shoot in the next few months at least. I think we should take it easy for now. It is very difficult and tough. In India, on a film set, you cannot completely quarantine. It is different in an office. On a film set, everyone has to touch everything. I don't know how it is going to pan out.
Tannishtha Chatterjee coming on board as director for the next season is an interesting prospect. We always picture her as a serious actress dealing in a very different cinematic world.
I have known her for many years as a friend. What we really enjoyed was doing a bunch of workshops. We loved it! It was such a beautiful experience. I love being directed by actors. It is a joy because actors understand other actors and have empathy for the craft. They also understand reality. A lot of times, when you are not an actor, you do not get the little details. I think when she came in it was just amazing and magical. I hope that continues.
We are actually raring to go. After the second season did so well, everyone was raring to go.
The camaraderie is one of the highlights of the series...
We were actually shocked that it worked so well. I think with time we have become better friends and we get each other a little more than we would. There is a genuine sense of belonging and a very nice feeling of belonging together. Thankfully, we do get along. Today, we were supposed to do a video call.
So, what are you looking forward to in the coming days?
I am not shooting any time soon. For the first month, we were promoting Four More Shots... Then, by the end of April, we were exhausted talking about ourselves. So I am watching a lot of shows, singing, painting. I have five or six scripts that have come in. I have picked up a new skill of cooking, so working on that.
Other than that, there is tons to do, with make-up shoots, working from home and doing videos.