Following her leading role in the 2007 film adaptation of Monica Ali’s best-selling novel Brick Lane, Tannishtha Chatterjee has gone on to win critical applaud and awards for all the work she has done ever since, most recently with her Best Actress win at the New York Indian Film Festival for her work on Dekh Indian Circus, screened recently at the London Indian Film Festival. Named the ‘Princess of Parallel Cinema’ by the Indian media, she has worked with filmmakers from France, Italy, Germany and the UK, yet has made a conscious decision to try and steer clear of ‘Bollywood’. We caught up with Tannishtha to discover why she made this decision and to find out more about her newest film.
How was working on Dekh Indian Circus and what can you tell us about the film?
As the name suggests, ‘Dekh Indian Circus’ means ‘Watch Indian Circus’. It’s really about the circus that India is as a country but that’s really been used more as a metaphor. It’s quite a layered film, though it has a straight simple story line following two kids in a small village in India who want to go to the next village to watch a circus. They’re so poor that the mother with great difficulty is still struggling to fulfil that little wish. But the film is about how the mother saves little pockets of money from here and there and then follows their journey of going to the next village.
Every mother, whether they are a city dweller or a villager, dreams that their children should go to school and for a better life, so there is a lot to relate to. It’s a very upbeat film and the kids are delightful. It’s very colourful and the film displays the spirit of what Indian living is – in spite of various problems, we do not lose spirit, we’re not depressed and unhappy. We’re still like “Yeah, all is well”. It celebrates life, but it talks about the layered issues too.
There’s actually a lot going on in the subtext of the film and it’s quite critical of the political system of India. Do you feel that the criticisms are warranted?
It’s all true. When I was researching for this film, I got to know many of the women out there. They didn’t have electricity, they didn’t have proper roads, or a hospital in the vicinity – yet they all had mobile phones. They held their phones in their blouses with coloured lights. If you talk to them, they’re very happy with those toys. At the time that we were filming, the onion crisis had skyrocketed in India - they couldn’t even afford onions anymore, but they had mobile phones. And I think those are the comments that the director wanted to apply subtly but not to underline them and be didactically preachy. He wanted to tell the story of a family and keep it emotional. Because finally at the end of the day, we are human beings and we ultimately relate to emotions.
You’ve been named in the Asian media as the ‘Princess of Parallel Cinema’. You do a lot more arthouse and co-productions than mainstream Bollywood cinema. Was that a conscious decision?
It is partly conscious, as in mainstream Indian cinema, women don’t have much to do. I just watched a film where the lead female comes in around 15-20 minutes in the film, and most of the time the camera is lingering on her waist and not on her face. And the main actor is also not looking at her face but her waist. So this is an example of the ridiculous roles you get offered sometimes. I feel very lucky that I got roles like I did in Brick Lane and Dekh Indian Circus - strong women-centric films. I feel spoilt in having done roles that are strong, challenging and pushed my boundaries where I’ve needed to explore more areas. I look for those things and I try not to repeat myself.
The Indian mainstream industry as such is still very male-dominated. We have very few Indian female filmmakers who are given money from Bollywood. We have Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, but they are financing and producing partners from the West. In India, there are a few female filmmakers, but they are either born into film families or are married to big film stars. It is still supported by a male system. It’s difficult for women to therefore tell stories that they want to tell. But it’s changing slowly. Even male filmmakers are now beginning to write stronger female roles that represent something.
Do you find the work for a British film different to working over in India?
Absolutely. Not only British, I’ve done a number of European films and the structure is very different everywhere. When I’m doing a German film, its like “Ok, don’t do anything!” British Cinema is somewhere in between what Indian Cinema allows and what German Cinema doesn’t allow. Adjusting to the different styles of acting and expression is something that I really enjoy as an actor.
I also think each director in India works differently. When I was working on Dekh Indian Circus, Mangesh was a very intuitive director, so a lot of things happened on set in spite of the fact that we had a very structured script. Whereas I just finished a film called Gour Hari Dastaan, where everything was measured. The director of this was Indian (Anant Mahadevan) and he didn’t shoot a single day extra while we were shooting in Mumbai City, which is really unheard of. This was done dot on time, my dates never changed – it was the most structured Indian film I’ve ever worked on.
I worked with a French director who was quite mad, and he’d think about things on set, and he’d suddenly say ‘Okay, today we’re not shooting’, and you wouldn’t expect that kind of behaviour on a European film. So I guess it sometimes depends on the individual director.
Can you tell us a bit more about your forthcoming projects?
There’s Gour Hari Dastaan, another Indian film about an Indian freedom fighter who fought for India’s freedom until he was 17 years old, but for the next 40 years, he fights with the Indian bureaucracy to get a certificate of Freedom Fighter. Again it’s a critique on the Indian system of bureaucracy and what can be done. Last year I also worked on Joe Wright’s (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) Anna Karenina, releasing in November. I’ve also done a very small film called Monsoon Shootout directed by Amit Kumar, which is actually the first Indo-UK co-production. It’s being co-produced by Asif Kapadia and Anurag Kashyap, and developed by the UK Film Council. Amit is a very interesting director. That’s a film I’m really looking forward to. There’s also a film I’ve done called Bombay’s Most Wanted, which is a co-production between India and Italy.
And these are only films that you’ve done in the past year?
Actually there are a few that I have not talked about. I’ve done a Bollywood film as well. It’s been a very interesting journey switching from a big scale, costume-drama like Anna Karenina to a very small budget film like Monsoon Shoutout, to a mid-budget film like Bombay’s Most Wanted to a Bollywood film. In the past year, I’ve been everything from a bar dancer, to a singer, to a Rajasthani villager, to a gangster’s wife who gets beaten up all the time, to a gypsy in Anna Karenina. It’s such a wide variety, and I really enjoy it.
Okay. Final question. When do you sleep?
I get a lot of time to sleep, let me tell you. I’m an actor – I need my sleep!